The History and Legacy of Winemaking in Spain
What is the history and legacy of winemaking in Spain?
- The Phoenicians established viticulture around 1100 B.C.
- Winemaking developed further when Romans conquered Spain
- Flourishing of wine during the Middle Ages
- Spanish wine and the ‘New World’
- Spanish wine during the industrial revolution
- The revival of wine tradition during the 50’s
- Spanish winemaking today
When it comes to wine, Spain can be regarded alongside France and Italy as the countries at the forefront of viticulture. What most people don’t know is that there is a long and rich history behind winemaking in Spain. In fact, the history of Spanish wine and viticulture is so old that it can be difficult to exactly trace.
If you are keen to know the story of how and where your favorite bottle of Spanish wine originated, continue reading because here is the history and legacy of winemaking in Spain.
The Phoenicians established viticulture around 1100 B.C.
While there is some evidence of vines being planted as far back as the tertiary period, the Phoenicians (an ancient civilization known for disseminating winemaking and viticulture knowledge around the Mediterranean) had brought with them an early form of winemaking when they arrived on the peninsula around 1100 B.C.
The Phoenicians are also responsible for establishing trading posts in cities now known as Cadiz and Jerez, two notable Spanish winemaking regions. Thanks to this, the earliest forms of Spanish wines were widely traded throughout the North African and Mediterranean areas.
Winemaking developed further when Romans conquered Spain
The Carthaginians improved the winemaking techniques of the Phoenicians, however, it wasn’t until the Romans came in that Spain experienced an era of prosperity in terms of wine. Demand for Spanish wine kept growing until it became a product coveted by many people across the peninsula and the greater Mediterranean area.
Flourishing of wine during the Middle Ages
After the eventual fall of the Roman Empire, northern European tribes invaded the peninsula and much of the established wine culture started to recess and disappear.
When the Muslims arrived around the 8th century, their religious and cultural position on alcoholic beverages posed an even greater threat to winemaking. However, it proved to be beneficial because they did not prevent Christians from producing wine. On top of that, the Muslims liked eating the grapes that Spanish viticulture produced whether fresh or dried out as raisins.
It was when different religious orders and sects such as the Cluny monks and Cistercians arrived that many of the Denominación de Origen (DO) currently in Spain were established. DO is part of a regulatory classification given to different Spanish food and drink products, but is known primarily for wine. When something has a DO label, it means that it is the highest quality produce that Spain can provide. Different religious orders also brought in new vine species and further refined winemaking techniques. It was also during this time where wine cellars and wineries were established thanks to the appearance of villages around monasteries. All in all, the middle ages proved to be a great period in time for Spanish winemaking.
Spanish wine and the ‘New World’
Thanks to the exploration efforts of Christopher Columbus who discovered a ‘new world’, a term that pertains to the Americas and other western locations, the world of exportation became wider. When Spain started colonizing other countries, wine production also spread to the colonies. This propelled the popularity of Spanish wines even higher, especially during the 16th and subsequent centuries.
In the Iberian Peninsula itself, winemaking has grown so popular that almost every region started making their own. The Canary Islands, in particular, produced ‘canary wines’ that were renowned across the world as some of the finest wine around. Until now, canary wines are still popular and well-loved by many people.
Spanish wine during the industrial revolution
The advent of the industrial revolution during the 17th to 18th century introduced better machines for winemaking. However, Spain was a late adopter and it affected their wine exporting endeavors.
When the Phylloxera plague swept and destroyed much of Europe’s vineyards, Spain was also one of the last ones affected. This presented an opportunity for Spain to be one of the main suppliers of European wine demand. This made Spanish wine more popular than ever. It was also during this time where French winemakers traversed through the Pyrenees and arrived in northern Spain. They brought with them some new tools, techniques, and the usual new grape varieties never before seen in Spain — things that only served to take Spanish winemaking to new heights.
Eventually, Phylloxera reached the peninsula, thus, ending another great time period for Spanish wine. Thanks to the geography of the country, the plague took a longer time to spread. By the time it reached La Rioja, one of the most renowned winemaking regions in Spain, the cure for Phylloxera, which involved the grafting of American rootstock with vulnerable vines, was already created and saved many Spanish vineyards. It is important to note here that if the cure was discovered later than it was, Spain’s winemaking culture wouldn’t be the same as it is today.
The revival of wine tradition during the 1950s
Much of the first half of the 20th century saw Spain hit with war and economic disruptions such as the two world wars and the Spanish civil war. This left Spanish viticulture and winemaking production neglected. Vineyards were scrapped and replaced with wheat and cereal farms — food that was needed to sustain life in their time of tragedy.
During the 1950s wherein many countries affected by the disruptions started to recover, Spanish winemakers started to replant vines, restore vineyards, and generally rehabilitate the winemaking industry they have long been known for. By entering the European Union, Spain established new legal standards for wine that put the country back on the map in terms of quality.
Spanish winemaking today
Today, Spain is going strong as the third-largest producer of wine behind Italy and France. Thanks to the relatively recent acceptance of using other grape varieties from other countries such as the popular Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, wine varieties increased.
Spanish winemaking is now better known by region. Rioja and Ribera del Duero are known for red wines. Rías Baixas in the northwest of Galicia is popular for their white wines, while Jerez de la Frontera is well-known for the production of fortified wine called sherry.
You can currently consider Spanish wine to be in a golden age as it remains an important commodity and an integral part of Spanish culture.
As you’ve read above, Spanish wine has come a long way and has undergone numerous refinement processes that continue until the present day. Next time you think about getting a bottle of wine, consider the Spanish variants as they will surely surprise you with their quality that took countless years to develop.
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