Drink your way around Spain, from Rioja for red wine to Andalusia for sherry. And whatever you do, don't forget the cava!

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hands reaching for glasses of cava on table
Credit: Courtesy of DO Cava

Spain is one of Europe's most dynamic and exciting wine-producing countries, and that's no surprise when you consider the fact that wine plays a key role in Spanish culture. Here's what you need to know as you begin exploring the incredible array of delicious Spanish wines.

Cava

Cava is the signature sparkling wine of Spain. It's similar to French Champagne in terms of being produced the same way—the "traditional method" where a double fermentation inside each bottle creates lively bubbles—but cava uses native Spanish grapes like xarel-lo, parellada, and macabeo. It also comes in a wide range of styles: "Brut Nature" has no added sugar, and the wines in that style are zesty and crisp. If youre interested, try Juve Y Camps Reserva de la Familia Cava Brut Nature 2016 ($16.99, wine.com). The most common style is "Brut," meaning it contains less than twelve grams of sugar per liter, and a fabulous example is Codorniu Brut Cava ($12.99, wine.com). If you enjoy a more lush, ripe profile, you'll love the "Extra Dry" style, which has up to seventeen grams of sugar per liter (Poema Cava Extra Dry; $8.99, wine.com). And finally, Cava is also made in rosé. We recommend Mercat Cava Brut Rosé ($18.99, wine.com).

Although Cava is made in various areas of Spain, its home is Penedès in the Catalonia region, just southwest of Barcelona and close enough for an enjoyable day trip. Cava is lovely sipped on its own, or for a traditional pairing, try it with finger foods like Pan Tomate.

Rioja

Spain's premier red wine region, Rioja is located in North-Central Spain (which is also home to wine regions Navarra and Aragón). Rioja is famous for soft, rich reds that show aromas of cedar, vanilla, and dill. These qualities are a product of the American oak barrels that the wines are traditionally aged in (although wineries, called Bodegas, are starting to experiment with different types of oak treatments and winemaking styles). Tempranillo is the main grape of Rioja's red wines, but it's often blended with mazuelo, graciano, and garnacha.

One user-friendly aspect of Rioja reds is that the labels are color-coded, with each color signifying not only the style and aging time but also the price you can expect to pay. "Crianza" Rioja wines have a red icon on the back label; they have been aged for two years with at least one year in oak barrels and the price should be around $15—Bodegas Ramirez de la Piscina Crianza 2015 ($15.99, wine.com) is a delicious example. The next tier is "Reserva" Rioja, with a brown icon on the back label, meaning it's aged for three years (of which at least 12 months is in oak and six months in bottle) and should cost $15-$30; try Bodegas Beronia Rioja Reserva 2014 ($22.99, wine.com). Finally, the top tier, "Gran Reserva" Rioja, is aged a minimum of five years (with at least 24 months in oak and another 24 months in bottle) and will cost more than $35. We recommend La Rioja Alta Vina Arana Rioja Gran Reserva 2012 ($45.99, wine.com).

White wine and rosé, here called rosado, are also produced in Rioja. The white wines are made mainly from the grapes viura and garnacha blanca, although chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and verdejo, can also appear in the blends. Classic dishes to enjoy with Rioja are tapas like patatas bravas and tortilla Espanola, or hearty stews like Potatoes Rioja-Style with Chorizo.

Castilla y León

Castilla y León is Spain's largest wine-producing area. "The land of castles" consists of the arid central plateau of Spain and the mountains that encircle it, with the Duero river flowing through it. The three subregions to know are Ribera del Duero, Rueda, and Toro. Ribera del Duero is considered one of Spain's top region for red wines—the famous winery Vega Sicilia put them on the map and lots of fantastic producers have followed. Tempranillo (also known there as Tinto del País and Tinto Fino) is the leading red grape, but it's often blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot to make rich, full, structured reds. Try Finca Torremilanos Torremilanos 2015 ($24.99, wine.com) paired with Braised Chorizo.

The Rueda region is known for its white wines, which initially became popular as an alternative to the rich reds of Rioja. Although you will also see some sauvignon blanc produced in Rueda, the fresh and crisp wines based on the verdejo grape are the star here. We suggest Bodegas Ordonez Rueda "Nisia" Verdejo 2017 ($18.99, wine.com), which is lovely paired with Spanish Gazpacho. Finally, Toro is famous for reds made with Tinta del Toro, a local strain of tempranillo, which ripens quickly in the areas hot, dry summers. Try Numanthia Termes 2016 ($19.99, wine.com) paired with Croquettes with Serrano Ham and Manchego Cheese.

Galicia and Basque Country

Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain, borders Portugal, and it's covered with green forests, mountain ranges, and rivers. The cool continental climate produces some of Spain's best crisp white wines. Look for the fresh, apple-scented godello grape in the wines of Valdeorras—we like Bodegas Avancia Godello Valdeorras 2018 ($32.99, wine.com)—and the bright, citrus and stone fruit toned albariño grape in Rias Baixas—Granbazan Etiqueta Verde Albarino 2018 ($19.99, wine.com) is a great choice. Seafood like Sizzling Garlic Shrimp and bright vegetables like Stuffed Piquillo Peppers with Goat Cheese are the perfect pairings.

The north-central coast is known as Basque Country, and it's known as the home of bright, refreshing, tangy, and mineral wines knows as Txakoli. Try Nicolas Ulacia e Hijos Ulacia Txakolina Rose 2018 ($18.99, wine.com) or Txomin Etxaniz 2018 ($20.99, wine.com). Both would pair spectacularly with Basque Salad.

Southern Spain: Valencia, Madrid, and Andalusia

Valencia, the third-largest city in Spain, is not known for wine production although some white wines are made from local indigenous grapes. However, it has a hugely important food culture: It's the birthplace of Paella! Most Spanish white wines pair very well with Paella Valenciana and Seafood Paella. There is also a wine region surrounding Madrid, which draws young and innovative winemakers making wines from local grapes airén, malvar, tempranillo, and garnacha. Although these aren't wines are not easily available in the U.S., it's a fun region to visit and go wine tasting if you find yourself in Madrid.

Along the southern coast lies Andalusia, where you will find flamenco music and dance, bullfighting, and sherry. Three towns—Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda—form what is known as the "sherry triangle." Sherry is a fascinating, fortified wine that runs the spectrum from bone-dry and delicate to extremely rich and sweet. Dry styles like fino, such as Tio Pepe Fino Sherry ($19.99, wine.com), are sipped as an aperitif and paired with salty foods like jamon, cheeses, and fried seafood. Richer, oxidative styles like oloroso, such as Emilio Lustau Don Nuno Dry Oloroso Sherry ($26.99, wine.com), pair well with a hearty meal—try oloroso with Chicken and Chorizo Paella. Finally, dessert-style sherries like Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry ($13.99, wine.com) or Gonzalez Byass Nectar Pedro Ximinez Sherry ($31.99, wine.com) are wonderful with churros, vanilla ice cream, and flan.

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