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How to understand a Spanish wine label?

Crianza, reserva, Denominación de Origen, Vino de Mesa, Vino de Pago, … These are just a few of the many terms that you can find on a Spanish wine label. In order to see the forest between the trees again, we limit ourselves in this blog to the first two and by extension the terminology associated with the aging and storage of the wines before they are released on the market. Because it's that simple: words like crianza, reserva, roble,… stand for the time a wine has spent in a wooden barrel and in the bottle before you can buy that bottle in the store. A few general explanations:

What is the purpose of aging in wooden barrels? And the extra putting away the wine in the bottle?

Aging in wood gives the wine certain aromas. It also provides structure, storage capacity, color stability. And a barrel (usually oak) also lets in just enough air to make the wine softer, more subtle, and it allows the wine to evolve somewhat. All in all, many advantages for one container. There is now a trend towards less wood aging, the use of other containers, lighter wines, more natural flavours. But that is also something for later, you are not yet rid of us! The further aging in the bottle brings the wine completely in balance.

Is there a regulation?

Yes, of course. But it's important to know that the local Consejo Regulador who sets the law for a particular wine region is ultimately in control. Which means that the same term does not always cover the same meaning, not even at the qualitative level… At the end of this piece we give some concrete examples.

What are those terms?

As you understand from previous lines: every wine region, every D.O. has its own regulations. In general you can summarize them as follows:

  • Joven: the wine has had no or only very limited wood aging. Usually these are young, fruity red wines, made to drink within a few years of the vintage.
  • Roble (literally: oak): is used for red wines with a minimum of one month of aging in wood. Again, these are usually young, fruity wines that at the same time have the aromas of a short, intense aging in wooden barrel.
  • Crianza (literally: education): Used for both white and red. The white wine must mature for at least 12 months in the cellars of the bodega, of which at least 6 months in barrel. For red wine this will be: at least 24 months in the bodega, of which at least 6 months in barrel. A red crianza will therefore not be on the market until the third year at the earliest.
  • Reserva (literally: reserve, stock): in principle, reserva wines undergo an extra selection on quality. The white and rosé reserves may not be marketed until the third year and must be aged for a minimum of 6 months. Red reserves are not put up for sale after 3 years at the earliest. Of those 3 years, they must mature for at least 12 months in barrel.
  • Gran Reserva: Gran reserva wines are also extra selected for quality, the gran reserva qualification is only used for the best vintages. For white and rosé the following applies: at least 6 months in barrel and 48 months in bottle. They are therefore only sold in their 6th year. Red: at least 18 months in barrel and a total of at least 60 months in the bodega. 

As already mentioned: the regions retain freedom and interpret the rules of their own. It has been agreed that the maximum capacity of a barrel is 330 liters. To be clear: this only applies to those who want to put one of the aforementioned terms on their label. There are more and more winemakers who, for example, use larger foeders of 1000 or even 5000 liters…

Some examples from practice:

  • Rioja: to enter the D.O.Ca. To be allowed to put the name crianza on a bottle of Rioja, a red wine ages for at least two years: at least twelve months in oak barrels of 225 liters and at least twelve months in bottle. The aging of the wine may only start from 1 October and cannot be interrupted. The counting itself of the ripening period starts at the earliest on December 1 of the harvest year. The white crianzas and the rosés also come on the market at the earliest in the third year, after a minimum of 6 months in barrel.
  • Ribera del Duero: a wine can be called crianza after 24 months of aging. The red wine must be kept in barrels of maximum 330 liters for at least 12 months. After that, it also has to be bottled for at least another 12 months. Rosé: 6 months in barrel, the rest in bottle. There is no regulation for white wine, red wines must contain at least 75% tinto del païs (tempranillo), the rosés 50%. A Ribera reserva is at least 36 months old and has been in barrel for at least 12 months. A gran reserva is at least 5 years old and of those 5 years it matures for at least 2 years in barrel.

If you know that there are more than 60 DO's in Spain, and in addition a multitude of Vino de la Tierra, Vino de Pago, Vino de Mesa,… each of which has its own rules and that those rules change regularly and so on. keep up with the spirit of the times, you understand that we advise you to consult the committed wine merchant. And above all: to taste!