Let's take a look at the wines of Spain and the recipes that pair best with them.

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Vineyards of Rioja, Spain
Vineyards of Rioja, Spain

From big rich reds to fresh, crisp whites, from fruity roses to fortified sherries to sparkling wines, Spain does it all. Let's take a look at some of Spain's most important wine regions — those that carry cache, like cava and sherry, and those that might fly just a bit under the radar — and pair some of our favorite recipes with the wines from each place.

The Reds of Rioja

The reds from Rioja are among Spain's best known and most admired wines. They are made primarily with Tempranillo grapes blended with a handful of others. Because of their great aging potential and flavor profile, Rioja wines are sometimes compared to the red wines of Bordeaux.

Wine labels from Rioja often display the words Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva, which refer to the amount of time each has spent in barrel and bottle before release. Barrel time can add additional layers of flavor (vanilla, cedar) to these full-bodied red wines. Of the three classifications, Gran Reserva are the longest aged and are made from grapes of exceptional vintages.

Rioja wines are named for the region. The name itself is a mash-up of the words Rio (meaning, "river") and Oja, the name of a tributary that feeds into the Ebro. The wine growing area is a hot, dry section of north-central Spain just west of Navarra, running from just below Bilbao toward the south along the Ebro River. The Pyrenees Mountains shield the vineyards from lashing wind and rains blowing in over the Bay of Biscay. The region is separated into three parts: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. Climate and soils differ in each of these sub-regions, and often juice from more than one sub-region is blended together to create a certain style.

The reds of Rioja pair with so many of our favorite foods: Pork, lamb, beef, and chicken from the grill or roasted in the oven, braised meat dishes, duck and wild game, stews. And it's a smart choice at Thanksgiving, particularly if you like dark turkey meat.

ground beef kabobs on wooden skewers over a bed of vegetables
Bob's Kabobs
| Credit: Chef John

Some Favorite Recipes to Pair with Rioja Reds:

The Reds of Ribera del Duero

For a while, the spotlight shone so brightly on Rioja that other prime Spanish red wine regions like Ribera del Duero often found themselves hidden in the shadows. But Ribera is a serious contender to Rioja's dominance. Ribera del Duero's velvety rich red wines, made with Spain's noble Tempranillo (known locally as Tinta del Pais or Tinto Fino), are some of Spain's best. The region lies north and south of the Duero River in north central Spain. The climate here is hot, with summer temperatures climbing into the triple digits before falling precipitously at night in the elevated vineyards, which helps preserve the acidity in the grapes and leads to well-balanced wines of a style often described as having "finesse."

Ribera reds would be a great pairing with many of the Rioja food recommendations. We love it with lamb chops, sausages, grilled meats, including steak.

Slow Cooker Spanish Beef Stew
Slow Cooker Spanish Beef Stew
| Credit: lutzflcat

Some Recipes to Pair with Wines from Ribera del Duero:

What's in a Name?

As you may have noticed above, the grape that produces some of Spain's best wines, from Gran Reserva Rioja to the fashionable and high-priced red wines of Ribera del Duero, goes by more than one name.

In Rioja and Navarra, we know it as Tempranillo. Yet, down the road in La Mancha, it goes by the name Cencibel. (How sensible is that?) On the southeastern coast, Catalonians call it Ull de Llebre (eye of the rabbit). Arriving in Ribera del Duero, you might refer to it once as Tinta de Pais and then again as Tinto Fino. Which is fine, but in Toro, you'll be asked to identify it as Tinta de Toro. Just don't try that in Madrid, where it goes by Tinto de Madrid. The grape is one of international mystery, as well. It steps across the border into Portugal and becomes Tinta Roriz.

It seems every region wants a piece of this native Spanish grape, to call it their own, to have some unique connection to it. Happily, the wines it makes taste just as good by any name you give it.

Big Reds of Priorat

In terms of prestige, Priorat is also nipping at the heals of Rioja. This small wine region, called "Priorato" by non-Catalonian Spaniards, is in northeast Spain about an hour or so from the sea, just southwest of Penedes; the country is rugged and beautiful, tucked into the mountains of a national park. Big, dark-colored red wines are made in Priorat from Garnacha grapes grown on slopes of flaky slate soils called Llicorella. In addition to native Spanish varieties, innovation winemakers are also making room in the vineyards for international grapes, like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Priorat also produces big white wines, aged in oak.

You'll love the red wines of Priorat with braised beef dishes, stews, lamb, duck, and other meat and game dishes.

Chef John's Cassoulet in a red cocotte
Chef John's Cassoulet
| Credit: catherine.drew

Recipes to Pair with Wines from Priorat:

The Sparkling wines of Penedes

This is cava country. Located just south of Barcelona, Penedes is part of Catalonia, the fiercely proud northeast portion of Spain with a vibe (and language) all of its own. The vast majority of Spain's sparkling wine comes from Penedes. For a while, these bubbly wines were called champañe, a "tribute" that, you can guess, failed to charm the wine houses back in Champagne. After French protests, the Spanish renamed their wines Cava (meaning "cave") and, though still following the Champagne method of production, developed their own rules to regulate which grapes could be used and where they could be grown.

The grapes that make cava are different from the wines of the Champagne region. In Penedes, they are mostly local Spanish grapes (Parellada, Macabeo and Xarello), grown in cooler coastal and low hilly country on chalk, limestone, and clay, though Chardonnay is increasingly being used in the blend. Penedes is not solely about Cava, however. It also produces non-bubbly white wines and reds. A very modern-minded region, Penedes is open to experimentation with international varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, which grows in some of the warmer vineyards.

We love Cava with light seafood dishes, salty foods, spicy dishes, fried chicken, and appetizers. You can't beat it with French fries or potato chips.

a white bowl holding saffron-colored rice with mussels, shrimp, and calamari
Paella
| Credit: catherine.drew

Recipes to Pair with Wines from Penedes:

The Wines of Rugged Navarra

Rioja's neighbor to the east, Navarra is a beautiful and rugged slice of north central Spain, situated just beneath Pamplona and the Pyrenees in Basque country. Mountains shield the vineyards from snarling winds, and growing conditions are similar here to Rioja. The vineyards are planted with many of the same grapes, too. Tempranillo and Garnacha are important, along with international grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, for example). Navarra is also a prime spot for fresh, flavorful rosé wines made from Garnacha.

Lamb Braised in Pomegranate
Lamb Braised in Pomegranate
| Credit: Chef John

Recipes to Pair with Wines from Navarra:

Rias Baixis

Despite what you might have heard, the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain. The rain, in fact, falls here, in the northwest corner of Spain, in the area that juts out above Portugal like a little shelf. An oasis amidst the sun-scorched desert, Rías Baixis is considerably cooler and wetter than the rest of Spain, a climate that has proven just right for white grapes. And the grape that stands out in Rías Baixis is Albariño. Some say Albariño is a relative of Riesling, brought south from Burgundy by monks — but these are fighting words to those who say it's a local original. Light and crisp, Albariño matches beautifully with the local seafood.

Chorizo Steamed Clams
Chorizo Steamed Clams
| Credit: Chef John

Recipes to Pair with Wines from Navarra:

Check out our complete collection of Spanish Recipes.

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