Quite possibly the worst thing about Spanish summer holidays are the traffic jams – sitting in the simmering heat alongside thousands of other holidaymakers who all decided it would be a good idea to go to the same place at the same time on the same road.
But apart from listening to the radio and melting, sitting in traffic on one of Spain’s motorways does give you the chance to reflect on the countryside. And one thing you’ll often notice is that no matter what main road you’re on, you’ll almost certainly be close to a winemaking region.
Now that may sound like an exaggeration, but let’s go round the map.
Take the A1, for example. Less than 2 hours out from Madrid and you’re in the famous region of Ribera del Duero. Its profile has been growing quickly ever since with many topflight producers such as Dominio de Pingus, Aalto or Perez Pascuas making some of Spain’s most iconic, and expensive wines.
To the northeast sits its historic rival, Rioja, Spain’s most famous and one of its most-loved DOs. Home to some of the Spain’s oldest producers like Marques de Murrieta, CVNE or Rioja Alta, Rioja is the historical centre of Spanish wine. But many younger producers are trying to modernise the way things are done here so it’s well worth watching how things evolve over the next few years.
But don’t stray too far from the A1. Keep going north up to the coast and you’ll find yourself in Euskadi - the Basque Country - home of the wonderful Txakoli, a crisp white wine which will rival many more well-known Chablis.
Moving clockwise you’ve got the A2 – which should be one of the most well-worn roads for wine enthusiasts. From Madrid, that’ll take you south of DO Somontano and through the relatively new DOs of Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Calatayud. This part of Spain is home to old vine Garnacha and quality cooperatives. So if you’re looking for affordable wines of real character, be sure to make a stop here.
Otherwise, keep pointing east, wind down the window, and breathe in the inviting aromatic aromas of Mediterranean scrub. Catalunya may be most well-known outside Spain for its cava, but it’s also home to some wonderful winemaking regions. Priorat and Montsant are deservedly famous but ignore the lesser DOs at your peril.
To the south of the A2 you’ve got Terra Alta, home to the Garnacha Blanca grape and famed for its fossilised sand dune soils known locally as panal. Or simply follow the motorway up into Penedès, home to a large chunk of Spain’s Cava, but also well worth exploring for still wines made from fantastic, native Catalan grapes like Xarel-lo. Or follow A7 up towards France and stop off in Empordà, a sea and mountain region with a winemaking history that dates back to the Greeks and old vines in abundance.
The A3 may be the road to Valencia but follow the motorway to the south and as the climate softens, you’ll find yourself in a classic Mediterranean farming landscape where vineyards intermingle with almond and olive trees. This is the place to explore grapes like Monastrell and Bobal, native varieties which were long dismissed as mere providers of colour and body to exported Spanish blends but now enjoying a revival as discerning producers rediscover their full potential.
The A4 takes us through La Mancha – which despite its reputation for industrialised wine production is actually home to some innovative and progressive small wine producers – then on to Andalucía, and the province of Malaga. Here, behind the coastal sprawl, things get very hilly and very interesting. Just 10 km inland from the sea we’re at over 400 metres above sea level and well placed to visit some really exciting young winemakers working with local grapes like Pedro Ximénez (aka PX or Pedro Jiménez) or Doradilla planted in slate soil to give wines crackling with minerality and expression.
And then of course there are the wonderful wines of Jerez - for many wine connoisseurs around the world Spain’s best-kept secret, and which are undergoing a bit of a revival at the moment thanks to a renewed interest in fortified wines and their huge potential for food pairing.
The west of central Spain may not have a massive winemaking reputation but take the A5 if only for a trip to Méntrida, another fast-growing wine region moving quickly away from a rather unglamorous past built around cooperatives and bulk wine and focused increasingly on smaller producers showcasing quality Garnachas from (very) old vines.
Finally we have the A6 and our first stop, Rueda. Created in the early 1980s this DO is famed for its white wines made from the Verdejo grape. Just to the north you’ll reach a fork in the road at Benavente. Swing left along the A52, and you’ll find yourself in Galicia, and its five DOs (Rías Baixas, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei and Valdeorras). Here where the rain tends to fall in abundance and the vineyard plots are small, a new generation of producers are focused on native varieties like Treixadura, Torrontés or Lado, in addition to the internationally known Albariño, and making some of Spain’s best white wines.
Alternatively, you can press on to the north until you reach the wonderful Bierzo with its gentle valley stretching from Ponferrada in the south-east to Villafranca del Bierzo in the northwest. Here, innovative producers like Raúl Pérez and Isidro Fernández at Casar de Burbia are taking the Mencía grape and experimenting with altitude and aspect on the well-drained slate and granite soils to make balanced, complex reds which are winning recognition around Spain and internationally.
So next time you find yourself stuck in traffic or bored with the drudgery of yet another unending autopista, pull off the main road, pull out your wine map and find the nearest DO – wherever you are it’ll be worth exploring.