The Early History of Wine in Spain

Many species of grapes are native to the Iberian Peninsula, where they have grown wild for thousands of years. The first grapevines to have been cultivated for wine production were likely planted by the Phoenicians around 1100 B.C. in the area of Cádiz in the south. Phoenician viniculturalists taught wine-making techniques to local inhabitants of the region. Particularly good vintages were transported in amphorae (wine jars) and used as valuable items of trade. When the Romans conquered Spain in 210 B.C., wine production expanded. Under Roman rule, both Andalusia in the south and Tarregona in the northeast produced and exported outstanding wines throughout the empire.

The Moors conquered Spain in 711 A.D. and immediately put a stop to the making and use of most alcoholic beverages, in accordance with their Islamic laws. During Moorish rule, grapes were still used in cooking and on the table, but wine ceased to be an export from the area. Surprisingly, it was the Moors who introduced the process of distillation to southern Iberia, and this led to the creation of brandies and fortified wines, in particular sherry–a favorite of emirs and caliphs. The Spanish loved the drink, too, calling it jerez, derived from the Arabic word sherish.

During the Middle Ages, as the Spanish Reconquest spread north to south, the Catholic Church had a lot to do with keeping the art of wine-making alive. Priests became vintners in order to supply sacramental wine to everyone from the monarchy to rural citizens. Later, it became safe (and fashionable) for local nobility to cultivate vineyards around their castles and to create their own vintages. Eventually, the middle class entered the wine business. By the time the Moors were completely ousted from the south of Spain in 1492, the wine industry was ready to boom again. The Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, encouraged wine production. Old vineyards were replanted, and wine became a leading export to other parts of Europe once again. Columbus’ discovery of the Americas led to the introduction of wine to two new continents. Spanish-style vineyards and wineries began to appear in the New World as early as the 1520s.