There are a couple of “quality” indicators used in Spanish wine, the first is the Geographic Indicator. Like just about every wine producing Country in Europe, Spain has a hierarchy of Denominacions de Origen (DO). The Spanish version is closely modeled on the Italian DOC and French AOC models. Each DO has a governing body called a Consejo Regulador ( regulatory council) that lays out the rules for the varieties that may be used, yields, and other basic quality measures. They also report of the quality of the vintage and promote the region as a whole. Similar to France and Italy, there is a hierarchy of DOs:
Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) – translates to qualified designation of origin. The highest level of the DO tree, Rioja and Priorat are the only two regions to have this status currently. However, Riber del Duero will be elevated to this status in 2008.
Denominación de Origen (DO) – This is the standard DO level, it lines up with the French AOC and Italian DOC levels in the EU hierarchy. There are around 65 DOs with more being added from time to time.
Vino de la Tierra (VdlT)– translates to ‘wine of the land’. This label is used where a wine is made outside a DO but a from a defined geographical area and the wines show the identity and characteristics of the area that they are grown in. The name of the region should be added to the like this: Vino de la Tierra La Mancha. In most case a region will take this step so that they can apply for DO status in the future. A region must be Vino de la Tierra for 5 years before it can apply for DO status.
Vino de Mesa (VdM) – translates to ‘Table wine’. These are usually wines that are grown in areas outside all the other categories or wines made from grapes grown in more than one area. I believe that these wines should not have a vintage data or geographical indication on the bottle, but I have seen some with it, but I’m not up on all the EU wine law at the moment.
What is all this Crianza and Reserva stuff all about?
Each D.O. has it’s own rules about wine labeling, most of the areas that grow Tempranillo use the traditional method of crianza, reserva, gran reserva etc. This is also considered to be a quality indicator. Areas outside the traditional Tempranillo areas like Rioja and Ribera del Duero don’t seem to use this scale as much, although it does pop up. These labels are usualy used for red wines only, but can be used for white and rosado (rose) wines as well.
In some areas, some producers have chosen not to use these titles in the name of the wine, but will put the DO’s back label stating crianza etc. I think of these labels more as indicators of the style of the wine rather than a quality indicator. From what I can understand, the idea was that only the best grapes are supposed to go into a Gran Reserva as they can stand up to the oak treatment. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
Joven – Joven means young in Spanish and that is what the wine is. These wines are also labeled Consecha, which means vintage or harvest in Spanish. Joven wines are usually fresh, unwooded and a raw expression of the vintage. Generally these wines are intended to be sold and drunk within a year or 2 of vintage. There is a sub-catergory of Joven called Roble/media crianza. In some areas a joven wine that sees some oak treatment is called roble, which means oak in Spanish. Usually this means 2-6 months in oak, usually new. Some like the style, I am generally not fond of it with new oak as the wine soaks up the oak flavor but doesn't get the benefit of (very low or micro) oxygen contact from time in barrel.
Crianza – Crianza means breeding or aging in Spanish. It is a generic term for the process of aging wine in oak, as well as classification of wine. Crianza wines have two aging requirements: a minimum age in wood and a minimum age in bottle before release. The minimum times can vary between DO’s, as a rule of thumb the wine must be aged in the bodega for at least 2 years before it is released to the market, at least 6 months of that time in oak. Traditionally crianza wines are made in most years.
Reserva – Similar to crianza wines, this classification is about aging. Again, the wine must spend a minimum amount of time in the bodega, 3 years in total with a minimum of 1 year in barrel. Traditionally made only in top vintages, but modern wines like Roda and Alion are made in every vintage as there is no "lower wine" or crianza made.
Gran Reserva – One step up from reserva with at least 2 years in oak plus 3 years in the bottle for a minium of 5 years before the wine is released. Most producers will only make a Gran Reserva from exceptional vintages, there a few wines that are produced regardless of vintage conditions. For example, Vega Sicilia Unico is only made when all the elements are present for a great wine, while Valbuena is made almost every year.
While there is a minium requirement for time in oak for many of the wines, the type (american, french etc) and percentage of new oak is generally not defined. So you will find some reservas full of new oaky goodness, while others show light oak character as mostly older oak is used.