Travel, Food & Drink Vineyards & Wine

Wines of the Iberian Peninsula: The Underrated Stars of Portugal and Spain

Excellent aging potential and keen prices are making the wines of Portugal and Spain an increasingly attractive investment

The vertigo-inducing slopes of Portugal’s Douro Valley and the orange-tinted soils of Spain’s expansive vineyards have long inspired poets, writers, and vintners. During the colonial era, when Portuguese and Spanish ships ruled the seas, the region’s wines became the standard bearers for lush reds and opulent fortified wines. Today, despite often being overshadowed by high-priced bottles from Burgundy and Bordeaux, the Iberian Peninsula remains a mecca for lovers of rich, full-bodied wines with great cellaring potential.

Vineyard La Rioja
Vineyards cover the land close to the village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra in the Spanish region of La Rioja. Photo and banner image: Getty

An Underestimated Grape

“Wines from Portugal and Spain don’t have a long history of collecting, but they are some of the most pleasurable wines for cellaring,” explains Christopher Munro, Head of Fine Wine for Christie’s Auction House.

Related: Explore Spain’s Winemaking Regions

Some suggest their status as good-value wines is the result of political upheaval and isolation in the 20th century, or the geographical divide provided by the Pyrénées and France, but those living in the region point to a different reason: “Spanish consumers are used to paying less for fine wines,” explains María José López de Heredia, of La Rioja’s famed R. López de Heredia. “But we all know that quality and value are not always linked.”

La Rioja tempranillo grapes
Tempranillo grapes on the vine ready for harvest in La Rioja. Tempranillo vines are recognizable for their golden-brown spots, deep purple grapes, and often gnarly vines. Photo: Alamy

Across the La Rioja region, where R. López de Heredia has been located for over 140 years, the Tempranillo grape reigns supreme, and finds its way into distinctive reds that fuse sophistication with earthy rusticity. Tempranillo itself is medium in color, with both high acidity and firm tannins—an ideal combination for aged wines. Aged most often in American oak, the best wines have exotic, coconut-tinged aromas and full-bodied, red cherry flavors.

In La Rioja, where single vineyard and village labeling were once illegal, Bodegas y Viñedos Artadi and Olivier Rivière are two bodegas growing and vinifying single vineyard wines that allow them to showcase the region’s precise flavors and incredible detail, and the wine world is taking notice.

You can drink old Rioja from the 1950s and ’60s. They age considerably well compared with Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.

“I think people come to Spain looking for everyday drinking wine,” explains Munro. “But that’s not necessarily what you find anymore. Some of the more progressive producers across Spain are looking to the Burgundy model to push up the cost of their bottles by focusing on quality. These vintners are trying to get labelling around certain villages and vineyards accepted in Spain as it is elsewhere in Europe,” he says.

La Rioja vineyards
In the shadow of the Cantabrian Mountains lie La Rioja's vineyards and bodegas, the hubs of the local wine industry. Photo: Getty

Puri Mancebo of Rimontgó, the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in the region agrees with Munro, adding that foreign investment in vineyards across Spain is accelerating, and that Rioja vineyard parcels are more prized than ever.

Great Aging Potential

“You can drink old Rioja from the 1950s and ’60s,” says Munro. “They age considerably well compared with Bordeaux and Burgundy wines,” and are often a tenth of the price.

La Rioja’s white wines are equally long-lived, as R. López de Heredia is quick to point out: “Our experience proves that they can last 50 years and more if conditions are good.” At the estate, R. López de Heredia routinely ages their whites in the cellar for upwards of 10 years before release—and as the golden bottlings continue to develop, they become honeyed, floral elixirs with notes of marzipan, lemon curd, and apple pie rounding out their flavor profiles.

Tempranillo grapes growing in a vineyard in La Rioja, Spain, where they have been cultivated since Phoenician times. Photo: Getty

Unlike other regions where wines are released as quickly as possible, Spain’s labeling requirements actually encourage cellaring. To label a wine Reserva or Gran Reserva, for example, the winery is required to age the bottles in-house for four or five years, respectively. The result is “new release” Tempranillos with a half-decade or more of cellar aging, and the intriguing, multidimensional flavors and aromatics that wines only gain with time.

Related: How to Buy a Bordeaux Vineyard

Southwest of La Rioja lies Ribera del Duero, where Bodegas Vega Sicilia has been producing coveted and collectable Spanish reds since the Álvarez family took over the estate in 1982. This marquee producer goes far beyond the legal cellaring requirements for their flagship bottlings.

Ribera del Duero
Vineyards close to Penaranda de Duero, a small village in Ribera del Duero region of Spain. Photo: Alamy

“There are two key facts that give our wines the capacity to age,” explains Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan, the technical director of enology at Vega Sicilia. “One is the terroir—the soil and climate—and the other is our cellar regimen. Unico has a huge capacity for aging.”

Unique in its status and composition, Unico is a singular blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, that brings incredible character to the glass by marrying the power of Cabernet Sauvignon with earthy nuance, and red fruit flavors from the Tempranillo grapes.

Portugal: Building Sweet Sophistication

If you follow the same river that lends Vega Sicilia its Spanish appellation southwest, you’ll arrive in Portugal’s rocky, vertiginous Douro Valley, the epicenter of Portuguese fine wine.

“This wine is spectacular because the vineyards undergo very different temperatures during the day and the night,” explains Ricardo Costa of Luximo’s, the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in the region, while describing the vines that snake up near-vertical slopes in the Douro River Valley. The result is incredibly balanced red wine grapes ideal for creating the complex flavors of fine Port.

Douro Valley
The scenic Douro Valley, Portugal, which runs from the Atlantic coast at Porto all the way into Central Spain, was the world's first designated wine region. Photo: Getty

The Douro presents an excellent opportunity to invest.

Traditional Port wine is made from a blend of red grapes, often grown and fermented together, that is then fortified with neutral grape brandy, leaving the wine with a rich, full-bodied sweetness and an alcohol content of around 20 percent. The resulting wines are ideal for cellaring not just because of their heady aromas of cherry, fig, red plum, and cocoa, but because their high alcohol content makes them more resilient than dry wines.

In recent years, the region’s dry wines have also developed a tremendous following, with Douro reds topping Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Best Buy list. “In terms of quality, I don’t think there’s a doubt any longer when it comes to Douro and Port wines,” explains Costa. “The Douro presents an excellent opportunity to invest.”

Portugal and Spain may not have always enjoyed the lofty reputation of their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts, but this is changing, and now might be the best time to invest in property on the Iberian Peninsula.

On the Market

Vila Marim
Located an hour from Porto, this two-bedroom property, dating back to 1758, is located on 26 acres (10 ha) of land, most of which is vineyard-planted with high-quality grapes for Port wines.
Rioja-property-Spain
Located in D.O. Navarra, northern Spain, this 19th century palace, ont he market with Christie's International Real Estate in the region, has romantic gardens and a winery with its own Denomination of Origin.