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Today the entire Spanish wine industry seems gripped in an escalating race for improvement and innovation. With unprecedented investment in state-of-the-art facilities, equipment, and techniques, a traditional leader—Rioja—is holding its own, but the rest of the pack is in hot pursuit.

Rioja: Perhaps no region better symbolizes the ongoing transformation of Spanish wine than its most famous district, Rioja—a front-runner for more than 100 years. In this region, the important Spanish varietal Tempranillo retains a starring role, supported mainly by Garnacha.

Not content to rest on its laurels, however, Rioja is investing massively in new facilities at the same time that its red wine is evolving to favor modern demands for fresher flavors and earlier drinking. This is a bold move from the heavily oaked style of the past that often required many years of cellaring.

The best of the rest: For white wines, Rias Baixas—with its Albariño-based white wines—has emerged as a trendsetter, with stylish Rueda—best known for its high-quality Verdejo-based whites—not far behind. For years, Penedès was known mainly for producing Cava, the famous Spanish sparkling wine. More recently it's added excellent dry reds and whites to its list of accomplishments. Next door to Rioja, Navarra is notable for food-friendly reds and superb rosè. Dynamic Ribera del Duero was an early force behind the entire country's reinvigoration project. In addition to fabulous—and amazingly consistent—red wines, it has long been renowned as home to one of the world's legendary wines, Vega-Sicilia's Unico. Priorat is another region to watch for serious red wine.

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