You’re in a bar in Rioja and ask for a glass of white wine. The bartender asks you if you want Rueda or Rioja, something analogous to being offered a glass of Burgundy in Bordeaux. This sums up the current state of affairs with white Rioja – it’s getting harder to find and is being overtaken by whites from other Spanish regions such as Rueda and Rías Baixas.
White Rioja has had its ups and downs the last 25 years. It was traditionally made like red Rioja, aged for years in small barrels. Viña Tondonia is about the only remaining example of this style. In the early 1980s technology allowed a crisp, fresh and fruity style to emerge, with the juice vinified at low temperature in stainless steel tanks. This style was successful for a few years until the arrival of chardonnay-based whites from Australia, Chile and California took Rioja’s international markets by storm. Then in the 1990s, Riojans began to produce barrel fermented whites.
Sadly, none of these three styles have proven successful against the verdejo and sauvignon blanc whites from Rueda and the albariño-based whites from Rías Baixas. As a matter of fact, Marqués de Riscal, one of Rioja’s best-known wineries, had such little faith in white Rioja that they built a winery in Rueda and literally reinvented the appellation of origin there.
What’s wrong with viura, Rioja’s most widely planted white variety? I think there are several problems. First of all, in traditional Rioja, some viura was vinified with the red varieties in Rioja to add acidity. With the advent of a more modern style, this practice was not continued, so the demand for viura dropped to the point where it wasn’t allowed to plant viura in Rioja. Secondly, the tropical fruit aromas of the verdejo and sauvignon blanc varieties from Rueda and the albariño from Rías Baixas seem to be more popular with consumers than the citrusy, green apple notes of cold fermented viura. Thirdly, the rules allow higher yields for viura (9,000 kg per hectare compared whith 6,500 kg/hectare for red varieties and growers tend to push yields to the legal limit, a practice not conducive to quality.
The Rioja Regulatory Council dropped the ball in this matter, spending much too long trying to reconcile the position of the farmers, reluctant to see their 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) of viura lose value if more popular white varieties were planted, and the wineries, eager to capitalize on the boom in sales of white wines in major markets. In the middle were a group of wineries that wanted Rioja to replant local red varieties on the verge of extinction, using this as a bargaining chip. In the meantime, other Spanish regions captured the market for white Rioja.
As with many political decisions, a compromise was reached that in my opinion, doesn’t completely satisfy anyone. The decision was that ‘international’ white varieties (sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and verdejo) as well as rare local white varieties (turruntés, white tempranillo and white maturana) can be planted as well as the rare local red varieties maturana tinta and maturana parda.
The catch is that the ‘international’ varieties have to be blended with at least 51% viura while the local varieties can stand alone. Rumor has it that most of the new plantings will be verdejo and the problem I see is whether a viura and verdejo blend in Rioja will be better than the very ordinary viura+verdejo from Rueda, sold at a discount to the highly popular 100% verdejo and sauvignon blanc styles there.
As with most topics related to wine in Rioja, an intense debate is taking place about this decision, with the traditionalists at one extreme, led by López de Heredia, defending viura, and the avant-garde on the other, wishing that experiments should be allowed with any and all varietals to see if they work in Rioja.
Only time will tell if the decision proves to be correct, but until the new varieties come on stream, try the following white Riojas that I like:
- Viña Tondonia white (viura and malvasía). The quintessential traditional white Rioja. The current vintage is 1991!
- Finca Allende white (viura and malvasía). A modern white that shows low-yielding viura at its best.
- El Coto de Rioja white. 100% viura. Clean, fresh, crisp and affordable.
- Muga barrel-fermented white. In my opinion, the best of the barrel fermented white Riojas. The oak/fruit balance is superb.
- Remelluri white. A blend of experimental whites from the Rhone and Burgundy including roussane, marsanne and viognier as well as traditional varieties from Rioja.