White Rioja revisited


All of a sudden, everyone is talking about white Rioja.  This time around, the debate is taking place where it should be – among winemakers.  No Regulatory Council politics, just straight talk. It’s about time.

An interesting event organized by the Rioja Sommeliers’ Association a few weeks ago brought several winemakers together for a panel discussion and tasting about the future of white Rioja. The speakers were:

  • Basilio Izquierdo – former winemaker at CVNE, currently the owner of his own winery.
  • Juan Bautista Chavarri – a winemaker and researcher at the experimental viticulture center and winery at La Grajera, run by the Government of La Rioja. Juanbe is a specialist in white tempranillo.
  • Juana Martínez  – researcher at the CIDA (Centro de Investigación de Desarrollo Agrario).  Government of La Rioja.
  • Juan Carlos Sancha – researcher specializing in native grape varieties on the verge of extinction in Rioja, owner of Bodegas Ad Libitum.
  • Abel Mendoza – owner of Bodegas Abel Mendoza, specializing in white Rioja.
  • Raúl Acha – winemaker at Castillo de Maeterra (Vinos de la Tierra Valles de Sadacia) and Hacienda López de Haro (D.O. Ca. Rioja).

Some background:

White Rioja production has dropped in the last 25 years from9.000 hectares (1985) to 3.850 hectares in 2010.

Three white varietals have traditionally been used in Rioja: viura, malvasía and white garnacha.  Six more were authorized by the Regulatory Council in 2007:  maturana, turruntés, white tempranillo (varietals on the verge of extinction), chardonnay, verdejo and sauvignon blanc.

The new varieties were approved with several conditions. 

  • No new planting unless other vines are grubbed up.  
  • The ‘comunidad autónoma’ or regional government (in this case, La Rioja, Navarra and Álava) has to authorize it.
  • The native varieties can stand alone in a Rioja white, while the international varieties can be no more than 50% of a blend.

The negotiations were so drawn out that in the meantime, Rueda gained a foothold throughout Spain, including the bars and restaurants in Rioja.

The president of the Sommeliers’ Association, Carlos Echapresto, set the tone for the debate when he stated that the evolution of Spanish cuisine and more specifically, the wider use of vinaigrettes and other white sauces has provided more opportunities for serving white wines.  Chefe Paniego, the sommelier at Echaurren in Ezcaray (1 Michelin star) said that consumption of white had increased by 60% when elaborate (vs traditional Riojan) dishes were ordered.

As the winemakers took their turns speaking, it became clear that two different attitudes toward white Rioja had emerged.

In light of the success of red Rioja and the wide acceptance of other Spanish whites, notably Rueda and Rías Baixas, in Spain and abroad, most wineries are reluctant to grub up red vines to plant white grapes, because most white Rioja is perceived as being old fashioned.  As Juanbe Chavarri put it,  ‘lacking in impact aromas’.  Big commercial wineries don’t seem to be interested in making a low-priced white to compete with Rueda, whose production has increased from 10 million kgs per year to 75 million kg to keep pace with demand.  Moreover, grape prices in Rioja are low, discouraging growers from reducing yields to produce more complex wines.

The view championed by the winemakers at this seminar was “let’s see what we can do with our native varieties with low yields and the judicious use of oak”.

Basilio Izquierdo favors low-yielding white garnacha and viura for his ‘B de Basilio’.  In the tasting it was elegant and delicate, almost understated. 

Juan Bautista Chavarri from the La Grajera experimental winery near Logroño likes white tempranillo, viura and malvasía.  He showed three white tempranillos at the event – one aged in acacia wood, one aged in French oak and an unoaked one.  I liked all three but thought that the acacia-aged white was the most original.

Juan Carlos Sancha spoke of his 23 years of experience trying to salvage native Riojan grapes from extinction.  When he was the director of Viña Ijalba, the company launched the first white made from maturana, a grape that he works with at his own winery under the brand Ad Libitum.  I liked it because of its notes of honey.  One of the sommeliers tasting beside me said it reminded him of chenin blanc.

Abel Mendoza cultivates low-yielding viura and malvasía from his own vineyards and others in the Sonsierra area. His barrel-aged white was fantastic, showing delicate apricot notes and lip-smacking intensity on the palate. 

Raúl Acha from Castillo de Maetierra (a ‘vino de la tierra’ from Rioja Baja) offered a riesling that didn’t especially impress me because I had just been in the Rhine tasting whites for a week.  His company, one of the founding members of the vino de la tierra Valles de Sadacia, specializing in moscatel de grano menudo,  is also working with international white varietals.  I was disappointed that he didn’t bring his viognier, which I had really liked at an earlier tasting.

This seminar and tasting confirmed a feeling I’ve had for quite a while now:  the terroirists in Rioja, large, medium and small, believe that they can attract consumers to white Rioja with complex, intense wines made with low-yielding viura, malvasía, white garnacha, white tempranillo and white maturana.  They’re not supermarket wines, and therefore not so easy to find, but definitely worth looking for.

As far as I know, only Barón de Ley 2011 has been made using  the new international varieties.

While I’m on the subject of white Rioja, here are some other favorites of mine:

  • Muga barrel fermented
  • Remelluri
  • Allende
  • Finca Nueva (from Finca Allende)

I’ve heard good things about the following two, but haven’t tasted them yet:

  • Dinastía Vivanco white tempranillo
  • Cosme Palacio 1894 (the year the winery was founded) vintage 2007

Juana Martínez made a comment that the Rioja wine trade should think about when she said , “White wine is the product people try when they first become interested in wine.  Since as much white as red is consumed in our major markets, we shouldn’t forget how important it is.”






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