The recent publication of a supplement in our local newspaper LA RIOJA about white Rioja- Los blancos piden paso (Whites step forward) is a detailed look at how wineries are responding to the challenge of using newly approved varieties to overcome the limitations of the viura grape and take full advantage of world demand for white wine.
Although we’ve discussed viura’s limitations in depth in previous posts in Inside Rioja, a short summary follows.
Until the early 1980s, Rioja whites were made exactly the same as reds – fermentation in large oak vats and long ageing in old 225-liter American oak barriques, then bottling just before shipment from the winery. Vinification in stainless steel at low temperatures began in the mid-eighties with the wines enjoying some initial success. However, they were quickly criticized for either a lack of fresh aromatic fruit or for being similar to other “Euro-whites”. Rioja smarted from these rebukes, but except for some success with barrel-fermented and barrel-aged styles in limited quantities, debates about authorizing other varieties in the Regulatory Council never prospered due to resistance from growers, and the subordination of the issue to debates about the saving certain local red varietals such as maturana tinta from extinction.
Faced with this dawdling, many Rioja wineries invested in Rías Baixas (Marqués de Murrieta, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Vargas, Ramón Bilbao and others) and Rueda, notably Marqués de Riscal and Domecq Bodegas. Others made agreements with producers in these areas to bottle under license.
Finally in 2007, the Rioja Regulatory Council approved six new white varietals (the local varieties tempranillo blanco, maturana blanca and turruntés, the international chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and Rueda’s verdejo). However, the Council also agreed that while the local whites could stand alone, the international varietals could be no more than 49% of a white blend, with 51% reserved for local varieties. In addition, the growers’ unions in the Council successfully lobbied regional governments to forbid planting, fearing that grape prices would plummet due to increased supply. Finally, after whites from Rías Baixas and Rueda had taken the Spanish and international markets by storm, relegating Rioja white to a testimonial presence, regional governments caved in to the demands of wineries and allowed white to be planted again.
As of today, total of about 2500 new hectares (6175 acres) have been authorized, but incredibly, the authorization includes the possibility of planting viura. So far, according to data from the Agriculture Council of La Rioja, out of the 750 hectares already planted, 53% is viura, 26% is tempranillo blanco, 6,43% verdejo, 3,76% sauvignon blanc and 2,6% chardonnay. According to the rules set down by local authorities, planting rights have been granted mainly to farmers – 85% -while wineries receive the remaining 15% but have to pay a transfer fee to buy rights on the open market. It’s clear that most farmers prefer viura because they’re familiar with it and it’s easy to grow- up to 11 or 12.000 kilos per hectare, well above the maximum authorized yield of 9.000 kilos.
So it appears that viura is being planted to…improve viura!
A lot of criticism has been leveled against the international varieties and verdejo because they would produce whites that are not ‘typically’ Rioja. But what constitutes ‘typicity’? In the case of Rioja reds, forty years ago a typical Rioja style indeed existed – just about everyone made blends of tempranillo and garnacha (more of the latter than the former) with a little mazuelo and graciano. The grapes and wines were sourced from all over Rioja- from Rioja Alta and Alavesa for acidity and elegant aromas and from Rioja Baja for alcoholic strength. These wines were aged for years in old American oak barrels and bottled just before shipment. They showed aromas of jammy red fruit, a hint of oak, spice and leather, with high acidity due to the addition of a small amount of viura.
Rioja’s expansion to about 600 wineries and the consequent need for differentiation in order to succeed has devalued the concept of typicity. Today Rioja markets itself as ‘the land of 1000 wines’ with companies creating brands based not only on blends from different parts of our region aged in American oak barriques but also single varietal and single vineyard wines aged in American, French, Balkan, Russian, Mongolian and even Spanish oak. Today, a ‘typical’ Rioja white would probably not be popular due to the lack of fruit of a high yield viura based wine. So let’s start to think that Rioja whites can and should be as diverse as our reds.
Is there any hope for viura in Rioja? In my opinion, definitely. At much lower yields, Abel Mendoza and Finca Allende are producing great viura-based wines. And no one can deny that the Viña Tondonia and Viña Bosconia whites from López de Heredia, blends of viura and malvasía and aged for years in used oak barriques in the classic Rioja style, are taking markets by storm.
Rioja wineries have adopted different strategies for their new whites. For example, the Aldeanueva de Ebro cooperative, Rioja’s largest winery, is planning to build a new vinification plant for white wines. The managing committee of this grape farmer–owned company has decided to oblige individual growers to plant the cooperative’s 160 newly authorized hectares to at least 50% verdejo and the rest, tempranillo blanco, which will be blended with the cooperative’s holdings of viura.
A similar strategy has been carried out at Dinastía Vivanco with a white made from 60% viura, 20% malvasía and 20% tempranillo blanco.
Bodegas Franco-Españolas, whose viura and malvasía-based whites can age for decades, defends local varieties.
Muga, too, is building on the huge success of its viura and malvasía based barrel fermented white. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be its guiding principle.
What about the international varietals? One interesting example is El Coto, a large company that has enjoyed spectacular success with 100% viura whites, notably because Pedro Guasch, the head winemaker for many years until his retirement and the current technical director Pedro Aibar were trained in white wine producing regions. But this winery is moving forward. Several years ago, El Coto bought a 567 acre plot in Rioja Baja where the company has planted 20 hectares of sauvignon blanc, 12 hectares of chardonnay and five hectares of verdejo. El Coto has also planted small experimental plots of each of the newly authorized white varietals in another vineyard.
Bodegas Altanza in Fuenmayor is satisfied with its new blend of viura and sauvignon blanc. Sources at the winery say that since adding sauvignon, sales of white have increased tenfold to 130.000 bottles.
If most of the new planting rights are in the hands of growers, the answer to the question, “what should I plant?” should be provided by the wineries that traditionally buy grapes from each grower. This implies both a commitment to a long-term relationship between grower and winery in terms of promise to purchase as well as price. One important question remains: how to produce better viura? If viura at 9000 kilos a hectare produces mediocre wines but good to great ones at 5000 kilos, the only solution is for wineries to agree to pay farmers a higher price to produce less.
It remains to be seen whether they will be willing to do this.
Hectares of white varietals in Rioja as of 31.12.12 (Source: 2012 Annual Report of the Rioja Regulatory Council)
Tempranillo blanco: 96
Malvasía de Rioja: 68
Sauvignon blanc: 36
Garnacha blanca: 19
Maturana blanca: 6