Until the 1980s, Rioja whites were made like the reds, with the juice in contact with the skins and fermentation in wooden vats or cement tanks. The finished wines were then aged in used barriques that were best described as storage vessels with little or no contact with air. They were bottled just before shipment. In fact the only improvement in winemaking since the nineteenth century came from the use of bentonite and later pectolytic enzymes as clarifying agents instead of egg whites.
This traditional style of white was a great success until the increased use of stainless steel tanks and temperature control for wines from other regions, especially Germany and France, gained popularity, and sales of white Rioja declined.
Today, white wines in Rioja are made in three ways:
- fermentation in stainless steel tanks with temperature control with some skin contact to add aromatic complexity and fuller body on the palate – most Rioja white is made following this method or
- fermentation in new barriques with contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) that are stirred occasionally (bâtonnage) or
- fermentation in wooden vats or stainless steel tanks followed by ageing in barriques.
Only one Rioja winery is making truly old-style white today: López de Heredia in Haro with its enormously successful Viña Tondonia. Three wineries, as far as I know, are trying to make a similar style: Barón de Ley, Ontañón and most notably, CVNE with its Monopole Clásico.
CVNE says on its website that a few years ago an old customer mentioned during a tasting that he longed for the traditional style of Monopole, the winery’’s signature white. CVNE’s winemaker María Larrea found a single bottle of Monopole 1979 in the cellars and it occurred to management that it would be interesting to challenge 86 year-old Ezequiel García “El Brujo” (The Wizard), CVNE’s winemaker from the 1940s through the 70s to make a batch of Monopole the way it used to be. García was delighted!
In the old days, Monopole was made from viura, white Grenache, malvasía de rioja and palomino. This last variety, from Jerez was used to add body to the blend, with permission from the Rioja Regulatory Council. After a light press, the juice was sent to a cement tank where the solid material was separated from the juice.
Ezequiel García’s sketch describing white winemaking in the 1960s (courtesy CUNE website)
Alcoholic fermentation was in stainless steel tanks (a departure from the old days) and ageing was for about eight months in used 300 liter barriques and 500 liter botas (wooden barrels used in sherry wineries).
García said that what made Monopole special was the use of a small amount of wine from the sherry region, vinified under a layer of flor (yeast that forms a layer at the top of the wine) that gives the blend aromas of chamomile and dried stone fruit with lively acidity and a long finish.
I first tasted Monopole Clásico at the last Haro Train Station tasting in 2016, when a member of the CVNE export team dared me to guess the varieties in the wine after my first sip. Of course I didn’t guess correctly. Who would have thought to guess ‘palomino’!
I’m happy that CVNE made the effort to bring this style of wine to the attention of wine lovers. Younger consumers need to understand how winemaking and consumer tastes have evolved over time. It reminds me of a tasting I attended a few years ago in London. A veteran wine writer approached me with a young colleague in tow, glass in hand. The older fellow winked at me and said, “my friend here has a question”. The younger man asked me to sniff his glass while asking, “what’s wrong with this wine?” “Nothing”, I said. “It’s an old style Rioja!”