This was John Radford’s answer when I asked for his opinion about the status of the viura grape in Rioja.
John then related a conversation with the newly appointed marketing director of the Rioja Regulatory Council in 2007 who was trying to explain the recent approval of verdejo, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Rioja.
The marketing director justified the decision by stating, “Rioja makes world class red wines but not world class whites. We want to. Can you tell me one producer that makes a world class white from viura?”
John replied, “I can tell you two: Viña Tondonia gran reserva, 96 months in oak from López de Heredia and Placet from Álvaro Palacios.”
John quickly qualified his statement, mentioning that the conversation had taken place four years ago and that during his latest trip to Rioja he had been tasting viuras with real character, flavor, freshness, subtlety and complexity.
The market has had a love/hate relationship with the viura grape for 30 years. Until the 1980s, consumers were perfectly content with ‘classic’ white Rioja, like Viña Tondonia and Marqués de Murrieta, vinified in much the same way as Rioja reds, with years of ageing in old oak barriques, as well as semi-sweet whites like Diamante from Bodegas Franco-Españolas. Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres broke the mold by creating a white vinified at low temperature in stainless steel tanks, which prompted a wave of investment in stainless steel and the creation of a slew of ‘Euro’ white Riojas, imitating the freshness of muscadet, vouvray, vinho verde and others.
I remember being vigorously courted in the early 80s by the wine division of Rumasa, at the time, owners of Paternina, Franco-Españolas, Lan and Berberana in Rioja. During that time we drank endless bottles of Viña Soledad white from Franco-Españolas, with its brown Rhine bottle and its art nouveau label, which had taken Spain by storm for its fresh fruit, a big contrast to traditional Riojas. I ended up going to work for Campo Viejo but kept on drinking Viña Soledad because it was the best-viura-based Rioja on the market.
‘Modern’ Rioja as we called it at the time, with its citrus and green apple notes was immediately seized on by white wine lovers all overEurope. But two things happened that should have shaken Rioja from its complacency, but didn’t: the increased popularity of whites from the new world, especially chardonnay, and the arrival of verdejo from Rueda and albariño from Rías Baixas.
I think the general feeling in Rioja was “our whites are great; after all, they’re from Rioja”. About that time, some wineries here began to make barrel fermented whites (I especially remember Marqués de Cáceres and Muga) and a few years later, Rioja wineries recreated barrel aged whites. I thought both styles were extremely attractive, but the market didn’t think so. While these last two styles had a following with wine lovers, the mainstream wine drinker wanted a fresh, tropical fruit-scented white.
Rioja reacted in the opposite way. Instead of making a better viura white, growers and wineries ripped out their white vines and planted tempranillo, not the best strategy when their number one international market, the UK, was drinking more white than red.
Others, more pragmatic, invested in vineyards and wineries in Rueda and Rías Baixas.
When Rueda and Rías Baixas whites began appearing in bars and restaurant wine lists in Rioja, Riojans realized that no amount of patriotism was going to save sales of white Rioja, so, after several years of wrangling between farmers and wineries in the Regulatory Council, a market-based decision was made to allow new varieties like Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and verdejo as well as native Rioja white grapes on the verge of extinction like white maturana.
Some Rioja wineries have planted these new varietals but the planting of white grapevines has recently been temporarily forbidden because of the glut of wine in the region. So for the foreseeable future, Rioja has got to live with viura, malvasía, white garnacha, white maturana and white tempranillo. While the last two varieties have shown positive results, the quantity of wine produced is miniscule.
If Rioja has to live with viura and wants to make a world-class white, wineries will have to work harder to succeed. López de Heredia and Álvaro Palacios have proved that it’s possible. John Radford thinks that more of these wines are on the way.