Miguel Angel de Gregorio: Give viura a chance

Just when you think you know a lot about something, someone tells you, or you otherwise discover, how little you really know. This happens to me once in a while with regard to the Rioja wine business.  María José López de Heredia has taught me a lot about the historical role of white wine here, for example, the predominance of white in the 19th century and how wineries ‘tinted’ white to make it red (tinto) to pay lower taxes and the influence of wine brokers from Alsace, not Bordeaux, in sales of Rioja to France when French vineyards were ravaged by phylloxera.  You can read about it in the following post:


Last week at the monthly Rioja tasting put on by our local newspaper La Rioja, winemaker Miguel Ángel de Gregorio of Finca Allende gave a vertical tasting of his whites that really opened my eyes.

Miguel Ángel opened the tasting by mentioning that 1975 in Rioja was the first year that more red wine was produced than white.  I was under the impression that plantings of white varieties had decreased since the 1990s but had not realized that there had been so little planted to red before the mid-1970s.  When I moved to Rioja in 1983, our region was on a ‘red roll’ due to increased demand from the UK and Germany and I assumed that red had outnumbered white ever since Rioja had replanted vines with phylloxera-resistant rootstock in the early 20th century.  Not so.

If you go into the Rioja Regulatory Council website

( http://www.riojawine.com/es/pdfs/ESTADISTICAS_RIOJA_2009_VITICULTURA.pdf), you discover that in 1985, the earliest year that appears in the statistics, there were 29.903 hectares planted to red and 9.094 hectares planted to white.  It shows you how fast white went out of fashion in favor of red. By 2009, there were fewer than 4.000 hectares of white varieties while red had increased to 57.344 hectares.

The point of the tasting was to show that viura from low-yielding vines can produce stunning wines.  For Miguel Ángel, the problem with viura in Rioja is that growers are encouraged to overproduce because the Regulatory Council allows 9.000 kg per hectare as opposed to 6.500 kg/ha for red varieties.  With such high yields the aromatic profile of viura is green apples, not a desirable trait in today’s market.  Moreover, high yields cause acidity to decrease and pH to increase, producing flabby wines.  He suggests that the rules in Rioja should be amended to reduce maximum yields for whites, and suggests that more whites should be fermented in oak barrels like he does.

Continuing with this iconoclastic train of thought, he commented that he uses less malvasía now than in the past because of its tendency to oxidize.

He took us through Finca Allende white from 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2008, Mártires white 2009 and Allende ‘dulce’ (sweet) 2009.

My tasting notes:

2008:  90% viura, 10% malvasía.  Straw yellow, citrus and stone fruit, good acidity, elegant but not a very long mouthfeel. 

2007:  80% viura, 20% malvasía. Straw yellow, cleaner, more well-defined aromas that reminded me of aniseed and Mediterranean hillside bushes. Good acidity and a long mouthfeel.

2003: 70% viura, 30% malvasía.  Straw yellow but somewhat darker, tending to gold.  Miguel Ángel reminded us that 2003 was a terrible vintage due to excessively hot weather.  On August 13 the temperature reached 53º C in the vineyards. In spite of this, I found  honey and spicy aromas, not a lot of volume on the palate but very tasty anyway.  This vintage was the best of the Finca Allende whites for me.

2002: 60% viura, 40% malvasía.  A defective bottle.

2000: 60% viura, 40% malvasía.  Yellow gold.  Honey and camomile.    Not a terribly long mouthfeel, but elegant both on the nose and palate.

Mártires 2009:  Mártires is the name of a 1ha vineyard planted to viura in1970.  Yellow gold. Floral aroma (camomile).  Crisp acidity with a long mouthfeel. Along with Finca Allende 2003, this was my favorite wine of the tasting.

Allende ‘dulce’ (sweet) 2009. 100% viura from a vineyard planted in 1924. Straw yellow, citrus nose, really crisp acidity, not cloying for a wine with 82 g/lt of residual sugar.  Not for sale as the Rioja Regulatory Council doesn’t allow wines with more than 50 g/lt of residual sugar.  Too bad.

My overall impression was that these wines were, indeed, really good and showed that viura, when not overfarmed, could hold its own with more fashionable varieties.

Miguel Ángel, always the iconoclast, saved his last broadside for the Regulatory Council for allowing sauvignon blanc, verdejo and chardonnay without really testing whether they adapted well to the soils and climate of Rioja, following commercial rather than technical criteria.  His parting comment was “Rioja will never produce wines as good as white burgundy with chardonnay but certainly can produce better wines from viura than the Burgundians could”.

Viura deserves a chance but as long as farmers produce 9.000 kg per hectare, it will rarely show its true potential.

Miguel Ángel has a lot more to say, so I’ve decided to interview him and share his thoughts with you.  He’s already agreed.  More to follow.