The ‘new’ white Rioja steps forward

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.

Pssst...have you tried the new white Riojas?

Pssst…have you tried the new white Riojas?

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.

Viura (Credit bedir.es)

Viura
(Credit bedir.es)

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.

Maturana blanca (Credit: us.riojawine.com)

Maturana blanca
(Credit: us.riojawine.com)

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.

Sauvignon blanc (Credit:  winepro.org)

Sauvignon blanc
(Credit: winepro.org)

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.

Chardonnay (Credit: provedo.com)

Chardonnay
(Credit: provedo.com)

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.

Garnacha blanca (Credit: urbinavinos.blogspot.com)

Garnacha blanca
(Credit: urbinavinos.blogspot.com)

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)

Viura:  3546

Verdejo:  147

Tempranillo blanco:  96

Malvasía de Rioja:  68

Chardonnay:  55

Sauvignon blanc:  36

Garnacha blanca:  19

Maturana blanca:  6

Turruntés:  0,8

Others:  61

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

John Radford (2): “There’s no such thing as a crap grape, just crap winemaking”

John Radford

 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.

 

 

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:

 https://insiderioja.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/setting-the-record-straight/

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.

More musings about white Rioja

IMG_0107-rev_editMy good friend and fellow Rioja lover Adrian Murcia, whose blog Blame it on Rioja (http://www.blameitonrioja.com) is one of my favorites, recently wrote a comment about my post on white Rioja that reminded me of several anecdotes from my time as an export director in Rioja.  Every month or so I would call our distributors around the world to get a personal take on shipments and depletions of our brands and because most of our sales were in northern Europe (the UK, Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian markets), a drop in sales of red during the summer was invariably blamed on unusually warm weather, when shipments of white and rosé would spike upwards.  This was not usually the case, as summer in northern Europe is generally referred to as “Yes, I remember, last year it was on July 18!” But as soon as the temperature went up, sales of red went down. In perpetually hot climates, the situation is hopeless.  Once I was having lunch with our distributor in the Dominican Republic and commented that it was a shame that so little wine was served at the other tables.  My distributor, one of the country’s largest rum distillers, said that it was just too hot and humid to drink red wine, a fact that certainly helped sales of his rum!    Although my boss was never outwardly too sympathetic about my comments (after all, he was THE BOSS), he undoubtedly understood the problem of drinking red wine in hot weather.  As a matter of fact, one of the main reasons why Spain’s per capita wine consumption was never as high as in Italy or France was because from July through September here, it was, and is,  just too hot to drink red.  White was for wimps, so Spaniards asked for a glass of really cold beer. I admit that I do it myself.

Well, white is no longer for wimps, but sales of red Rioja always slide in the summertime.  Given that in our major markets, consumption of white is almost as high as that of red, wouldn’t it be nice if Rioja had a really first class white to sustain sales during the summer months?  Fortunately for Rioja in the UK, most of the beer is served at room temperature, so a good crisp white Rioja would be a hit!

White Rioja at the crossroads

Copia de viuraracimoYou’re in a bar in Rioja and ask for a glass of white wine.  The bartender asks you if you want Rueda or Rioja, something analogous to being offered a glass of Burgundy in Bordeaux. This sums up the current state of affairs with white Rioja – it’s getting harder to find and is being overtaken by whites from other Spanish regions such as Rueda and Rías Baixas.

White Rioja has had its ups and downs the last 25 years. It was traditionally made like red Rioja, aged for years in small barrels.  Viña Tondonia is about the only remaining example of this style.  In the early 1980s technology allowed a crisp, fresh and fruity style to emerge, with the juice vinified at low temperature in stainless steel tanks.  This style was successful for a few years until the arrival of chardonnay-based whites from Australia, Chile and California took Rioja’s international markets by storm.  Then in the 1990s, Riojans began to produce barrel fermented whites.

Sadly, none of these three styles have proven successful against the verdejo and sauvignon blanc whites from Rueda and the albariño-based whites from Rías Baixas.  As a matter of fact, Marqués de Riscal, one of Rioja’s best-known wineries, had such little faith in white Rioja that they built a winery in Rueda and literally reinvented the  appellation of origin there.

What’s wrong with viura, Rioja’s most widely planted white variety?  I think there are several problems.  First of all, in traditional Rioja, some viura was vinified with the red varieties in Rioja to add acidity.  With the advent of a more modern style, this practice was not continued, so the demand for viura dropped to the point where it wasn’t allowed to plant viura in Rioja.  Secondly, the tropical fruit aromas of the verdejo and sauvignon blanc varieties from Rueda and the albariño from Rías Baixas seem to be more popular with consumers than the citrusy, green apple notes of cold fermented viura. Thirdly, the rules allow higher yields for viura (9,000 kg per hectare compared whith 6,500 kg/hectare for red varieties and growers tend to push yields to the legal limit, a practice not conducive to quality.

The Rioja Regulatory Council dropped the ball in this matter, spending much too long trying to reconcile the position of the farmers, reluctant to see their 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) of viura lose value if more popular white varieties  were planted, and the wineries, eager to capitalize on the boom in sales of white wines in major markets.  In the middle were a group of wineries that wanted Rioja to replant local red varieties on the verge of extinction, using this as a bargaining chip.  In the meantime, other Spanish regions captured the market for white Rioja.

As with many political decisions, a compromise was reached that in my opinion, doesn’t completely satisfy anyone.  The decision was that ‘international’ white varieties (sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and verdejo) as well as rare local white varieties (turruntés, white tempranillo and white maturana) can be planted as well as the rare local red varieties maturana tinta and maturana parda.

The catch is that the ‘international’ varieties have to be blended with at least 51% viura while the  local varieties can stand alone. Rumor has it that most of the new plantings will be verdejo and the problem I see  is whether a viura and verdejo blend in Rioja will be better than the  very ordinary viura+verdejo from Rueda, sold at a discount to the highly popular 100% verdejo and sauvignon blanc styles there.

As with most topics related to wine in Rioja, an intense debate is taking place about this decision, with the traditionalists at one extreme, led by López de Heredia, defending viura, and the avant-garde on the other, wishing that experiments should be allowed with any and all varietals to see if they work in Rioja.

Only time will tell if the decision proves to be correct, but until the new varieties come on stream, try the following white Riojas that I like:

  • Viña Tondonia white  (viura and malvasía).  The quintessential traditional white Rioja. The current vintage is 1991!
  • Finca Allende white (viura and malvasía).  A modern white that shows low-yielding viura at its best.
  • El Coto de Rioja white.  100% viura.  Clean, fresh, crisp and affordable.
  • Muga barrel-fermented white.  In my opinion, the best of the barrel fermented white Riojas. The oak/fruit balance is superb.
  • Remelluri white.  A blend of experimental whites from  the Rhone and Burgundy including roussane, marsanne and viognier as well as traditional varieties from Rioja.