Rioja: A white future ahead

21st December, 2011 by Lucy Shaw - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2 3

Red Rioja all but eclipses white, yet this wasn’t always the case, and now, boosted by native varieties Viura and Tempranillo Blanco, white looks set to regain share.

Feature findings:

– Up until 1975, more white wine was produced in Rioja than the reds it has become famous for.

– In 2007, a law was passed allowing Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo to be used alongside Viura, Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca in the production of white Rioja.

– There is a lot of excitement about the recently discovered native variety Tempranillo Blanco due to its aromatic profile, which makes it an ideal blending partner for Viura.

– Winemakers in Rioja are finally starting to believe in the potential of Viura, and are investing time and energy into getting the best from the grape.

– A number of forward-thinking producers are planting increasing amounts of Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta to make single-varietal reds with a twist.

SAY the word “Rioja” and images of elegant, fruit-driven reds come to mind. But up until as late as 1975, more white wine was produced in the northern Spanish region than the reds it has become famous for.

Turning the clock back even further, in the 19th century, white wine was considered healthier than red, as the tannins found in red wine were thought to be harmful, so it was consequently taxed at a higher rate. In order to avoid the higher taxes, bar owners in Lorgroño would “tint” their whites with red, giving us the Spanish term for red wine: “vino tinto”.

Fast forward to the early 1980s and increased demand for reds from the UK and Germany saw a surge in new red plantings in Rioja – so much so, that by 1985 they outnumbered white plantings by three to one.

Sales of red Rioja are booming in the UK, with exports up 14% by volume over the past year, accounting for 33% of global sales. White Rioja, meanwhile, only accounts for 5% of the region’s global sales.

But despite its niche status, a quiet revolution is taking place among a handful of producers, who are unleashing Viura’s potential.

Known as Macabeu in southern France and Macabeo in much of Spain, Viura is Rioja’s most widely planted white grape.

At its best, it is capable of making characterful whites that improve dramatically with age. In response to consumer demand for fresher styles of Viura, the governing body of Rioja passed a law in 2007 allowing Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo to be used alongside Viura, Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca in the production of white Rioja, so long as native grapes made up the majority of the blend.

Meanwhile, three “new” native grapes were also given the green light: Tempranillo Blanco (a genetic mutation of Tempranillo), Maturana Blanca and Turruntés (not to be confused with Torrontés).

A historic decision, it was the first time since the creation of the DO in 1925 that any new grape varieties had been permitted in the region. Response to the ruling has been mixed, with some bodegas planting experimental plots of the international varieties immediately – Faustino has planted small amounts of Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to play with, excited by the new dimensions they will bring to the blend, while others believe the over-exposed grapes have no place in a traditional region like Rioja.

“Our objective was to complement Viura with other varieties. Contrary to what has been said, we haven’t banned Viura plantings – we’re not trying to renounce our roots,” says Victor Pascual, president of Rioja’s Consejo Regulador. “The demand for international varieties came from the market, but the changes require long-term bedding in,” Pascual added.

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