Campo Viejo steps up white Rioja focus

17th January, 2014 by Gabriel Stone

Campo Viejo is using a new experimental winery to accelerate its understanding of where Rioja’s greatest potential lies for white wine production.

Campo Viejo winemaker Roberto Vicente shows off  its new experimental winery

Campo Viejo winemaker Roberto Vicente shows off its new experimental winery

In a bid to strengthen its market share for white wine sales, 2009 saw Rioja’s regulatory board authorise the planting of 1,725 hectares of six white grape varieties.

These included the newly permitted Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdejo, which are allowed to make up a maximum of 50% of a final blend, as well as three indigenous – but at the time very rare – varieties in the form of Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca and Turruntés.

As these new vineyards begin to come on-stream, 2013 saw the completion by Domecq Bodegas, Pernod Ricard’s Spanish wine subsidiary, of an experimental wing at its Campo Viejo winery near Logroño.

Equipped with its own smaller scale tanks, which range in size from 1,500 to 125 litres, as well as its own destemmer, sorting table, press and temperature controlled rooms, the facility makes it easy for trials to be conducted and then, if successful, easily scaled up to the main winery.

Domecq Bodegas’ president director general Christian Barré confirmed the importance of this research as part of the wider innovation strategy for Campo Viejo. “White is coming but it will be a slow build,” he told the drinks business. “If we want to be credible, it has to be slow and at a premium level.”

Initial experiments have already led to the identification of a particularly successful yeast strain for Viura, which has now been incorporated into mainstream production.

“The first vintage we didn’t play around too much because we wanted to make sure all the machinery was working,” said Campo Viejo winemaker Roberto Vicente, “but next year will be more funky.”

The facility is complemented by three experimental vineyards for these white grapes: two in Rioja Baja, including a 900m altitude site, and the other next to the winery. In total, Campo Viejo currently manages around 5,000ha of DO Rioja’s 63,593ha vineyard area and is the region’s largest producer with record sales in the last financial year of 1.9 million cases.

Campo Viejo's head winemaker Elena Adell

Campo Viejo’s head winemaker Elena Adell

Outlining the results from early trials with these white varieties, Campo Viejo head winemaker Elena Adell described both Chardonnay and Tempranillo Blanco as “very promising.” However, she expressed particular enthusiasm for the latter variety suggesting: “Tempranillo can be a flagship for Rioja in both red and white.”

Meanwhile a Verdejo project now in its second year is “doing very well and starting to produce significant volumes,” with Adell suggesting that the variety could offer “a good complement to Chardonnay.”

In particular she noted that Verdejo grown in Rioja takes on a “tropical fruit character” in contrast to the “herbaceous” expression seen in its traditional Rueda home.

As for Sauvignon Blanc, she told db: “There might be regions where it produces interesting wines but at the moment we can only speculate. In a couple of years we’ll know more. Sauvignon Blanc has very similar oenological behavior to Verdejo so it could do well in the right spots.”

Turning to Rioja’s less well known indigenous varieties, Adell said: “I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens with Maturana Blanca and Turruntés. Campo Viejo hasn’t worked with them in the past but the people who planted them in Rioja originally must have done it for a reason.”

However, she predicted that across Rioja as a whole there was likely to be a contrast between the white varieties which attract the most interest from winemakers and those which feature in the eventual commercial decisions.

“Most of the interest seems to be in the local varieties, but it doesn’t mean they’ll plant them,” remarked Adell. “There’s more information on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc but we don’t know so much about Maturana Blanca and Turruntés so it’s less likely that they’ll be planted because it’s more of a risk.”

By contast, she predicted: “Tempranillo Blanco is likely to be more popular as its behaviour is similar to the red variety so more is known about it.” Indeed, based on her own early success with this grape, Adell suggested: “Tempranillo could be a flagship for Rioja in both red and white.”

Despite her enthusiasm for these new and revived grapes, Adell also expressed a hope that Rioja’s strengthened focus on white wines will benefit its most widely planted white grape Viura.

“Viura can play an important role in iconic wines but we know it hasn’t been treated as well as it could,” she told db, adding: “We are really confident about it.”

Despite criticism of the variety’s quality from other quarters, she insisted: “If you work the vineyard and the grapes properly then you can make fantastic wines from Viura – and no-one else in the world is making it.”

According to Adell, the key to success with Viura lies in keeping yields low, ensuring plenty of air circulation around the grape clusters and managing the canopy to create the right balance of citrus and tropical or white fruit character.

Domecq Bodegas' Felix Azpilicueta Viura 2012

Domecq Bodegas’ Felix Azpilicueta Viura 2012

At the moment, Domecq Bodegas’ highest expression of Viura appears under its Felix Azpilicueta brand, which is currently sold almost entirely in the Spanish market.

This is currently made from a blend of four different wines, some of which are made entirely in stainless steel and others with different levels of oak contact and malolactic fermentation. “It’s about getting complexity,” said Adell, who noted that, despite being only in its second vintage, the wine “evolves very well in bottle.”

Summing up the ambition behind this wine, she remarked: “It was a challenge but I wanted to demonstrate that whereas Viura had been presented as something that needs a lot of time in barrel, it can show very good fruit and character early on. I wanted to give it the attention it deserves.”

For more on Rioja, see February’s issue of the drinks business.

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