Rioja: A white future ahead

One to watch

The newly permitted grape causing the most excitement is the aromatic Tempranillo Blanco, which currently only exists in Rioja. Rafael Vivanco, winemaker at Dinastía Vivanco, believes its arrival in the region is “very promising”.

Dinastía Vivanco is one of only three wineries to have plantings of the rare grape, along with Bodegas Valdemar and Juan Carlos Sancha. “Tempranillo Blanco needs to be planted at high altitude,” Vivanco says. “It’s not as aromatic as Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s fresher than Chardonnay.”

Native grape pioneer Juan Carlos Sancha is equally enthusiastic about the indigenous white grape. “It has fantastic natural acidity and an aromatic profile that will combine well with Viura,” he says.

Sancha is passionate about reviving Rioja’s lesser-known varieties, producing the region’s first single varietal Graciano for Viña Ijalba in 1995, followed by the first Maturana Blanca in 2001, and Maturana Tinta in 2002. He’s currently busy bringing other obscure native grapes like Turruntés and Monastel to life under his Ad Libitum label. Sancha is staunchly against the idea of introducing international varieties into Rioja: “It’s a mistake – we’ve got so much history, and so many ancient varieties, we should be working with what nature gave us.”

Avant-garde Bodegas Valdemar is at the forefront of innovation on the native grape front, launching its Inspiración range in 2007 with the deliberate aim of surprising consumers. The controversial quintet comprises wines from Rioja’s lesser-known native grapes, including Maturana Tinta, Graciano and Tempranillo Blanco, from low-yielding micro plots.

Marketing director Ana Martinez Bujanda is particularly excited about Graciano’s future: “Graciano has huge potential, but it needs time in bottle to soften.” Despite her enthusiasm, the inky grape is proving tricky to grow, as it only ripens in hot years. The bodega has only been able to bottle the 2001 and 2005 vintages so far. “If it’s not up to our standards, we won’t bottle it,” Bujanda says. “We’re not aiming to put out a vintage every year; you can’t work like that with Graciano.”

Production across the entire Inspiración range stretches to a mere 150,000 bottles – an offering Bujanda plans to keep fresh: “We don’t want the range to be set in stone. It will be constantly evolving.” Valdemar is the first winery in the world to sell Tempranillo Blanco commercially.

Made from an 11.5-hectare plot in Alto Cantabria, the wine is barrel fermented then aged in French oak for a year. The bodega is already planning to release an unoaked Tempranillo Blanco in order to maximise its aromatic potential. “It’s such a good thing for Rioja,” Bujanda enthuses. “Viura isn’t very aromatic, but white Tempranillo has great aromatic potential. I think it will work well in a blend with Maturana Blanca or Sauvignon Blanc – we’re experimenting with it at the moment – it could really help boost the reputation of our whites.”

Baron de Ley is also experimenting with new plantings. The company recently acquired 500 hectares in Rioja Baja, 150 of which have been planted with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Verdejo and Tempranillo Blanco in the most ambitious new white varieties project to hit the region, the fruits of which won’t be released until 2014.

“We will be the first to deliver these new white blends in volume to the market,” managing director Victor Fuentes says bullishly. “I believe in the power of these noble varieties for the future of Rioja. Their introduction is a huge marketing opportunity.”

Fuentes is excited about a new white he’s about to introduce onto the UK market: 3 Viñas, a blend of 70% Viura, 15% Malvasía and 15% Garnacha Blanca, aged in French oak for 14 months á la Marqués de Murrieta, which will go on sale as part of the Tesco Finest range this month.

Bright gold, it’s a wine of great complexity and character, and one of an exciting new wave of whites popping up in the region to rival the likes of the previously untouchable Tondonia. One of the best examples of Rioja’s new wave whites is an attractive, barrel-fermented, old-vine Viura from Bodegas Baigorri in Rioja Alavesa, which displays the signature golden colour, waxy mouthfeel and honeyed aromas of oak-soaked Viura.

Riojan winemakers, it seems, are finally starting to believe in the potential of their flagship white, and are investing time and energy into getting the best from the grape.

Evidence that the trend for taking whites more seriously has trickled down to the mainstream is the news that internationally recognised Rioja brand Campo Viejo is working on a barrel-fermented Viura to be released next year, though winemaker Elena Andell is cautious about making sure all changes to the range are introduced subtly, so as not to scare consumers off. “White Rioja has great potential – the door is starting to open, but we have to make small changes without losing our signature style,” she says.

Meanwhile, Anne Vallejo, marketing director for Marqués de Caceres, believes white Rioja has suffered in the UK on-trade due to a lack of consumer knowledge about Viura.

“People order by grape variety in the UK, which is a big problem for white Rioja. No one would ask for a glass of Viura because they don’t know what Viura is. Rioja needs to work hard on increasing consumer knowledge of Viura, to get it up there in terms of recognition with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.”

Keen to get Viura recognised on a global scale is forward-thinking winemaker Miguel Angel de Gregorio, of Finca Allende, who believes Viura from low-yielding vines can produce stunning wines. Gregorio has been making tiny amounts of barrel-aged Viura since 1995, ageing his whites in the same barrels used in Puligny-Montrachet.

His first vintage, 1999, was a blend of 60% Viura and 40% Malvasía, but as the proportion of Viura has increased, so has the quality. Gregorio aims to use increasingly less Malvasía, with the ultimate aim of making a 100% Viura, due to Malvasía’s propensity for oxidation.

“Rioja will never produce wines as good as white Burgundy with Chardonnay, but can certainly produce better wines from Viura than the Burgundians could,” says Gregorio, who has no desire to ape the Burgundian style: “I’m not trying to make Montrachet – I’m making unmistakably Spanish whites.”

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