Rioja: A white future ahead

Age-old tradition

Many thought Gregorio mad for trying to revive the tradition of barrel-aged whites: “I had a romantic vision about returning Rioja to its golden age of great whites. I love mature whites – they’re a symbol of old Rioja. It’s in my heart, it’s hard to explain in a rational way, but I didn’t want this beautiful tradition to die out.”

Gregorio is a purist when it comes to varieties, and considers it sacrilege to use Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc in Spanish blends: “I believe in working with your terroirs and the native grapes best adapted to them.”

Interestingly, Gregorio has had more success with his high-end whites in the UK (through Berry Bros) and the US than in Spain, which has been slower to catch on to the barrel-aged style.

“White Rioja has a bright future. It will take time, but there’s more interest in and demand for aged whites every year.” Gregorio admits that white Rioja has lost its way, having enjoyed a prosperous past.

He sees oak as key to its future success: “Viura is not aromatic, so it needs time in oak, and it needs high alcohol to mature, which is not possible if you’re striving to make young wines. People are harvesting too early, that’s the big problem right now.”

Despite a trend for early picking, Rafael Vivanco has noticed a dramatic improvement in the quality of white Rioja over the past few years: “White wine went out of fashion in Rioja and the whole of Spain, but there’s been a new wave of interest lately due to a move towards lighter food and a surge in by-the-glass sales.

“Up until recently, white Rioja was an afterthought – all the best equipment was geared around the reds, but better Viuras are creeping onto the market. Rioja mustn’t try to mimic the success of Rueda and Rías Baixas by producing fresh, fruity whites. It should stick to what it does best and get the most out of Viura by ageing it in barrel, which gives the wines more complexity and texture. Barrel ageing is in our DNA – consumers understand the tradition of barrel ageing reds, so why should it be any different with our whites?”

Keeping the barrel-aged style of white Rioja alive is Bodegas López de Heredia, with its amber coloured, Sherry-like Viña Tondonia. Even so, fourth generation María José López de Heredia admits the nutty, oxidised whites will always remain a niche sell: “People don’t think white wines can age, so there’s no market for them in Spain. We need to educate consumers about barrel-aged white Rioja’s outstanding ability to age. But something has shifted and drinking habits are changing – whites are coming back in fashion.”

So why did the bodega persevere with a product that had no market? “We decided to never give up – to remain fiercely faithful to the tradition, and now it’s paying off. Volumes have reduced over the years, as our vines are so old, and up until now we haven’t replanted, but we’re seriously considering it in order to keep up with demand.

“We sell Tondonia on allocation now, as it’s become so popular with sommeliers, collectors and connoisseurs. There isn’t enough to go round.”

Collectors aside, Lopez de Heredia has noticed that winemakers are starting to treat Viura with the respect it deserves. “They never had faith in its ability to makes great whites,” she says. “But people are gradually believing in it more. Producers are looking back in order to move forward, and are keen to relearn how to make Viura in the classic, barrel-aged style, but it will take years to master it.

“People are coming to us and asking how it’s done. I’m happy to teach them, because the more aged Viuras there are on the market, the better known they will become. My father once said there would come a time when demand for white Rioja will return. That time is now.”

The barrel-aged bandwagon

Rioja’s other white pioneer is Marqués de Murrieta, which has made its signature Capellanía Reserva since it was founded in 1852, under the name El Dorado de Murrieta (in reference to its golden colour) until the Capellanía name change in the year 2000.

Like Lopez de Heredia, Murrieta’s public relations director Miryam Ochoa Arróniz admits the bodega struggles to convince consumers of Capellanía’s merits, due to white Rioja’s unfashionable image. “When they taste it they’re amazed. White Rioja is deeply misunderstood and we suffer because of it – Capellanía needs a lot of marketing,” she says.

Rather than ploughing a lone furrow, Arróniz would be happy to see more producers jumping on the barrel-aged bandwagon. “I’m not bothered about being unique, what’s more important is for the perception of white Rioja to change, both in and out of Spain.”

In a bid to convince journalists first, the bodega is planning a historic vertical tasting of Capellanía going back to the early 20th century. “The wines go on and on,” Arróniz enthuses. “It’s a common misconception that white wines can’t age; they can, and beautifully.”

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