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Rioja: A white future ahead

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.

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.”

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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