- Thursday 10 June 2010
Watch out for police in Rueda. Such is the concentration of bodegas in the town of La Seca, they make easy money breathalysing visitors driving the 500m across the road from one winery to the next. Locals are prepared, but visitors need to plan their designated driver in advance.
La Seca is a charming town, with the wineries grouped on rolling hills on the outskirts. At one end are traditional names such as Javier Sanz and Palacio de Bornos (now owned by the Taninia group). On another side is the new wave, identified by their architecture. Just out of town is Bodega Gótica, a remarkable modern gothic structure that hit the headlines with its high-scoring Trascampanas Verdejo.
A little further up is Victoria Pariente. Already established as a leading winemaker, she is now focused on her late father’s vineyards, creating superbly pure Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc at the newly built José Pariente winery named after him. Over the road, Didier Belondrade is a more recent arrival, and now boasts a mathematically modern white concrete winery.
The overwhelming majority of Rueda’s wineries lie clustered around La Seca. There is also a small but significant region south-east towards Segovia with its Roman aqueduct, Romanesque cathedral, turreted castle, and half-hour, high-speed rail-link south to Madrid. This spot is centred on the towns of Nieva and Saniuste de San Juan Bautista (where police seem much thinner on the ground). To reach Nieva you’ll pass Olmedo – the home town of Miriam González Durantez, better known as Mrs Nick Clegg, the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.
Vines have been grown in Rueda since centuries ago, when the Verdejo grape was particularly suited to making an oxidised, Sherry-type wine. Today, a new approach to viticulture and winemaking has given it a strong claim to be considered Spain’s top white variety.
The typical style – fresh, fruity and fermented in stainless steel – has the kind of aromatics to wean away fans of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Rueda has the terroir potential: altitude, often up to 850m; temperature variation between day and night, as well as hot summers and cold winters; and poor, gravelly soils, which in some areas are so completely stony that phylloxera could not take hold. Viñedos de Nieva and Ossian, for instance, both have old vines on their own rootstocks.
One of the most significant drivers for change was Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga of Marqués de Riscal, who identified, with Professor Emile Peynaud, the potential for a new style white at a winery that specialised in reds. That was in the early 1970s. Now, Hurtado’s son Luis, the seventh generation, who runs the Rueda winery.
Finca Montico is a recent addition to the range: 100% Verdejo from low-yielding vines with time spent on the lees to build the palate richness and the structure. Riscal is continuing to invest in research in French oak for its Limousin wines, which see nine months in oak, and recruited Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux to work exclusively for them in Spain. ‘The Spanish love oak,’ says Hurtado wryly, which is why he is taking it gently as the producer enlarges the vat size to 300l and then to 500l to enable greater fruit expression.
The Riscal presence brought old money to Rueda, but there is lots of new money coming in, from those outside the wine industry and outside the country – Pariente proudly declares, as if she were a vine: ‘I’m the only indigenous winery owner in Rueda.’
She, like many of her colleagues in Rueda, produces just three wines, in her case an unoaked Verdejo, a barrel-fermented version and a Sauvignon Blanc. She is one of Rueda’s stars, focused on her two varieties. Rueda’s permitted grapes also include Palomino Fino for the whites, which can make a nice young wine acceptable for blending into Verdejo, and a few reds: Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Garnacha.
Just up the road from Pariente is Naia, which has had plenty of attention for its Verdejos, some screwcapped, others with serious oak. Partner and winemaker Eulogio Calleja says Naia boasts a type of Verdejo from the granitic soils of the Segovia which gives the wines a different fruit character.
The winery has won rapid recognition by creating wines with a very different palate structure to the Rueda norm, showing that with plenty of work with lees and barrel selection, Verdejo can be a wine for serious ageing.
The early wines felt as if barrel ageing was more winemaker’s indulgence than consumer demand, but Calleja has been tuning down the oak, creating a marginally more subtle, more balanced approach. Naia was started up by a group of partners including the US-based Spanish importer Jorge Ordóñez.
It is now owned by the Inveravante group, while Ordóñez has moved south-east to establish Shaya with noted producer Juan Gil. Shaya’s winemaker and technical director Belinda Thomson, also winemaker at her family’s Crawford River Wines in Victoria, Australia, makes two wines, a varietal and Habis, a 100% barrel-fermented wine Rueda also has two successful co-ops, which make lively, commercial wines. Agricola Castellana is celebrating its 75th anniversary, while Reina de Castilla, with 22 members, managed to create a glossy winery more or less overnight.
What is striking about this once-peaceful backwater is the variety and energy of its winery owners: restaurateurs (Bodegas Antaño); French winemakers (Didier Belondrade and Francois Lurton, who like Naia, is working ambitiously with new oak); families dividing up and starting over again (Avelino Vegas and new generations of the Sanz family – notably Marco, Ricardo and Alejandro Sanz – children of Antonio Sanz, with their Menade and Tierna Bodegas wines). There is plenty to draw the visitor to the tasting rooms of Rueda – just make sure there is a designated driver in the car.