Spanish White Wines

spanish white wines jose penin People & Places Articles
  • Tuesday 9 June 2009

We asked Spain’s foremost wine authority, Jose Penin, to tell us what he was most excited about in his diverse, rapidly developing country. The answer may surprise you…

Think of a top Spanish wine, and the chances are that it’ll be red. After all, ours is a hot, dry land – the driest in the Mediterranean – where you would expect fresh, crisp whites to suffer. Yet just 25 years ago, white grapes comprised 80% of the entire Spanish vineyard – varieties that could withstand our high temperatures, yielding even more than red varieties.

This almost unbelievable figure does not tally with the wines we saw on the market. So why did we not see more Spanish whites? The reason is a regrettably longstanding, common practice for making cheap wine whereby winemakers ‘tint’ a white wine by blending it with 10% of a red – of the deepest colour and greatest concentration – to make it pass as rojo. But we don’t call red wine rojo, as it literally should be. No, in the Iberian peninsula, red wine is known as tinto.

This legal fraud has led Spain to be known as the country where red wine has enjoyed the biggest popular impact. By contrast, the production of quality whites (except, of course, Sherry) has never been seen as realistic.

Things have changed. When I predicted in 2006 that within eight years white wine would become fashionable, I had in mind the solidness of our red wine culture as the basis for that future trend; that consumers would finally appreciate the character and singularity of white wine despite the fact that its body and alcoholic strength differ significantly from that of its ‘tinted’ relative. To put it differently: that fruitiness, lightness, acidity and lower alcohol – the basic features ascribed to white wine and so hard to achieve in our Mediterranean climate – would no longer be imperative for wine lovers. Besides, even though Spanish cuisine has historically been red-wine oriented, whites have proved excellent food pairings in our relentlessly hot summers.

All these facts awakened the conscience of a generation of winemakers who, working mainly organically, have achieved a previously unknown sensory and taste dimension from well-known white varieties, as well as a joyous revival of lesser-known grapes, most of which share a late-ripening pattern and are thus more suitable to hot climates. While red grapes lose much of their varietal character when overripeness hits, white varieties manage to preserve theirs even above 15º alcohol levels – as long as they retain enough acidity.

Realising potential

The discovery of the truest character of Spanish whites occurred when this new generation of winemakers realised that old vines were the best tool with which to control yields, and identified ripening cycles more in tune with the Spanish climate and soil. The clear potential of Spain’s most popular white grapes, and the considerable investment in technology over recent years have erased all doubts as to whether white wine production is viable. Quite simply, it is the most exciting element of Spanish wine today.

The best and most common grapes in the spotlight include Garnacha Blanca, Verdejo, Albariño, Malvasía and Pedro Ximénez (the latter historically used for sweet and rancio winemaking in Sherry), as well as the overlooked – and traditionally high-yielding – trio of Cava grapes, Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada.

The past four years have been paramount in qualitative terms and the character of the better-known white varieties has increased enormously. Verdejo can show great character when taken from old vines planted on sandy and slate soils, such as those at 900 metres’ altitude in Segovia. Godello in the Valdeorras DO, on slate and granite vineyards, has yielded a richer character abundant in mineral notes, as opposed to the fruitier and more herbal profile of most other wines from the variety.

Viura (Macabeo) in Rioja, planted on limestone soils and at lower yields, has afforded a broader, more substantial catalogue of styles. It has little in common with the simple, forward, light Riojan style that has traditionally been subject to long wood ageing in an effort to impart any sort of character. As for Garnacha Blanca, an oxidative variety, the most common practice was to blend it with Macabeo and bottle it with minimum freshness. But thanks to its Mediterranean lineage, this variety shows a finer profile when bottled on its own – so long as the grapes get enough sunlight, little water and gravel beds with good drainage. None of this is a problem in Montsant, Priorat and Terra Alta.

Pedro Ximénez, usually destined for sweet wines in Andalucía and Priorat, now resembles a great Riesling, even showing secondary petrol-like notes. Moscatel de Alejandría from Málaga, and Malvasía from La Palma, which yielded the famous Canary Sack of old, are at the head of the new trend of sweet wines made from fresh grapes instead of dried ones. The magnificent Albariño, sadly too often planted on vineyards too rich in organic matter, is lately showing more complexity and excellent mineral nuances in poorer soils close to Portugal.

Local interest

Spain is becoming more and more diverse, with young winemakers leading the way, working on the renaissance of lesser-known local varieties that, with nurturing, can offer great interest. Along with Portugal and Italy, we are leading the way in cataloguing still unexploited indigenous grapes. Improvements in wine technology are now available to everyone, and while this has been a benefit – helping new regions market their wines and offering consumers more choice – there has been a downside. With the world suffering from sensory globalisation, where wines – from international grapes to local varieties – increasingly taste the same, it is imperative that winemakers strive to retain the uniqueness of their indigenous grapes.

Spain’s initial experiences, with red varieties, were successful: Prieto Picudo from Mencía; Bruñal, Juan García and Rufete to the west; Sumoll, Bobal, Parraleta, Trepat, Callet and Moristel to the east; Garnacha Tintorera in the southeast, Maturana in Rioja and Tintilla in Andalucía. These are the first marketed examples, yet they are still far from abundant. It is high time to market Spain’s white native grapes.

Some of these are now on the brink of extinction, planted and grown in regions were winemaking standards were of the poorest quality. To the west of Madrid, in San Martín de Valdeiglesias, we find Albillo, a white variety that comes from the Castilian highlands and knew fame in the 16th century as a sweet wine, because of its early cycle and oxidative character. Today, Albillo can reach a high quality when planted on granite soils. In Monterrei, in the southeast of Galicia, and Bierzo, the new star is Dona Blanca, a forgotten grape that lauded winemaker Raúl Pérez has rescued from oblivion. Dona Blanca combines fruit and herbal notes with fine nuances that, in a blend, are ideal with the sweetness that characterises Godello.

In the new Tierra de León DO, which sits at a higher altitude than Ribera del Duero, we find Albarín (apparently not a relative of Albariño) whose flavour is somewhere between Viognier and Marsanne, showing lovely acidity and a little sweetness. Chacolí de Vizcaya, in the Basque region, is a humid area with simple, acidic wines of little consequence until the rediscovery of Hondarribi Zuri – similar in taste to a Chenin Blanc and Muscadelle blend.

Local Majorcan grape Prensal Blanc is another example of a white variety well adapted to Spain’s hot, maritime climate, showing light structure and notes of herbs and white fruit. Also in the same light, floral vein we find the Albariño- or Viognier-like Picapoll grape in Pla de Bages, a small region in the inner part of the Barcelona province. It is related to France’s more acidic Picpoul de Pinet of the Languedoc (in medieval times Catalonia and Languedoc were politically related) but not to Penedes’s Picapoll.

In the southeast of Spain, in Condado de Huelva, the Zalema variety has much more fruit expression than its better-known local counterpart, Palomino, thanks to a better adaptation to the Atlantic climate. Another great example of climatic adaptability – this time in the Canary Islands and showing a perfect balance of Oceanic and hot climate features – is Listán Blanco, which has an excellent varietal expression halfway between dried herbs and sweet white fruit, and plenty of mineral nuances. The following are my top Spanish whites form lesser known varieties. Alas few are yet widely available.

Classic tastes

Chardonnay has a worldwide reputation for adaptability, so it’s no surprise that it became easily available – in all sorts of clones and rootstocks – through Spanish vine nurseries. It is widely planted in regions such as Navarra, Somontano and Costers del Segre where, due to the poorer quality of the local white grapes, restrictions have been less stringent regarding the inclusion of foreign varieties. The fact that they are richer regions with better access to the latest technology and a climate halfway between that of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean have seen them lead the way in the production of quality whites. Bodegas Chivite and its Colección 125 from cool-climate northern Navarra is a more Burgundian style of Chardonnay, while Enate in Somontano has a forward, Californian style in its Uno.

Sweet wines made traditionally from Moscatel are the most formidable examples of young whites in Spain – certainly they score highly at international tastings. Wines are made from Málaga’s Moscatel de Alejandría (such as Jorge Ordoñez’s Esencia) and its small-berried counterpart, Moscatel de Frontignan, abundantly found in Navarra (as in Chivite’s Colección 125 Vendimia Tardía).

The elite of Spanish dry whites still come from Rueda. Here the main source is the Verdejo grape, planted on varied soils like the stony ones found near the Douro riverbanks or those richer in sand and slate in the province of Segovia at an altitude that renders vine growing almost impossible, but rewarding.

These are not to be outdone by the fabulous Albariños from Rías Baixas, which show more even quality levels than Rueda’s Verdejos but less terroir expression, due to high yields from highly irrigated old granite soils in areas like Valle do Salnés. The best terroir for Albariño is near the Portuguese border and in inner Galicia.

Also worth mentioning are the new Burgundian-style wines made from barrel-fermented, old-vine Viura (also known as Macabeo). Viura was historically used in Rioja to soften up reds, or aged on its own, losing its aromatic expression. The few wineries that used it did so under high yields and, sure enough, in the 1980s interest in these over-aged white Riojas faded.

It was at this point that Marqués de Cáceres, Bodegas Franco Españolas (with its Viña Soledad) and Bodegas Olarra (with its Reciente brand) promoted an alternative, openly Bordelais, unoaked winemaking approach that favoured cool fermentation and yeast selection. While these wines were an improvement on the white Riojas of old, they were still far from perfect.

The next phase began around eight years ago, with experiments by Palacio Remondo (with Plácet), Bodegas Palacio in Laguardia (with Cosme Palacio), and Bodegas Muga and Remelluri. Their addition of barrel fermentation and a touch of old-vine Malvasía gave birth to a new era where white Rioja is equal in terms of quality to red Rioja. I’m sure that in the next few years they – and other Spanish whites – will manage to yield even bigger and better surprises. In the meantime, the following provide evidence of the progress already made.

Penin’s Great Whites from rare varieties (grapes listed in brackets)

JL Mateo García, Quinta da Muradella, Gorvia, Monterrei 2005 (Dona Blanca) (18.5/20)

Fine nose with smoky undergrowth notes, mineral and ripe fruit. Rich, round and elegant palate, creamy notes. Drink now. N/A UK; +34 9 88 41 17 24

Abadal, Picapoll, Pla de Bages 2007 (Picapoll) (18)

Ripe fruit, fragrant herbs, some floral notes. Complex. Rich palate, slightly unctuous, fine bitter notes and medium length. Drink now. £7.64–£10.99; Hgt, You

Canto Cuerdas, Vinos de Madrid 2007 (Albillo) (18)

Herbaceous and ripe fruit nose. Unctuous palate, warm notes. The best expression of Albillo planted on sandy soils. Drink now. N/A UK; www.bernabeleva.com

Doniene Gorrondona, Chacolí de Vizcaya 2008 (Hondarribi Zuri) (18)

Fresh, delicate nose; some grassy notes. Light palate with lots of fresh fruit and some bitter nuances. Drink now. N/A UK; www.donienegorrondona.com

Jaume de Puntiró, Daurat, Binissalem 2006 (Prensal Blanc) (18)

Expressive nose with ripe fruit, some floral and fine cocoa nuances. Fresh, fruity and fleshy palate. Drink now. N/A UK; www.vinsjaumedepuntiro.com

Margón, Pricum, Tierra de León 2007 (Albarín) (18)

Fine fresh fruit and green herb nose. Flavourful palate, complex, good acidity and some final sweetness. Drink now.N/A UK; www.bodegasmargon.com

Marques de Villalúa, Condado de Huelva 2007 (Zalema) (18)

Complex nose of faded flowers and ripe fruit. Fruity, complex and flavourful palate, good length. Drink now. N/A UK; www.marquesdevillalua.com

Viña Mein, Ribeiro 2007 (Treixadura) (18)

A fresh, neat nose with lots of varietal character and complexity. Fresh, fruity, light palate. Drink now. N/A UK; www.vinamein.com

Cunqueiro, Mais de Cunqueiro, Ribeiro 2007 (Torrontés) (17.5)

Nose of tropical and candied fruit notes, fragrant herbs. Fresh, fruity, flavourful palate and good acidity. Drink now. N/A UK; www.bodegascunqueiro.es

Humboldt, Blanco Dulce, Tacorante-Acentejo 1997 (Listán Blanca) (18)

Slightly spirity. Ripe, macerated fruit, dried fruit, spice, patisserie and balsamic herbs. Sweet, creamy palate. Drink now–2014. N/A UK; www.bodegasinsulares.es

Penin’s best Spanish whites (grapes listed in brackets)

Enate, Uno, Chardonnay, Somontano 2006 (Chardonnay) (19.5/20)

Powerful, expressive nose with lots of varietal character, warm candied fruit, smoke and minerals. Concentrated, complex palate, rich and flavourful, with sweet notes and spirituous, mineral nuances. Drink now. £300 Hal

Clos Mogador, Nelin, Priorat 2006 (Garnacha Blanca)(19)

Powerful nose with lots of varietal character, slightly warm, good fruit expression, mineral, wild herbs. Rich, round palate, slightly spirituous, great complexity and a fine mineral aftertaste. Drink now. £12.90; Brb

Náia, Náiades, Rueda 2005 (Verdejo) (19)

A fresh, fruity nose, very aromatic (herbal tea), crushed stones and smoky nuances. Creamy, flavourful and fruity palate, lots of freshness and a complex herbal aftertaste. Drink now. £19.95; Ind

Chivite, Chardonnay, Colección 125, Navarra 2006 (Chardonnay) (18.5)

Great fruit expression on the nose, some smoky and spicy notes. Fresh, fruity palate, rich, flavourful and with great acidity. Drink now. £24; Wai

Ossian, Rueda 2007 (Verdejo) (18.5)

A fresh nose with lots of mineral notes, green herbs and hints of creamy oak and smoke. Rich, round palate, with complexity and a somewhat spirituous aftertaste. Drink now. £17.14; J&B

Marqués de Murrieta, Capellanía, Rioja 2004 (Viura) (18.5)

Powerful, expressive nose, elegant, ripe fruit, creamy oak, wild dry herbs as well as some aged wood, Sherry-like nuances. Rich, flavourful palate with good acidity, aged wood and great length. Drink now. £14.75–£14.99; AGWAGWAGW, Lai

Rafael Palacios, As Sortes, Valdeorras 2007 (Godello) (18.5)

Very expressive, varietal nose with lots of ripe fruit, herbal tea and mineral notes; hints of spices. Fresh, fruity and flavourful palate, with fine mineral notes and great length. Drink now. £24.40; PAF

Viña Nora, Nora da Neve, Rías Baixas 2006 (Albariño) (18.5)

Powerful, expressive nose, ripe fruit, fine Seville orange marmalade and sweet spicy notes. Rich, flavourful palate with fleshy fruit and great length. Drink now. £24.76; Ind

Jorge Ordoñez, Esencia, Málaga 2004 (Moscatel) (19.5)

A rich, complex nose with lots of varietal character, candied fruit and dried grapes notes. Rich, fleshy, complex and unctuous palate, which somehow resembles the best auslese wines from Germany. Drink now–2014. N/A UK; www.jorge-ordonez.es

Chivite, Colección 125, Vendimia Tardía, Navarra 2006 (Moscatel) (19)

A characterful, expressive nose, fresh and elegant, with lots of fruit expression, some grapey, botrytisied notes and fine creamy oak nuances. Elegant, slightly spirituous palate, with good acidity, candied fruit, creamy oak and a somewhat smoky aftertaste.

Drink now–2014. £17.49; Wai

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