Rueda's rapid rise
- Thursday 24 April 2014
A short journey north of Madrid lies segovia, with its fairytale castle. A brief step north and west of segovia lies Rueda, and here you enter a denomination living a fairytale of its own. segovia’s story is complete – the Romans who built the aqueduct are long gone, so too the kings and armies. The city is overrun instead by admiring tourists. Rueda, on the other hand, is still mid- fairytale. It remains to be seen just what kind of happy ending will be.
Some 40 years ago Rueda was simply a rolling, windy plateau at 600m to 800m above sea level, bounded by the historic cities of Avila, segovia and Valladolid, with their respective battlements, castle and museums. history in spades. Today, however, Rueda may be better known to observers of modern uK politics. The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg takes his holidays in the Ruedan town of olmedo, which is the family home of his wife Miriam González Durantez.
It is in the white wine world, however, that Rueda has risen to international fame in the past four decades. This seemed unlikely at the outset. After all, it is squeezed between some significant red wine Dos: Cigales, the hearty Toro and the modern superstar of Ribera del Duero. Not promising for a white wine, then. The soil is extremely sparse, stony, with sand and limestone. A number of rivers dissect the DO but the most significant is the Duero, Portugal’s Douro, which defines the northern boundary.
The climate is continental: extremely hot and cold in summer and winter respectively. It’s reasonably dry too, except in 2013 when rain drowned much of the vintage. Back in the 1970s there was little to attract tourists. Today Rueda still does not seem picturesque after the jewels of Avila and Segovia. What will give any visitor pause is the architecture. Particularly in La Seca, which one producer calls the ‘grand cru’ of Rueda, where the striking, postmodern wineries of José Pariente and Belondrade y Lurton sit atop the plateau.
Step inside these wineries and you will find (as in a number of others) all the tools of the modern winemaker: small plastic crates for handpicking, selection tables, stainless-steel fermenters, the occasional egg-shaped concrete fermenter and some fine new-oak barrels. These wineries are glinting; the new Rueda is all about purity, in the winery as much as in the bottle.
Rueda’s journey to global fame has been rapid, and the question now is, where will the fairytale end? The DO was created in 1980, the first in the Castile & Léon region. At the time, it was still growing plenty of Palomino (Jerez’s pre-eminent variety) and making solera-aged fortified wines, known as Palido and Dorado (pale and gold styles respectively). But the demand for fortified wines was dying. Consumers were losing the taste for these wines, whether from Jerez or elsewhere, and the price was plummeting.
In 1996 Palomino made up 20% of production, today it’s less than 0.5%. What supplanted it? Verdejo, the variety that is both the good and wicked fairy in this tale. Today, following the largest harvest in Rueda’s history, the DO is 98% white varieties and Verdejo is an astonishing 85% of that. Viura and Sauvignon Blanc make up the rest. Viura is declining in popularity, even as blending material. Sauvignon Blanc has a role to play both in lifting blends and as a varietal wine. There are strong critics in Rueda of this international star variety with its bold thiols.
It’s Verdejo that became the crowd-pleaser. By the turn of the millennium, Rueda and its Verdejo were Spain’s new future in whites. For companies looking to compete on international markets, Verdejo opened the door. Instead of the flabby or overoaked Viuras and other anonymous whites, Verdejo offered a style that could square up to New Zealand and French Sauvignon Blanc. Big companies from across Spain arrived, keen to have a fresh white in their portfolio. Today they include Freixenet, Codorníu, Torres, as well neighbours from Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Rioja and Toro.
It’s been a hectic journey to growth. One business closely involved in the rollercoaster ride is Marqués de Riscal. Riscal was itself an intruder from Rioja at the beginning, when it opened its first bodega in 1973. Working with Professor Emile Peynaud from Bordeaux, Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga introduced revolutionary (now standard) techniques to preserve the aromas and the palate, such as fermentation in stainless steel at cool temperatures and inert gas blanketing. Now Riscal has a serious stake in the DO: it owns 220ha of vineyards and works with contract growers over another 275ha. Luis Hurtado de Amézaga, today’s technical director at Riscal, has inherited the same enthusiasm for Verdejo, and its special expression in Rueda. He enthuses over its aromas – ‘grasses, white flowers and fennel’ – and palate ‘medium to full bodied, fresh and with that light bitterness on the finish which is so typical of the variety’.
Riscal developed its repertoire, moving from a straightforward Rueda, to launching a single- vineyard wine with four months on the lees (Finca Montico). It also introduced Limousin, from pre-phylloxeric vines from close to Segovia, and fermented in French barriques. Thankfully it has reined back the oak, moving from 225-litre to 600-litre barriques. As a result, ‘the wine shows a great richness, demonstrating that Verdejo, if it’s well made, can produce top quality wine’, says Amézaga. In a spirit of great generosity, he adds, ‘I believe there are other good examples in the region such as Belondrade y Lurton and Naiades from Bodegas Naia’.
Dangers of succes
These last two are later arrivals, respectively 1994 and 2002. They, along with several other producers, are continuing to build a reputation for Rueda. But – and this is the substantial but – this recent success of Rueda contains its downfall. One critical friend is Victor Rodriguez, who was involved in the early days of Naia. He explains frankly: ‘Rueda’s popularity now is linked to a growing vulgarisation of the origin and the style of the majority of the wines.’ By vulgarisation he means the flood of low-priced Ruedas with their ‘bubblegum’ aromatics which come from cool fermentation with commercial yeasts, and which show little of the grape’s varietal character.
Amézaga explains what’s happened: ‘Rueda has grown very rapidly in these past five to seven years. There is a great quantity of new plantings and young vineyards, not always planted in the right soils, and many times with excessive production.’ (The DO permits a maximum of 72hl/ha, whileRiscal works to a maximum of 55hl/ha). He doesn’t mince his words: ‘This type of cultivation produces wines that are impersonal, that lack varietal character and quality, and this represents today half of the production of the DO.’
Rueda is now a region of polarised wine styles: either a) a jostling crowd of crowd-pleasing, increasingly anonymous wines, or b) small production and expensive. Much like debate over the varying styles of Pinot Gris/Grigio in New Zealand, it makes it confusing for the consumer. It also makes it difficult for producers working to express the essence of Verdejo in its terroir to charge an economic price.
Antonio Sanz was one of the founders of modern Rueda, and he and his son Ricardo, winemaker at Bodegas Menade, share enthusiasm for the future: ‘Of all the changes we have lived through, perhaps the most interesting ones are still to come... They will be about encouraging the free expression of Verdejo with the least possible intervention.’
Is this where the fairytale ends? New plantings will eventually mature and the quality of the fruit will improve. There are some excellent wines, that show just what Rueda’s Verdejo is all about. Growers may well be encouraged to reduce their yields and select the best. However other regions have caught on to Verdejo. They may not make it so well but they can grow it cheaper. Rueda risks being caught on a downward spiral of price and reputation. Despite this, the future holds promise with individuals like Victoria Pariente in the fray for Verdejo: ‘I’m a Rueda native, born here just like the grape variety.’ She defends it fiercely, ‘Verdejo is complete in itself. It’s a pecado [sin] to blend in Sauvignon Blanc.’