White Rioja has transformed its image from tired and flabby to complex and textured, says Sarah Jane Evans MW, here recommending her favourite wines to enjoy this summer...
Today there has been a striking turnaround. The variety that came to dominate production was Viura (elsewhere known as Macabeo). It still accounts for two-thirds of the white plantings in the DOCa.
However, Viura today needs planting in cooler sites, harvesting earlier, perhaps also blending with other varieties – all the usual practices to enhance freshness and fight the drabness. The Consejo Regulador has more recently permitted ‘foreigners’ such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo. There’s a strong case for saying that in most cases these varieties overwhelm the terroir with their own flavours.
Tempranillo Blanco and Maturana Blanca are both recent additions to the permitted list: the former a genetic quirk found in the vineyard and the latter with a very long history in the region, though it has almost disappeared. The jury is still out on both of these; Tempranillo Blanco’s more recognisable name lends it market appeal, but Maturana Blanca, with its Chablis-like freshness, looks more complex and promising.
Then, in small doses for ‘seasoning’, come Torrontés also known as Turruntés (not as in Argentina, but the distinct Albillo Mayor variety); and Malvasía, correctly Malvasía Riojana, and known as Alarije in Extremadura, and Subirat Parent in Penedès, where it sometimes turns up in Cava.
Garnacha Blanca is a useful element in blends, giving texture without insipid florality. Practically all of the wines in my selection here are 100% Viura or Viura-dominant. What distinguishes them more clearly is their use of oak.
Scroll down to see Evans’ top white Rioja wines to try
Sarah Jane Evans MW is co-Chair of the DWWA and author of The Wines of Northern Spain (£30, Infinite Ideas).