Surely a contender for the wine world's most improved performer? Sarah Jane Evans MW explores the resurgence of white Rioja over the last decade and recommends five exciting wines you can pick up for under £25 ($33)...
A decade ago, or less, white Rioja had a terrible reputation.
While Albariño was building a reputation for crunchy freshness, white Rioja was not popular. The view was that it was made from only one variety – Viura – and that Viura was flabby and boring.
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Then there was the question of oak.
Red Rioja lapped up American and, more recently, French oak. Its white sibling, however, had a less easy relationship with the barrel, especially the 225-litre type required of Rioja wines that fitted the categories of crianza, reserva and gran reserva.
Yet at a recent blind tasting of white Riojas, the tasters couldn’t hold back their praise.
In just a few years white Rioja has returned to favour. It may still only account for some 5% of Rioja production, but from that low base its market share has been increasing by some 20% year on year.
What are the reasons for this role reversal? Plenty of factors: being part of the global wine world, climate change, improved distribution, creativity of individual winemakers, respect for the old ways and the classics.
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Sarah Jane’s top five white Rioja under £25:
Rioja blanco is not just Viura – though it remains the dominant variety, accounting for 72.7% of the total white plantings in 2016. Malvasía de Rioja plays a small but significant part. Garnacha Blanca again accounts for a tiny percentage of the vineyard, but is making some finely textured wines.
The Consejo Regulador did wobble a little when it permitted the introduction of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. While these varieties are in the vineyard, there has been a small but perceptible change of direction among producers, returning to traditional varieties:
Tempranillo Blanco made the headlines first. A genetic mutation, a single plant with white grapes was found in Murillo del Río Leza. It’s a late-budding variety, but like the red Tempranillo it ripens early. It can show citrus and floral notes, and is popular because of its connection to Tempranillo. An example of how mainstream it has become is the fact that Campo Viejo launched its own blend.
Maturana Blanca is often marketed as a ‘new’ variety, although it’s the oldest known grape variety in Rioja. Modern versions have bright acidity, a tendency to warm alcohol, and a hint of bitterness on the finish.
The third of this historic trio is Turruntés de Rioja, no relative of the Galician Torrontés, nor indeed the Argentinian Torrontés. Instead it is similar to Albillo Mayor, found in Castilla y León. It is low in alcohol, with a welcome high acidity, offering crisp apple notes.
Oaked vs unoaked
As for style, it’s usual for sommeliers and retailers simply to divide the wines into oaked or unoaked, and within the oaked category, young or old. Unoaked is the most improved category of all, but it is still frankly unexciting. A blind tasting of unoaked whites showed the consistency, a welcome freshness, youth. But it also proved that the excitement of white Rioja comes when it is combined with oak.
In the aged category, there are two classics: López de Heredía’s Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva and Marqués de Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay. The recent release of Ygay was 1986 – a mere 30 or so years old. The wine was long awaited and it has been worth the wait. It’s a fine old Rioja with astonishing freshness.
As always, there is a concern in traditional regions that today’s winemaking may not achieve the longevity of past decades. Yet Murrieta’s wines are improving right across the board, which bodes well for the future. In 2046 – or whenever they choose to release the 2016 Ygay – it should be rated just as highly. It will be different, but just as interesting.
Age is rightly venerated in Rioja – the old Riojas of great vintages, such as 1964 and 1970, can still be tracked down. Yet José Luis Ripa of López de Heredía reminds me this was not always the case with the white wines. ‘Don’t forget that everyone used to make Riojan Sauternes and Riojan Bordeaux. Residual sugar was more important than age in those days,’ he says.
Fashions – and wine-labelling regulations – change. Its Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva far exceeds today’s ageing regulations. The 1996, the current release, was aged for 10 years in barrel.
Wines such as the Ygay and Tondonia have become cults in the wine world. To be sure, they don’t have the direct and comfortable fruit of a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Instead there’s a magical aspect to them, given their age. In a time of instant consumption, the authenticity and the complex, oxidative character have great appeal.
So what has caused this explosion in interest in the last decade? There are a number of reasons, among which wine education is important. But Ripa adds a particularly practical observation.
‘We take immense care and expense in making the supply chain as short as possible. Now our wines arrive in the best possible condition. I am certain this makes a difference.’ The result is a demand that is impossible to satisfy with the tiny production of these wines.
A ‘must have’
Every sommelier and wine merchant I spoke to said that white Rioja was a ‘must-have’ on the list. They all noted that it was a great, and better value, alternative to white Burgundy. It’s an idea that makes me wince: fine white Rioja should be recognised as second to none except itself. On the other hand, they are absolutely right.
This is an abridged version of a feature that first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Decanter magazine. Subscribe to Decanter here
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