For a country that has been growing grapes and making wine for millennia, it is surprising that Spain’s bestselling white wine is a relative newcomer. The crisp, bright, citrus and herb flavours of Rueda emerged just 40 years ago and they have transformed not just the taste of Spanish wines, but also the economics of the region and its potential for tourism.
Rueda is a small, historic town in Castilla y León in northwest Spain, about 175km north of Madrid. It has given its name to wines that come from the surrounding region, which stretches across parts of Valladolid, Segovia and Avila. While this is a long-established wine-growing region, the style of wine made there has changed dramatically in the past few decades.
For centuries this region produced fortified, solera-aged wines from the Verdejo grape, but their popularity declined and a new approach was needed to rejuvenate the area’s wine industry. Salvation came in the form of Marques de Riscal, working with renowned French oenologist Emile Peynaud, who decided to investigate Rueda as a potential site to make a white wine to partner his red Riojas. Using the local Verdejo grape, and taking advantage of the region’s high altitude, its challenging climate and well-drained soils, Rueda was found to be an ideal place to make fresh, lively white wines.
This triggered a revival of Rueda’s fortunes and now the region is home to wineries of all sizes, from small family estates to large cooperatives and major companies. Collectively they make 40% of Spain’s white wines and Rueda now ranks third in Spanish wine production, behind the grand names of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
‘Rueda has changed the way people think about Spanish white wine,’ says Santiago Mora Poveda, director general of the local regulating board, the Consejo Regulador de la DO Rueda. ‘Now we want them to change the way they ask for it in shops and bars. Instead of just asking for a Verdejo, which could come from other regions, we want them to ask for Rueda. We are changing the labels so that the grape variety will feature on the front label of the bottle, along with the name Rueda.’
Permitted grape varieties in Rueda are, at present, fairly limited. This is essentially white wine country, with 98% of all vineyards planted to white grapes. Verdejo is the most widely planted, at around 85% of the 16,000ha of vines. Sauvignon Blanc is a relative newcomer, mainly planted in the early days of the revitalisation of the region. It is permitted as a single variety under the Rueda name, but also as a blend with Verdejo. Smaller amounts of Palomino and Viura are also planted. Just 2% of the region is planted to red grapes Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Garnacha, though both rosé and red wines were awarded DO status in 2001. Production levels of these wines is limited and so far very few of them are exported.
While new vineyards have been planted to provide grapes for this expansion of production in Rueda, one of the gems of the region is its stock of old vines, which make up about 10% of the vineyard area. Gnarled old Verdejo vines, some of them more than 100 years old, are still in the ground, producing distinctive, high-quality grapes, generally in much lower quantities than new vines. The wines they produce are exceptional and there is a move to designate a new category of wines (yet to be named) for wines made from old vines.
‘We want growers to maintain these old vineyards,’ says Mora Poveda. ‘They cost a lot more to work, because everything has to be done by hand, but they produce expressive and flavoursome wines.’
The UK has become a major market for Rueda, with sales in excess of a million bottles each year. Almost every UK supermarket lists at least one major brand as well as its own-label version, and independent merchants support many of the smaller producers. With the fresh, crisp styles of Rueda firmly established in consumers’ minds there is now an opportunity to discover the diversity and potential of this region.
Those old vines that were planted so long ago are vitally important. Many of them are on their own roots, having survived phylloxera because of the soils. ‘Our soil is just sand and pebbles,’ explains Javier Herrero of Bodega Herrero, holding up a handful of beach-like pebbles as we stand in a blustery vineyard dotted with gnarled vines that were planted back in 1899. ‘This area was once under the sea,’ he adds; given that it is now 800m above sea level, this is remarkable.
The altitude of the region confers a distinct benefit to Rueda wines. There is a constant breeze blowing and winters are cold, with temperatures plummeting to -8°C for weeks at a time. ‘This is good because it kills the pests,’ explains Herrero. In summer, daytime temperatures are warm but not too warm, and at night the temperature drops dramatically, preserving those fresh, clean flavours in the grapes.
Many Verdejo vines are grown as bushes, which require a great deal of manual labour, but this shape protects the grapes both from the wind and from excess sunshine.
As well as taking care of the old vines, new winemaking techniques are being introduced. Lees ageing, requiring the wine to stay in contact with its yeast lees for months to add depth of flavour and texture to the wine, is well established. Alongside that, barrel ageing, larger format wooden foudres, cement tanks and even the latest in winemaking equipment, concrete eggs, are now being seen in the region. The expensive, heavy, egg-shaped tanks create their own convection currents inside the vessel and wines develop complex flavours from constant contact with yeast lees.
Sandra Martín Chivite, winemaker at Diez Siglos de Verdejo, is using lees contact in all her wines. This modern, well-equipped winery that supplies many supermarkets with Rueda wine is the centre of a collective where 65 growers have banded together to pool their resources and winemaking. With 380ha of vines – mainly planted to Verdejo with some Sauvignon Blanc and Viura – she tailors lees contact according to the balance and style required. The bright, fresh flavours of her Verdejo wines are given depth and roundness with six months spent on the lees, in large stainless-steel tanks with a fine stream of nitrogen bubbles introduced to keep the lees in suspension.
Martín Chivite uses oak barrels for higher quality wines. ‘Momento Diez is a blend of wines from stainless steel with around 10% oak-aged in 225-litre barrels,’ she says, ‘while Diez Siglos, Fermentado in Barrica is oak fermented and then remains in oak for a further seven months.’ The result is a wine with a complex, creamy style that maintains its fresh citrus intensity.
Despite the undoubted quality of wines from older vines, Martín Chivite tries to balance age with youthfulness: ‘I like to make wines from vines that are around 20 years old because these older vines give me the fresh flavours of green fruits and a touch of pineapple.’ She also has plans to start making fortified wines in the style of the dorados of old, ageing them in glass demijohns.
Research and attention to detail is very much in evidence at the dramatically stylish Belondrade, not just with oak but with soils, yeasts and organic viticulture. Located in La Seca, east of the town of Rueda, Belondrade was established by French national Didier Belondrade in 1994, almost by accident, when he was travelling across Spain and visited the region. Now he has planted 36ha of vines surrounding the winery, on a mixed soil of clay, sand, pebbles and limestone. The vineyard is divided into 22 parcels, every one of which has been studied for its specific soil type and structure. Planted with clones to match each plot, cultivated organically, hand-picked, then fermented in separate parcels using natural yeasts and aged in barrels, the result is a matrix of individual wines that are carefully blended to create the finished wines.
‘Verdejo is a wonderful grape,’ says Jean Belondrade Lurton, who is the second generation of this family. ‘It gives structure, acidity, bitterness and a broad palate. We use a range of oak barrels, some with acacia heads, to add another nuance of flavour, and as the wines age we create batches with similar styles, gradually working towards our final blend.’
Belondrade wines step into new taste territory for Rueda, maintaining the characteristic freshness of Verdejo, balanced by creamy savoury notes, with oak in a supporting, textural role.
Sara Bañuelos, winemaker at Ramón Bilbao, is also investigating clones. ‘Verdejo comes in a variety of clones and we have planted 10 different clones to see how each of them performs in our soils,’ she says.
Bañuelos is in charge of a new winery with all the latest equipment, including large, tulip-shaped concrete tanks. ‘They have cooling coils built into them so we can maintain constant temperatures as fermentation proceeds,’ she explains. She is also working with large 45hl foudres as well as stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels. ‘The aim is to introduce complexity to the wines.’
Another way to provide additional complexity would be the introduction of other grape varieties. This is not yet permitted, but Bañuelos would like to see Viognier and Chardonnay added to the list of approved grapes. According to Mora Poveda, this change in legislation may soon be a possibility as long as Verdejo makes up more than 50% of the blend.
Clones have already had an impact at Bodega Javier Sanz following the discovery of an old clone known as Malcorta, which translates as ‘hard to cut’. The few vines that were discovered have now been propagated and planted out. Despite small bunches of grapes and a tiny yield, they are producing 12,000 bottles of a vivacious, peachy wine each year, which sells out immediately. Work is in progress at the local agriculture institute, ITACYL, to identify this clone more precisely, but in the meantime the wine is sold as ‘Malcorta – Verdejo Singular’.
In the same old vineyard, Sanz has also discovered vines that produce red grapes. ‘I have no idea what grape variety it is,’ he admits, ‘so we have named it Colorado.’ The first vintage made from these grapes in 2013 produced just 298 bottles of the mystery red.
The combination of crisp acidity and fresh flavours makes the Verdejo grape perfect for sparkling wines. Among its extensive range of wines, Bodega Yllera produces sparkling wines by the traditional, in-bottle fermentation. Cantosán Reserva de Familia Brut Nature has the characteristic citrus, herb and slight bitter note of Verdejo, with refreshing melon notes and a touch of yeast on the finish.
Palacio de Bornos also has sparkling wines as part of its range. These are made in the traditional style and aged in the winery’s cellars. Including white sparkling wines made from Verdejo and a Tempranillo-based rosé, aged for nine months on lees, these bottlings show just how diverse the wines of Rueda can be.
So what of the solera-aged, fortified wines of old? Have they totally vanished? Now that the region is revitalised, and skilled winemakers have time to experiment, there are signs that these old-style wines are attracting interest once more. At Diez Siglos, winemaker Martín Chivite has already expressed interest in making them.
Currently only three producers make the traditional Rueda dorado wine. De Alberto Rueda Dorado made by Bodegas Hijos de Alberto Gutiérrez, has nutty, raisiny notes, yet still with the bite of freshness that is the thumbprint of the Verdejo grape. Meanwhile Bodega Cuatro Rayas produces 61 Rueda Dorado and Félix Lorenzo Cachazo makes Carrasviñas Rueda Dorado.
Rueda may have made its name as a producer of clean, fresh, lively wines, but it has only just started on its journey of discovery.
Austin’s pick: a top Rueda dozen to try
Belondrade, Belondrade y Lurton 2016 96
Fresh, delicate nose with white peach, fennel and lemon peel. A broad, waxy palate with creamy, savoury complexity; a hint of salinity on the finish. Organic. Drink 2019-2024 Alcohol 13.5%
Bodegas Naia, Naiades 2014 95
Low-yielding old vines (up to 130 years). Ripe pear, melon, Meyer lemon, creamy fennel and a touch of anise. Perfectly harmonious. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 13.5%
José Pariente, Fermentado en Barrica Verdejo 2017 94
Soft apricot and smoky pear notes on the nose are followed by a rounded, complex palate, with anise, tarragon and creamy oak. Silky and harmonious in the mouth, with a long finish. This estate is now in conversion to organic viticulture. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 13.5%
Verderrubí, Atipyque 2013 94
Fermentation in oak and six months on lees, followed by bottle ageing has allowed the profile of this Verdejo to broaden, showing delicate citrus notes and light creamy brioche, plus a rounded texture. Verderrubí has been certified organic since 2015. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 13%
Verderrubí, Dominio de Verderrubí Verdejo 2018 93
There are bright citrus and herb-filled aromas on the nose with passion fruit and pink grapefruit notes too. The palate is lively and fresh with silky style and a clean, refreshing finish. This organic wine spends four months on lees. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 13%
Diez Siglos, Verdejo 2017 92
Light, fresh lemon notes on the nose, with hints of crushed nettles and tangerine too. The lively palate combines citrus zest with a silky texture. Just a hint of chicory bitterness on the finish. Aged on lees in tank for six months. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 13%
Marqués de Riscal Limousin 2017 92
Wild yeasts, oak fermentation and lees contact has built a complex wine with a firm, bright citrus aroma leading into a rounded, smooth palate showing fennel, herbs and toasty notes followed by a creamy, slightly nutty finish. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 14%
Palacio de Bornos, La Caprichosa Verdejo 2017 92
Lively, fresh white peach aroma with a palate of citrus and fresh herbs. There’s a clear, refreshing, bitter note and a mineral finish. From 35-year-old vines, this wine spends three months on lees. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 13%
Bodegas Ramón Bilbao, Edición Limitada Lías Verdejo 2017 91
Stone fruit, grapefruit and celery. Bright, fresh palate with a silky texture and pure, saline finish. Drink 2019-2021 Alc 13%
Finca Montepedroso, Verdejo 2017 91
Crisp notes of white peach and apricot, palate of pink grapefruit and lemon balm, herbal and anise notes. Tank-aged five months on lees. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 12.5%
Bodega Javier Sanz, Verdejo 2017 90
Fresh light, citrus aromas on the nose, followed by a lively, tropical fruit palate that’s edged with anise and fennel. In the mouth there’s a rounded texture with creamy notes, leading to a bright finish. Made from 60- to 80-year-old Verdejo vines, with three months of lees ageing. Drink 2019-2021 Alc 13%
Diez Siglos, Verdejo 2018 89
A fresh, light and bright Verdejo, with clean citrus aromas on the nose, a touch of crushed herbs and a lovely palate that has creamy notes. This is a great-value introduction to Rueda. Drink 2019-2021 Alc 12.5%