Is Rioja the Next Great...White Wine Region?
Yes. And I'm not the only one saying it.
When I was in Rioja a few weeks ago, some of the most exciting bottles that I tasted were white wines. I know that may sound absurd. White grapes make up less than 10 percent of the plantings in Rioja, a region best known for its powerful, oak-aged reds.
But there are big changes happening in Rioja—a new generation of winemakers, less emphasis on oak, planting at higher altitude, more focus on freshness and terroir. I wrote about those changes last summer. I’ve since made a few more visits to the region over the past year (this will be the first of two reports on Rioja this fall). Overall, what keeps impressing me is just how good Rioja’s white wines can be.
I’m not the only one who seems to be noticing (which I hope means I’m not crazy). “Rioja really is one of the great white wine regions of the world,” tweeted UK wine critic Tim Atkin a couple of weeks ago.
Atkin is probably the leading English-language authority on Rioja wines. In his 2022 tasting report (which I highly recommend), he writes, “Rioja’s whites are impressively diverse and often underrated. I say this every year, but it bears repeating.” Atkins notes the long history of whites in Rioja: “Until the middle of the 20th century, Rioja had more white vineyards than red, partly because the climate was cooler then. Those days are gone…but growers and producers are taking Rioja’s whites to new levels.”
Certainly those who are fans of López de Heredia’s Viña Gravonia or CVNE’s Monopole Classico (two of Rioja’s most famous whites) are already acquainted with the potential of Rioja’s whites. But the embrace of these wines is relatively recent phenomenon.
“When I first got here, nobody drank López de Heredia,” says Olivier Rivière, among Rioja’s new generation of winemakers. “This could be a great white wine region. There are a lot of sites that are planted for reds that should be planted for whites.” Rivière brings an outsider’s perspective: He is French, born and raised south of Bordeaux in Cognac. After working in Burgundy, he was lured to Spain by Telmo Rodriquez and started his own label in 2006.
What, exactly, will be a new-generation Rioja white is still a work in progress. Examples like Abel Mendoza 5 V, Gomez Cruzados Montes Obarenes, or Remelluri Blanco are excellent benchmarks. Acclaimed next-gen producers have followed suit. If wines like Artuke Trascuevas (Artuke’s first white) are any indicator, the future is bright.
Rioja is not the Mosel or Wachau or Loire Valley. The whites here will always be bigger, riper, more muscular. The main white grape in Rioja is viura (aka macabeo) which Atkins calls “an impressive, age-worthy grape. Even at its worst, viura’s only sin is neutrality.” Classic Rioja whites based on viura can be full-bodied, with an array of orchard, stone, or tropical fruit notes.
It’s a tricky grape, with low acidity and aromatics, but it has the potential for long aging. Viña Gravonia ages for an astounding four years in barrel. But while López de Heredia may have had a deft hand, many other winemakers relied too heavily and clumsily on oak. “Viura was sort of neutral, sort of a boring grape. So what did winemakers do? They used a lot of oak,” says Lorena Corbacho of Pujanza.
“With viura, people always want these golden berries, but by that time it’s dead. At that point, there’s no acidity,” says Sandra Bravo, of Sierra de Toloño. Bravo and others are breaking with tradition, and harvest viura much earlier to preserve acidity.
What’s most bizarre about viura’s fate is that growers in the appellation were forbidden to plant the grape for a decade, from 2000 to 2010. At the same time, in 2007, they allowed chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and verdejo (“mostly regrettably,” Atkin says.) Finally, the appellation came back to its senses and lifted the ban on its prime white grape.
Viura is an excellent blending partner with garnacha blanca, malvasia, and other local varieties such as matarana blanca, tempranillo blanco, and turruntés (aka albillo). Some producers are experimenting with varietal wines from these minor grapes. I particularly enjoyed Viña Ijalba’s series of single-variety bottlings.
But viura is also a traditional blending partner in the region’s tempranillo-based red wines. Roberto Oliván of Tentenublo, for instance, began adding viura and other whites (around 10% or more) to most of his red blends after the extremely hot vintage of 2012. A little bit of white may be a key to keeping the big Rioja reds fresh and full of acidity as we move deeper into the climate change era. Yet even this seemingly modern technique was traditional for Rioja in times past.
“Viura is the future, the present, and the past,” Oliván says.
Three New-Style Rioja Blanco To Seek Out
Super expressive viura, with aromas of apricot and pineapple, though in the mouth it’s straight and elegant, with lots of finesse, and underlying minerality that gives it fine structure. Great value here.
Viña Ijalba Maturana Blanca 2020, $18
Viña Ijalba was the first winery to focus on the maturana blanca grape. This has super lively acidity, with complex citrus notes of salted lemon, grapefruit, and tangerine. Unique and good value.
A blend of viura and garnacha blanca, aged 8-10 months in French oak foudres that’s tight, linear, and intense, balanced by subtle fruity notes of lemon, apple, and apricot. Rioja blanco with ambition.
Three Classic Rioja Blanco To Try
A Germanic-like Rioja white, aged partially in sherry casks, with lime zest, tangerine, nectarine, with a deeper, underlying nutty, salty element.
Many drinkers’ introduction to Rioja blanco, always with four years of barrel aging. Honestly, unlike any other white in the world. I recently had the 2011 (find here) which was magical.
One of Rioja’s greatest whites, a blend of five grapes (viura, malvasía, garnacha blanca, tempranillo blanco, turruntés).
2 Great Rioja Whites We Need Available ASAP
This is the first white made by Artuke and it’s elegant and delicious. Complex blend of 90 percent viura, with some malvasia and palomino, aged in both oak and concrete egg for 10 months. Juicy, floral, with notes of nectarine, tangerine, with bright acidity and underlying notes of struck stone. Why is this not in the U.S.?
From viura, aged both in oak and concrete egg. Aromas of beeswax and white blossoms, and flavors of pear, golden apple, honeydew on the palate. Generous, round, mellow, and delightful. Again, we need it here in the States.
And a Great Rioja Blend of White and Red to Seek Out
From a 70-year-old vineyard site, a stunning blend of 60% tempranillo and 40% viura. It’s a Rioja red that drinks like a white, with classic notes of purple flowers and tobacco along with warm citrus and stone fruit.