Three is the magic number in northern Spain’s Rioja wine region. Three types of wine are produced: red (Tinto), pink (Rosado) and white (Blanco). Three grape varieties may be used and blended to make their white wine: Viura (sometimes called Macabeo), for a lemon and green apple crisp character; Malvasía for a richer nutty aroma and Garnacha Blanca for a fuller body.
The Rioja region, named after the Rio Oja, a tributary of the River (Rio) Ebro, is sub-divided into three zones: Alta, Alavesa and Baja. The cooling and moist Atlantic influences the vineyards planted at the high altitudes at Alta and Alavesa. Whereas, the low lying and hot Baja zone enjoys the warmer and drier influence of the Mediterranean. Consequently, Alta and Alavesa produce crisp citrus styles with refreshing acidity, while Baja produces riper and more full-bodied styles.
Most of the large Bodegas/wineries do not have sufficient vineyards to satisfy their customers’ demand and must purchase grapes from various grape growers throughout Rioja. Consequently, most wines from the large producers are made from a blend of all three zones but only Rioja may appear as the region on the wine label. This has been the subject of concern recently for the smaller wine producers in the prime Alavesa zone who bottle their wine from their Alavesa vineyards only and are disappointed that Alavesa is not identified on the wine label.
Continuing with the three theme, there are three styles of white Rioja: either refreshing, crisp dry whites made without any oak and using Viura only, or the classic and traditional style of white wine that has oak ageing and a little bit of Malavasía grapes in the blend to give the wine some added richness. Historically, but much rarer today, the very lengthy aging in oak barrels gave an almost Sherry-like controlled oxidative style. Today, this has been replaced by shorter aging periods in barrel, several months rather than several years for the whites.
A third and more recent innovation is Fermentado en Barrica where the white grape juice is fermented in oak casks/barriques, but not aged as a wine afterwards in oak. The main difference between fermenting and aging a white wine in oak barrels is heat. Fermentation creates energy and energy always generates heat. The wine warmed by the natural process of fermentation extracts the spiciness and vanillin from the oak more effectively and marries quickly into the wine (think cooking with spices).
Whereas, aging a wine in oak barrels when cold after the fermentation concludes is a much slower way to extract the wood’s spicy character and is slower to meld into the wine’s aromas and flavours. Fermenting the white Rioja in oak gives a more subtle complexity and texture while keeping the freshness and some tangy citrus character.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Rioja region last September at a wine festival, La Cata del Barrio de la Estación. There was a series of tastings at some of the century old main wineries clustered around the train station in the town of Haro. The Haro train station served a vital role in transporting the region’s wines throughout Spain and for export from the 1870s.
Today, the Haro Train Station District of wineries attracts over 120,000 wine loving visitors and tourists all year round. I met Spanish Master of Wine, Pedro Ballesteros and asked his views on some of the evolving changes in the region. Pedro emphasised that Rioja was going in a new direction. As a region covering a large area over 100 square kilometres and producing over 240 million bottles of wine, clearly, there was a huge variety in the wines produced.
While the reds have seen more reductive styles and some championing carbonic maceration to emphasise fruitiness, the whites have seen a dramatic change in style. Although accounting for only 5% of Rioja’s production, Rioja’s white wines have seen a major shift away from the traditional oxidative and overtly oak-aged styles and a deliberate move to fresher, crisper and fruitier styles. “Rioja is not a style of wine, it is a wine country. While it keeps traditions it is also developing new styles with lots of originality and innovation.”
Here is a selection of the various styles of white Rioja blind tasted and the highest scoring wines featured in no particular order.
Rioja 2012, Don Jacobo
€12.90 – Available at WinesOfTheWorld.ie
A complex bouquet with a top note of peach skins. Very flavoursome – white peach and apples and well-rounded with complexity from bottle aging, showing layers of fruit character.
Food Friend: Enjoy with baked tomatoes stuffed with crab meat topped with lemon zest, flecks of chili and breadcrumb.
Rioja 2015, El Coto 2015, El Coto
€12.99 – €13.99 – Available at Molloy’s Off-licences and Fresh Stores, Donnybrook Fair and Dublin citywide; Martin’s, Fairview; McHugh’s, Kilbarrack and Malahide Roads and Next Door Stores country-wide
Made in the most modern style of Rioja Blanco using Viura and fermenting in steel tanks. Very pale and interesting. Aromas of freshly sliced green apples and lemons follow through to the invigorating pure-fruit palate with bright lemony and zesty flavours and a pithy finish.
Food Friend: Clean and crisp enough to cut through a creamy, cheesy chicken Caesar salad.
Vina Hermosa 2015, Bodegas Santalba
€15.99 – Available at Number 21 Off-licence, Charleville and Matson’s Winestore, Grange & Bandon
Muted aromas in stark contrast with the invigorating palate of crunchy green apple and lemon sorbet with depth and length of flavour.
Food Friend: Serve with chicken thighs and a tarragon cream sauce.
Rioja 2015, Campillo Blanco, (fermentado en barrica)
€16 – Available at morganswine.ie and Mitchell & Son in Dublin at Sandycove and CHQ, IFSC.
New wave subtle Blanco Fermentado en Barrica. A distinctive perfumed palate with floral scents of honeysuckle and a subtle vanilla pod note. Creamy in texture and delicate white pepper spice from the fermentation in new French oak barrels/ barrica.
Food Friend: Try with a creamy and mild chicken curry with flaked almonds.
Rioja Blanco 2014, Muga, (barrel fermented)
€16.00 – Available at Morton’s, Ranelagh; Donnybrook Fair and Jus de Vine, Portmarnock. La Touche Wines, Greystones; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny and wineonline.ie
Aromatic with warm hay and hazel nutty scents. Delicious freshness and depth with integrated vanilla, complemented by a light delicate nuttiness. Feminine, elegant and well-rounded flavours with the nutty finish enlivened by tangy lemon.
Food Friend: Match with a wild mushroom risotto mixed with a little freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.