Rueda: Spain’s White Charmer
By David Lawrason
I love a happy co-incidence – especially when a fine white wine is the focal point. In this case a semi-exotic white from the Rueda region of Spain.
May came together as my Spanish month. It began with a tasting of eight Rueda whites at the WineAlign World Headquarters in Toronto. Steve Thurlow, Michael Godel and John Szabo were in attendance. And as the tasting moved along we became more and more enthused by the quality, the bright vaguely sub-tropical pineapple-like fruit and lemongrass aromas, and by the sense of freshness and energy within a white of some weight and substance.
Our scores for most were easily into the 88 to 91 range (very good to excellent quality), and then we checked prices. All were under $20, and most were under $15! Steve Thurlow thundered “why on earth people would spend the same money on boring pinot grigio”. Then he put his money where his mouth is and got on the phone to order a case of Pariente 2016 Rueda for $17.95.
From there, the other side of the Rueda story began to unfold, particularly how well it pairs with Spanish cuisine.
The following week the annual food trade fair called SIAL was staged in Toronto, with Spain’s Trade Commission being a major participant. Exhibitors and suppliers from Spain were guests at two consecutive dinners held at the George Brown College Chef’s House, and as host of both I got to try some of the same Rueda wines with a caliente chorizo soup, then a stellar paella. These boldly flavoured dishes were met by the intensity of the wine, then refreshed by it at the same time. The next day during the SIAL exhibition Spain hosted a cooking demo/lunch with Christine Cushing, and again Rueda whites were on pour, gracing several tapas courses.
Fast forward one week and into Spain itself. I was co-hosting a large contingent of Canadians on a Gold Medal Plates trip in Barcelona, and an evening of wine bar/tapas hopping was on the itinerary. At our first stop at small restaurant called Sucursal Aceitera (The Oil Depot) in the Sant Antoni neighbourhood, we were greeted with plates of bruschetta, killer oil soaked tomatoes, crunchy roast potatoes, serrano jamon and, I forget the rest. Plunked in the centre of each table were bottles of Rueda, which meshed so comfortably with the strong, natural flavours of the tapas. The match could not have been better, and I pictured myself repeating the formula on decks and patios all summer long.
Two days later I was having lunch at Sagradi 1881, a terrace restaurant at the Museum of Catalan History overlooking a harbour gleaming with white yachts. I had ordered a catch of the day from the fish market below, with simple roast potatoes and leafy salad drizzled with olive oil. In the name of pure research, I ordered a bottle of Menade 2016 Ecologico Rueda (for 17 Euros) that beautifully orchestrated the simple flavours. The young Catalan server patriotically observed that “he was not a big fan of (foreign) Rueda” but that Menade made one of the best. Service did not drop off after my decision to select a non-Catalan wine.
So What and Where is Rueda?
I visited Rueda itself about four years ago, a quiet town with colourfully painted buildings that sits atop a long, gentle slope that runs up from the Duero River in the district of Castilla y Leon northwest of Madrid (See map below). This is high country – part of a massive inland plateau up to 780 metres in altitude – that is carved by the river as it flows west toward its Atlantic exit at Oporto in Portugal.
In Spain the Duero River binds three important wine regions. Ribera de Duero to the east has exploded onto the scene in the past generation with ripe, rich reds based on tempranillo and French varieties. Downstream to the west lies the smaller DO of Toro, with its iron rich soils and blazing summer heat rendering big, high energy reds. And the third region, in the middle, is Rueda, a white wine region that seems out of context in this almost Jurassic land of big reds.
The reason it exists, as always, goes back to the soil. In this case there is fairly high lime content, especially in the prime alluvial, gravelled vineyards closer to the Duero River. White grapes love limestone, and here the Verdejo grape variety is queen. Thought to have originated in North Africa it is obviously tolerant of the hot summers that beset Rueda. But it also has nicely fresh acidity which binds its usually tropical fruit flavours and fleshy texture.
Verdejo is often compared to sauvignon blanc in the general sense that shows some herbal character, citrus and good acidity. For this reason sauvignon blanc is also authorized in the Rueda DO, either in blends or solo, along with viura, an important Spanish variety also with higher acidity. But a wine labeled as Rueda must have a minimum of 50% verdejo.
The region has been making wine since the 11th Century but as elsewhere in Spain production was catastrophically affected by phylloxera in the late 19th Century. Re-generation only began in the 1970s when Marques de Riscal came from Rioja and planted in the region and established a winery that remains one of the largest in Rueda (See below).
In 1980 Rueda was awarded its Denomination of Origin (DO) status. In 2008 it was expanded to include red and rose wines, but these form a very small part of the production, and are not often encountered in Canada. In the past ten years the growth of wineries in Rueda has been nothing short of phenomenal, due in large part to a huge demand for high quality Spanish whites in a land of reds. Moneyed wineries and entrepreneurs from all over Spain are banking on Rueda being the white wine of the future. The tourism infrastructure has expanded in synch, with the opening of a Wine Route in 2014.
The rest of the Rueda story can told through the individual wines we tasted at the WineAlign office – wines that are available in Ontario and most of Canada. Click the links to check out availability and read our reviews.
Marqués de Riscal 2016 ($12.35)
From the original renaissance Rueda winery, the basic Marques de Riscal Rueda has been on the LCBO’s General List for as long as I can remember. It is also the largest production Rueda. It best shows the region’s citric side, with intense lemon/grapefruit. It’s ultra fresh and even spritzed. Try it with ceviche.
Bodegas Menade 2015 Verdejo ($13.15)
This modern winery was established in 2004 by siblings Marco, Richard and Alejandra Sanz, with an impressive 270 hectares bordering the river. Of that 170 are planted and organically farmed. This includes 30 hectares of ancient pre-phylloxera bush vines. Winemaking is all about keeping the grapes, juice and wine well chilled to preserve fruit aromatics, including treating the grapes with “carbonic snow”.
Bodegas José Pariente 2015 Verdejo ($17.10)
Jose Pariente was one of the early adopters of Rueda, establishing a modern facility in 1998. But as it neared completion he passed away, leaving the reins to daughter Victoria and later his granddaughter Martina. When I visited they were already experimenting with concrete eggs and refined barrel fermentations. The basic unoaked Rueda is among the best, with great texture, balance and freshness. Their 100% sauvignon blanc is also available – also very good quality if less interesting Rueda.
Oro de Castilla 2015 Verdejo ($12.25)
Bodega Hnos. del Villar has been producing D.O. Rueda white wine since 1995, although the del Villar family has been in the region since the 1950s when Pablo del Villar Escudero purchased a 150 hectare property that now grows verdejo, sauvignon and tempranillo. Night-time harvesting, cold pellicular maceration and native yeast fermentation are employed to capture freshness and the terroir.
Marqués de Cáceres 2015 Verdejo ($14.95)
Marques de Caceres is larger winery based in Rioja that is making wines in several Spanish regions. That they too have come to Rueda is a statement on the growing cachet of the region.
Map of Spain