The Grape Variety Behind Rueda’s Renaissance

Verdejo makes a big comeback in its historic home.
Photo by Mark Lund

Set on a rugged plateau tucked into a landscape of castles and medieval villages, Rueda is one of Spain’s most important white wine regions. Named after a town in the province of ­Valladolid, the Rueda Denominación de Origen (DO) touches three provinces: Valladolid, Segovia and Ávila. It was established in 1980, but like elsewhere in Spain, Rueda’s ­viticultural traditions extend back for centuries.

White wine comprises more than 95 percent of the production in Rueda, and the vast majority of those bottlings use Verdejo. Locals believe Verdejo originated in North ­Africa and was brought to Spain by the Moors.

The first record of Verdejo’s production in Rueda dates to the 11th century. Characterized by firm acidity and an attractive fruit profile, Verdejo offers notes ranging from citrusy to tropical, inflected with wild herbs and a strong mineral character.

Despite its long heritage, Verdejo teetered on the precipice of extinction as the 20th century began, ­a victim of the phylloxera louse that ravaged vines. It was ­replaced mostly by Palomino Fino, the high-yielding white grape that producers crushed for bulk winemaking and ­fortified Sherry-style offerings. Not until the 1970s did ­interest turn to ­Rueda’s fine-wine potential.

New Projects and Plantings

With an eye toward delivering a fresh, ­aromatic white, Rioja producer Marqués de Riscal was the first major winery to set its sights on the region. The winery invested heavily to ­replant Verdejo. ­Riscal’s success brought a wave of ­interest and vine replanting.

Since then, Spain’s biggest players have started wineries here, ­including recent projects by González Byass and ­Codorníu. The 40 wineries registered in 2005 rose to 69 in 2015. Vineyard acreage, currently around 32,000 acres, has nearly doubled since 2005.

The mechanization of Rueda’s vineyards has transformed its potential for growth and quality.

Bottles carrying the Rueda designation ­require a minimum 50 percent Verdejo, while the remainder of the blend can consist of any percentage of ­Viura (a k a ­Macabeo, also used in white Rioja) or Sauvignon Blanc.

Under the Rueda Verdejo designation, the required varietal base increases to 85 percent, and the same is necessary for Rueda Sauvignon (the local name for Sauvignon Blanc). Purists, however, prefer to work with 100 percent Verdejo, seeking to create a variety of expressions through different sites and winemaking styles.

A Land of Extremes

Poised on a plateau between 2,300 and 2,600 feet above sea level, Rueda’s climate is marked by cold, hard winters, fleeting springs and dry, hot summers. Yet, ­Verdejo has adapted to these hostile extremes. The cool nights that follow hot days help grapes ­retain natural acidity. Stingy levels of rainfall occur mainly around spring and autumn. Vines receive a ­little extra ­water assistance, strictly ­regulated by the DO, to help push through the arid growing season. Without modern ­drip-irrigation, harvest yields would be much ­lower.

Rueda’s soils are generally stony, with good drainage. The lack of nutrients, and richness in lime and iron, contributes to the quality of the wines. That’s especially true for vineyards near the ­Duero River, where limestone content is high, and along the gravel sections close to Valladolid. The ­sandier stretches near Segovia stopped phylloxera from spreading, and some prized old Verdejo bush vines still survive there.

Unlike these prephylloxera rarities, new vines are trained on trellises. The mechanization of Rueda’s vineyards has ­fundamentally transformed its potential for growth and ­quality. Growers can now more easily ­respond to the challenges of 30,000-plus acres of Verdejo ripening simultaneously across the ­appellation.

Machine harvesting accelerates the picking process, ­delivering more grapes efficiently and in good condition to the wineries. The time saved helps avoid bunches deteriorating on the vine. In the winery, technology enables producers to keep wines clean, crisp and free of oxidation.

While the Verdejo renaissance began with a vision of crafting youthful and fragrant wines, some ­producers seek to push the boundaries of the grape’s ­potential. They experiment with organic and sustainable farming and ­select fruit from bush vines and single-vineyard ­parcels. The goal is to create wines of interest, complexity and ­ageability.

Producers To Look For

One of Rueda’s top properties, doing business today as Belondrade, was founded more than 20 years ago by members of the Lurton and Belondrade families from Bordeaux. Under the direction of Didier Belondrade, the La Seca-based winery, originally called Belondrade y Lurton,  produces a signature creamy style of barrel-fermented, lees-aged Verdejo.

Another Rueda leader is Viñedos de Nieva, located in the province of Segovia, whose limited-production, steely style of Verdejo called Pie Franco is made from hand-picked, ungrafted vines planted over a century ago.

Garciarévalo, in Matapozuelos, offers both an easy drinking Verdejo called Tres Olmos and a fuller-bodied, small-production wine from the estate’s oldest vines called Harenna.

Meanwhile, Javier Sanz, a longtime grape grower turned winemaker, is known for producing tiny amounts of Malcorta, a rare and fragile clone of Verdejo. Another ­family-owned property, José Pariente, has spent years experimenting with fermentations in stainless steel tanks, oak barrels and concrete eggs. Its wines consistently rank among Rueda’s best.

Getting There

Reaching Rueda’s wineries from Madrid is a snap. Located roughly 100 miles northwest of the capital, the region is easily accessible by car or high-speed train.

The recently expanding Ruta del Vino de Rueda, or Rueda Wine Route, encourages enotourism. Its suggested itinerary crosses 13 towns, including the former Spanish capital of Valladolid, a city replete with beautiful churches, museums and palaces as well as several very good restaurants.

Accessed through wineries including ­Yllera and Mocén, the route descends beneath the town of Rueda’s streets into a miles-long labyrinth of galleries that are still intact from the Middle Ages. The route also links traditional Rueda bodegas to contemporary projects like Finca Montepedroso.

Overall, as demand for Rueda’s wines continues to grow, so has the infrastructure and options that allow wine lovers to taste the region’s expressive whites in the land where Verdejo has long flourished.

Rueda wines
Photo by Mark Lund

Garciarévalo 2014 Tres Olmos Verdejo; $17, 90 points. Pure citrus, green melon and briny aromas amount to classic Rueda Verdejo. This has a lifted, juicy mouthfeel and dry, pithy, citrusy flavors that fold in stony notes and hints of green herbs. A light, ethereal finish is what you want from the variety. Drink now. De Maison Selections. —M.S.

Blanco Nieva 2014 Pie Franco Verdejo; $30, 89 points. Minerality and raw citrus aromas create a true Verdejo bouquet. This is properly acidic and fresh, but a touch round and pulpy as well. Briny, borderline bitter flavors of grapefruit, lime, tarragon and scallion finish pithy. Drink now. Frontier Wine Imports. —M.S.

Dominios de Castilla 2014 Verdejo; $11, 87 points. Tropical fruit, melon and apple aromas are lightly briny and solid. The palate on this everyday white is lively and fresh, with jumpy acidity. Flavors of nectarine, mango, apple and lime stay fruity and clean across the finish. Winesellers, Ltd. Best Buy. —M.S.

Marqués de Irún 2014 Verdejo; $11, 87 points. This is a solid Verdejo with stony aromas of citrus fruits, grapefruit in particular. A palate with citric acidity creates a fresh platform for orange and grapefruit flavors. A round, plump finish with briny citrus flavors is a good ending. Europvin. Best Buy. —M.S.

Naia 2014 Las Brisas; $14, 87 points. Citrusy aromas of lemon and grapefruit show a leesy side note. This blend of 50% Verdejo, 30% Viura and 20% Sauvignon Blanc is pithy and citric on the palate, with flavors of lemon, green apple and orange peel that carry onto a lasting, healthy finish. Aviva Vino. —M.S.

Esperanza 2014 Estate Grown & Bottled Verdejo-Viura; $9, 86 points. Simple but solid apple and nectarine aromas are straight-forward. This feels round and easy, without much acid-based cut. Flavors of melon, mango and nectarine finish short, with a note of apple. Axial Wines USA. Best Buy. —M.S.

Published on May 25, 2016
Topics: Spain, Verdejo, White Wines


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