Sure, Spain’s most famous wine appellation may be best recognized for its reds. But until the start of the 20th century, more of Rioja’s acres were planted with white grape varieties, says Jesús Martínez Bujanda, owner and CEO of Washington’s Valdemar Estates, who represents the fifth generation of the family that founded Spain’s Bodegas Valdemar.
Back then, white wines were often considered to be safer than the local drinking water and white grapes’ prolificacy enabled winemakers to maximize production. It was phylloxera’s arrival in France that caused Rioja makers to refocus and match the export market’s new demand for red wines.
Today, white grapes make up just 10% of the region’s plantings. However, there’s recently been renewed excitement around white Rioja, also known as Rioja blanco.
“We are growing and learning more and more about them every day,” says Raquel Pérez Cuevas, owner of Bodegas Ontañón in Rioja Oriental.
When made from a blend of grapes, these wines must contain at least 51% Macabeo. Called Viura in Rioja, the native variety lends depth and ageability. Other regional grapes used include Tempranillo Blanco, a genetic mutation of red Tempranillo that provides acidity and herbaceousness; Malvasía, a low-acid variety that can add body or weight; and Garnacha Blanca and Maturana Blanca. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo are also permitted.
Two overarching styles have emerged: racy and mineral-driven, easy-drinking bottles from a high percentage of Tempranillo Blanco, and those made mainly from Viura, which can offer more complexity and a lengthier finish when aged in oak.
Fresher whites work well with simple dishes like lemon-grilled halibut or asparagus risotto, while barrel-fermented bottles pair with powerfully flavored cuisine like hoisin-glazed duck or yakitori.
The bottles to try