The White Stuff (Rueda, Spain)

Not too long ago, there was a region to the south-west of the Ribera del Duero that produced a wine very similar to that of Jerez. Just like their colleagues down south they grew palomino, a very fast ripening high yielding variety that they harvested early with plenty of acidity, and then made wine in the flor based solera system in the sun. That was until the Rioja winery Marques de Riscal came in search of a region to produce white wine, and found some very old indigenous verdejo vines. Seeing the potential for the wines here, they cultivated vines and began to produce crisp fresh white wines that captured the imagination and the palates of Spanish wine drinkers, particularly in warmer weather when full-bodied reds can be a little unforgiving. Soon the region flourished as more producers began producing wine in the region, particularly important people like Telmo Rodriguez, and suddenly Spain had found its new white wine region. The second wave occurred towards the end of the 1990s as some vintners began fermenting and ageing verdejo wines in barrels, and a new style was created.
The soils and stones of Rueda

Javier Sanz’s family has four generations of wine growers in his family; the tradition was started by his great-grandfather Augustin Nanclares back in the early 20th Century. The majority of the last century involved selling the wine in bulk, and it wasn’t until 1995 that wine was bottled and sold commercially. Across 104 hectares of vineyards they have a mixture of ages of vineyards, which make up the soul of the brand. Verdejo is undoubtedly the king variety, but they do have some others including tempranillo, viura (macabeu) and even a really old vine red variety that they don’t even know what it is. Javier Sanz is foremost a viticulturalist, focusing primarily on the quality and health of the vines. This philosophy has been passed down the generations, particularly important considering the style of wine they are producing, as they want healthy fruit to make fruit-driven fresh wines.

Rocks and sand in the soils of Rueda

I was put in contact with the winery via Scott Wasley from The Spanish Acquisition, the foremost importer of Spanish wines in Australia, who has been such a huge help for my time in Spain and Portugal. The winery is based in the town of La Seca, which actually has more vineyards than the town of Rueda that the DO takes its name from. A tour of the vineyard with Javier himself showed the type of soils they are working with, quite tough for the cultivation of white grape varieties, with some similarities with the Toro region not far away. For the most part the wines are made very simply; cooling the must after pressing the grapes, fermentation in stainless steel tanks, blending and bottling at cool temperatures to protect the fruit aromas. An indication to the historical significance of wine in Rueda is made in the museum where there are a number of old implements involved with production, including a very old bottling machine. The tasting was just of white wines, and mostly verdejo at that. The range was a little hit and miss, but mostly hit, with the purity of the variety and the expression of the terroir showing through in most of the wines. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

The staff of Javier Sanz tie the shoots to the trellis

About 20 years ago Didier Belondrade, originally from Bordeaux, visited Spain and tasted his first verdejo wine. The wine was actually from Andalucia in the south, and wasn’t an outstanding example by any means, but he saw immense potential for white wines in Spain. When he visited the Rueda region where verdejo is indigenous and quality was improving, he fell in love with the place and the vineyards, but thought that there could be more derived from the variety and the terroir. He decided to begin producing wine from the verdejo grape, but in a very different style than the crisp fruit driven wines. He began in the vineyards, where he converted many plots to a combination of guyot and cordon-spur trellising, and to organic principles. Very importantly he began to reduce the yields by at least 50%, in an effort to improve quality and get more concentration in the berries. The Rueda DO allows up to 10 tonnes per hectare, but Didier averages somewhere between four and five per harvest, levels more likely to be found with red varieties. When I was taken on a tour of the vineyards with his communications manager Patricia, it was immediately obvious his Bordeaux origins, based on the trellising and vine density compared to other vineyards in the region. The idea is of course to eke the most out of the vines and soils by putting them under some stress.

A sign-post of one of the Belondrade vineyards

The next important feature of Didier’s approach was to ferment and mature the wines not in tank but in barrel, a combination of new and second use French barriques. In the winery parcels of fruit are kept separate through the vinification and malolactic fermentation process, before a primary assemblage is conducted to isolate characteristics of the wine. These characters range from racy acidity, minerality, expressive fruit or richness. After a further maturation the second selection is made, where the wines are made in a Bordeaux classification system, where the best cuvees are used for the top Belondrade y Lurton wine, then the second wine is constructed from a larger number of cuvees. To facilitate the barrel ageing and give himself some more room to work, Didier has recently completed a new barrel cellar which also will have a tasting room with magnificent views over part of the property. Like many of the French winemakers I have encountered in Spain, Didier has a passion for terroir and expresses the wines in a different way to the Spanish winemakers. The wines are not really recognisable as a Spanish white wine, and are their own unique expression entirely. Without doubt the Belondrade y Lurton is the best Spanish white wine I have tasted on my trip, and will only get better with age. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

The new barrel cellar of Belondrade y Lurton

An important figure in the Rueda appellation is the Protos winery, founded in the Ribera del Duero back in the 1920s. Their investment in the region by purchasing 40 hectares of vineyards and building a winery to make verdejo wines was just another indication of the potential for white wines here. The produce around 800,000 bottles per year making them one of the largest, but this pales in comparison to the 5 million bottles of red and rose wine they produce in Penafiel in the Ribera del Duero. Producing wine in these volumes takes planning and control, which the technical director Hugo does fantastically. The tanks are relatively large and completely temperature controlled using digital technology. Vineyards are fermented separately before assemblage and bottling through a state-of-the-art line that handles 6,000 bottles per hour with only four people. The Protos verdejo wines represent the character most people are looking for; aromatic, fresh, crisp and vibrant. They are representative of the variety, but not the region. They are producing a barrel fermented and aged verdejo wine, but only 3,000 bottles. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

Three giant presses at Protos

Click here to see more photos from my day in Rueda, Spain. After the weekend in Madrid I head south and east, travelling through five regions in six days.

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