By Celia Strong
Everyone deserves a second chance. Even if you’re a bottle of wine. I know that sounds a little strange, but this week’s wine is from a category that for years was not very popular. Then, as younger winemakers and new investors came into that area, the wines got better and better. And, wine travelers and critics, and plain people like us who like wine and trips, we all started to look at this group of wines and like them. For the first time. What are these wines? White Riojas.
We have learned about many red Riojas together. And, we like them. Which is good, because eighty percent of Rioja wines are red. The problem with white Riojas has been in the past, that they were pretty much treated like the red wines. If barrel aging worked on the reds, then they used the same process on the whites. Remember the aging distinctions that we discussed with red Rioja? Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva? Remember, each legally must age a minimum amount of time in barrels and in its bottles before it could be sold? Well, white Riojas did not respond well to this aging. They ended up as darker colored and oxidized tasting. Even in Spain they were not popular. In time, as new wines became available from new sources around the world (like clean, crisp, fresh New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, for example), you can see that wine drinkers were not rushing to buy the older style white Riojas.
Besides, the old-time style of aging their wines, the grape varieties used to make white Rioja needed to be studied more and worked with by innovative wine makers and growers – looking for ways to make their wines better and more appealing. The main white variety is Viura. (In other regions, it is known as Macabeo. A name that I, for one, like to say better than “Viura.”) The first step in re-making white Riojas was to produces wines from Viura, but with no oak treatment at all. The wines were simple and inoffensive, but did not have the “zing” of a New Zealand.
In 2007, the Consejo Regulator (a Spanish wine governing group) allowed Chardonnay and Verdejo (up to 49% total) to be added into white Rioja wines. Despite the good intentions behind this allowance, the producers of white Rioja basically objected to these changes. They were not happy to have to make their wines better by using “outsider” varieties. Or to have them tasting like all kinds of other wines. Thankfully, there were other grapes, native to their region, that they could use – Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Malvasia and Turruntés (no connection to Argentine Torrontes). Each of these grapes does OK on its own, like Viura, but in a blend they can be great. Garnacha Blanca is the white Grenache of the Rhône area of southeastern France. Its wines have body, high acidity and apricot and peach and nut and floral flavors. Tempranillo Blanco, a mutation of Tempranillo Tinto, was discovered in 1988. It has good concentration, especially of stone fruit flavors, high alcohol and intense aromas. Maturana Blanca is the oldest of these other varieties. It was first mentioned in print in 1622. It also has higher alcohol levels along with citrus fruit flavors, herbal notes and great complexity. Malvasia is a Mediterranean variety that is used to make both dry and sweet and everything in between wines. It adds layers of flavors and textures to its wines. And, finally, Turruntés is a lower alcohol variety with green and herbal notes in its wines. See – each may not be great on its own, but together they can all find new heights.
The only problem still to solve is, if in actuality, white Riojas are getting better and, if we, the wine drinking public, are looking for them. And, this is where the second chance has to start. With us. This segues us right to this week’s white Rioja. The Baron de Ley Blanco. This wine is a blend of Viura and Malvasia. The grapes come from high altitude vineyards which are cooled by Atlantic Ocean breezes. This allows the grapes to ripen fully and still maintain their acidity. Our wine is pale yellow with faint hints of green around the edges. The aromas are exotic – tropical fruits and flowers, with green herbs and dill. The flavors include stone fruits (peaches and apricots) with perfumy white flowers and a long, lingering, minerally, green finish. A perfect wine for food! All kinds of seafood – fried, in broth, broiled. White fish, shellfish, lobster. Poultry and pork dishes. Saffron. Olives and tapenade. Goat cheeses. Garlic. Gazpacho. Egg dishes and quiches. Rosemary. Oh, geez. Hungry and thirsty. Again. This is such hard work. Off I go to fill my glass. Your turn next. And remember that second chance. For $9.99. Enjoy.