By Celia Strong
I don’t know about you, but, as we go into the warmer months, I seem to have a bit more trouble choosing which wine I feel like having. It gets warmer, days get longer, some how the same old favorites just don’t always look as appealing. Fortunately, there are always some new, good, white wines that find their way to us just when we need them, and today we’re going to try one of them.
I first tasted this wine about two months ago and it’s been on my mind ever since. It comes to us from Spain, a region called Rueda, located in the Community of Castile and Leon, just a bit north and west of Madrid. Rueda is a Spanish DO (Denominacion de Origen), declared in 1980. It is known for its white wines, and extraordinary architecture. (Many opulent churches, monasteries and mansions are scattered all over the region, all signs of the region’s role in Spain’s history.)
The first documented evidence of wine production in the Rueda area dates from the 11th century when King Alphonso VI offered land ownership to those who would settle there and build on their land. This was part of the reconstruction of Spain after they reconquered their country from the Moors. Monastic orders, in particular, were quick to take the king’s offer and built monasteries with vineyards to provide a steady wine supply. (Now you know why there are so many churches and monasteries spread around the region.)
Soon the vineyards of Rueda became the primary wine suppliers to the medieval Castilian court. This prominence in the wine production of Spain continued until the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1909 and 1922, phylloxera devastated about two thirds of the vineyards in this region. (Of course, it also hit the vineyards in the rest of Spain and Europe.) After phylloxera, the vineyards were replanted with the Palomino grape that has a very high yield. Because this grape’s wines were not as good as those made from Rueda’s original variety, the region’s reputation for good wine was diminished. Then the Spanish Civil War and World War II took their toll on Rueda’s wine business.
Fortunately, in the 1970’s, Marques de Riscal, a leading wine producer from nearby Rioja, came to Rueda to make crisp, dry, white wines. He chose to do this with Rueda’s original white grape variety — Verdejo. Others, at the same time, were working to restore the Verdejo, and the white wines of Rueda, to their former glory. It was these combined efforts that lead to the DO being declared in 1980.
Today, Rueda is the country’s leading premium still white wine appellation. These wines must be a minimum 75% Verdejo, with bits of Viura (Macabeo) and Sauvignon Blanc also allowed. The yield allowed here is 8,000 kg/ha (kilograms of grapes to hectare). These numbers never mean all that much to me except when they tell me that usually the yield is only 25 to 50 percent of that so the wines we get are sure to be better.
So, what is Verdejo? It is a “vitis vinifera” variety. It is not the same variety as the Portuguese and Australian variety Verdelho. DNA testing says so, but the names really are so close that it is confusing. Verdejo makes light-bodied white wines and is aromatic with delicate floral notes and hints of citrus and green herbs. If you are familiar with star fruit, this is the perfect flavor description for good Verdejo wines that have a crisp acidity. With barrel fermentation and some skin contact, Verdejo can make richer, fuller bodied wines, which doesn’t mean heavy like some Napa Valley Chardonnays, just heavier than without the special treatment. This grape is very susceptible to oxidation also, so it is used in the production of Sherry too. As a rule, the grapes are harvested at night. The cooler night temperatures help ensure the right balance of sugar and acidity the grapes for the best wines. Also, there is less oxidation and browning of the juice at cooler temperatures.
Our Verdejo wine comes from the Bodega Val de Vid that is located in the heart of Rueda. In 1996, Jose Antonio Merayo built this winery and planted 44 acres of Verdejo and six other acres with Viura and a little Sauvignon Blanc. Located on ancient alluvial soils from the Duero River and its tributaries, Val de Vid vineyards benefit from dry hot days and cool nights. This clay and sand soil is light, deep, rocky and not very rich in minerals: all characteristics that are well suited to Verdejo. The grapes are planted on south-facing slopes at an altitude of 700 meters. Fermentation is done at a cool 14 to 15 degrees centigrade to enhance both the wine’s flavors and acidity. Then, short term contact with the lees strengthens the wine’s structure.
Maybe now would be a good time to let you know the name of our wine? Condessa Eylo. Or, more properly, Bodega Val de Vid Condessa Eylo Rueda. Must be royalty with a long name like that. But let’s just stick with Condessa Eylo (pronounced Ee-low, as I was told) or, even easier, just Condessa. So, Condessa is made from 97% Verdejo and 3% Sauvignon Blanc. In it melon flavors are mixed with lemon, orange and yellow apple flavors also. There is a hint of herbal flavors on the finish, in particular lavender that I love in a wine. It has no oak aging and they only make 100,000 bottles. Divided by 12, that’s 8,333 cases, which, in the world of wines and what some wineries make, is not much at all. Every bottle is produced at the bodega under the watchful eye of founder Jose Antonio Merayo.
And what can you eat with this wine? Besides traditional Spanish tapas, it goes well with seafood, pasta, risotto and, of course, paella. Visitors at the winery can expect ingredients such as wild morels, caramelized broccoli and Parmesan cheese. The menu also features grilled sea bass with jasmine rice; bacon crusted swordfish with grilled portabello mushrooms; and potato-crusted grouper with shiitake mushrooms. As you can see, seafood is not light fare there but the Condessa works with all of them.
But, I’m hungry now, and into my second glass of Condessa, so I’d better get to the kitchen and see how close I can come to one of their meals before I run out of wine. But at only $10.99 at bottle, it’s good to know this delectable new white is within reach all summer long. Enjoy.
By Celia Strong