Rioja is known primarily as a land of red wines, with white wines representing less than 10% of production. In recent years, however, there has been a rise in high-quality white wines made from a variety of native Spanish grape varieties, sparking renewed interest in the region.
Rioja boasts a diverse range of climates and soil types that are ideal for the production of white wines. The region’s mild continental climate, with its Atlantic and Mediterranean influences, provides the perfect conditions for growing white grapes and producing exceptional, age-worthy wines that can stand up to the finest white wines in the world.
The resurgence of white wine in Rioja has been met with great excitement among oenophiles and industry experts, and the region’s whites are now highly coveted in the global market, elevating the reputation of Rioja as a region renowned not only for ageworthy reds, but for outstanding wines, full stop.
This burgeoning trend has been fueled in part by the expanding global appetite for unique white wines, the rediscovery of old grape varieties, and the adoption of traditional and modern winemaking techniques.
A long history of white wine production
Historically, white Rioja has been made in two main styles: Classic, oak-aged cuvées with abundant tertiary flavors of dried fruits, honey, and fresh dough, like the iconic Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva from López de Heredia and Castillo Ygay from Marqués de Murrieta; and fresh and fruity wines which became popular in the 1970s with the advent of temperature-controlled fermentation.
Today, there are numerous examples of distinctive, gastronomic wines from a new generation of winemakers, which has injected a level of youthful energy into the region, while at the same time paying tribute to the classic styles of the past.
Viura, the leading white grape
The primary white grape in Rioja is Viura, also known as Macabeo in the rest of Spain, which accounts for nearly 70% of white grape plantings. It’s a vigorous, neutral variety that makes versatile, food-friendly wines with subtle citrus and green apple notes and moderate acidity.
In the past, the grape acquired a bad reputation for making simple, unexciting wines, especially when planted in fertile soils at high yields. As Eduardo Hernaiz from Finca La Emperatriz explains, “Viura was historically used to add acidity and floral aromas, and to stabilize the color in red Rioja blends.”
However, when grown in the right sites – particularly on clay and limestone soils – and with careful vinification, it can produce complex, nuanced wines with great depth and character. “It is a noble grape variety capable of greatness,” asserts Abel Mendoza, the iconic winemaker who’s long advocated for Rioja’s white varieties.
Outstanding examples of Viura-based wines include Alegre Valgañón 3er Año, a blend of Viura and Garnacha Blanca aged in oak for 42 months for a nutty, oxidative style; Pretium Blanco, a flinty, mineral-driven wine from some of the coldest vineyards in Rioja; and Remirez de Ganuza Gran Reserva, an aromatic, complex white with subtle oak notes, waxy texture, and refreshing acidity.
The rediscovery of old varieties
In 2009, the Consejo Regulador encouraged the planting of native Spanish varieties Garnacha Blanca, Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, and Malvasía de Rioja. Several of them were brought back from near extinction. All of these grapes have long been grown in the region but fell out of favor until a group of innovative winemakers started to focus on native white varieties, so far with impressive results.
Garnacha Blanca makes textured, full-bodied wines that, according to many, have some of the longest aging potential among Rioja whites. Víctor Ausejo, a Garnacha Blanca specialist, makes the floral, peppery, perfumed Garnacha Blanca Parcela 333 sourced from a single vineyard in the Leza Valley and aged on its lees in stainless steel for 10 months.
Maturana Blanca is one of the oldest grape varieties recorded in Rioja, recently rediscovered by pioneering winemaker Juan Carlos Sancha. It makes semi-aromatic wines with bracing acidity, grass, citrus, and green apples notes, and a refreshingly bitter finish.
Great examples of monovarietal expressions of the variety include Ad Libitum Maturana Blanca, a savory wine with a creamy texture and saline finish; and Nivarius Finca La Nevera, an aromatic wine from grapes sourced from a high-altitude vineyard in the Iregua Valley, offering zesty citrus notes and linear acidity.
Malvasía de Rioja, locally known as Rojal, is a semi-aromatic variety that has been used in the region to add body and spicy notes in blends. Abel Mendoza, a champion of traditional winemaking who is obsessed with terroir, makes a refined expression of the variety that combines white flowers and stone fruit aromas with a deft touch of wood. Brian MacRobert from MacRobert & Canals affirms that the limestone soils of Rioja Alavesa are ideal for growing white grape varieties like Malvasia. His Laventura Malvasia Blanca, from old, high altitude, dry-farmed vines, is a tangy, floral, skin-contact wine fermented and aged in concrete.
Tempranillo Blanco. This white mutation of Tempranillo – discovered in 1988 — is the most widely-planted of the new white varieties. It makes aromatic wines with floral and tropical fruit notes and refreshing acidity. A great example is the Viña Pomal Tempranillo Blanco, a project of vineyard-specific, single-varietal wines from Bodegas Bilbaínas.
Traditional and Modern Winemaking
A new generation of winemakers is introducing fresh perspectives and revisiting age-old techniques to produce quality white wines that can rival those from other regions around the world. White Riojas have historically been made in an oxidative style, often undergoing fermentation and aging in oak barrels. Nowadays, many wineries are experimenting with skin contact, extended lees aging, and alternative aging vessels, including larger oak barrels, concrete tanks, and clay amphorae, in order to add greater complexity, structure, and longevity to their wines.
Bodegas Javier San Pedro Ortega Viuda Negra Villahuercos is a 100% Tempranillo Blanco wine from a small parcel in Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa) that is aged for 11 months in 500L oak and acacia barrels. Bodegas Tierra Fidel, a field blend of seven white varieties from centenarian vines, matures for eight months in 700L oak foudres. Bodegas Manzanos also makes an orange-style Tempranillo Blanco that macerates on its skins for seven days followed by six months of aging in oak barrels. It has notes of orange peel, candied fruit, toast, and a light tannic grip on the finish.
As the global demand for white wine continues to surge and consumers become more eager to discover lesser-known wines, the white wines of Rioja – with their refreshing acidity and versatile flavor profiles – are proving to be particularly sought-after, offering a vast array of styles that range from light and refreshing to rich, full-bodied, and complex.
The resurgence of white Rioja is on track to solidify the region as a producer of top-quality, premium white wines. With its diversity of native grape varieties and innovative winemaking, Rioja is poised to emerge as a significant player in the white wine category in the years ahead. Whether you are a fan of classic Rioja whites or are eager to try something new and unique, Rioja is certainly a region to keep on your radar.