Many years ago, on a hot summer night in New York City, I was introduced to my first white Rioja, which was made made by Marques de Murrieta, and in spite of the lack of air conditioning in my friend’s five-floor walk-up, the wine was magnificent. At six years old, which at the time seemed ancient, it was a fragrant wonder with an oxidative note that gave it a swath of flavor and coupled with bracing acidity, incredible length.
Since then I’ve become a white Rioja hound. Traditionally, the Spanish wines have been aged in oak barrels for an extended period of time, often without being topped off, creating a sherry-like oxidative character that can age for decades. Bodegas Lopez de Heredia, a heralded old-school Rioja producer, has become especially famous for its white bottlings, some of which are released 10 years after the vintage. These wines can reach the heights of France’s Montrachet, for a lot less money.
In the late 1990s, I started to notice a different style of white Rioja sprouting up, one that strove for freshness over complexity. While some were pleasant enough, nothing really set them apart from the mass of other neutral, crisp white wines that inhabit the planet. Happily, white Rioja has continued to evolve with other grapes being used and greater stylistic variation. Viura continues to be the mainstay, but other grapes have been “discovered” in the vineyards.
Unfortunately, white Rioja has never been that easy to come by, mostly anywhere outside of Spain. However, instead of shying away from the wines as many suppliers have done in the past, several boutique Spanish wine importers have embraced and championed them, both the traditional wines and those that are even more esoteric. Here are a few to check out:
Viña Ijalba Maturana Blanca, 2012
Maturana blanca was the first recorded grape variety in the region in 1622 and Ijalba is one of the very few producers who work with the grape. Fermented in French oak barrels and aged on its lees for four months, this wine typically has faint wood aromas that dissipate after a few years, but the current incarnation is quite tasty with hints of citrus and tropical fruits. Suggested retail: $20
Bodegas Hermanos Senorio Pecina Rioja Blanca, 2007
Hermanos Pecina has two white wines, this one and one that is aged in barrique. Composed entirely of viura grapes, it was aged in stainless steel tanks on its lees for less than half a year. While it does not have the volume of a more traditional, oak-aged white Rioja, it has morphed into a beauty over time with green apple, quince, mineral underpinnings and a long, almond-like finish. Suggested retail: $20
La Crusset La Bella Fernanda, 2012
Tempranillo blanco was discovered in the Rioja Baja region of Spain just over a quarter century ago. A cutting was taken, tested and officially sanctioned in 2007. Oscar Reboredo and Luis Palacios of La Crusset jumped on it right away and are now not only one of the few wineries to work with this grape but also, the only organic producer of tempranillo blanco in the world. Fermented in stainless steel, it was aged in American oak barrels for 100 days with daily stirring during the first month and then transferred back to tank for three months. Full-bodied and lushly layered with citrus, minerals, tobacco, integrated vanilla spiced wood and a firm chord of acidity, it leaves its mark. Suggested retail: $22
Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.Bodegas Hermanos Senorio PecinaFeaturesFood & DrinkFood and WineViña Ijalba Maturanawhite Rioja