First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 20th August, 2022
We love Albariño in this country. It has taken off over the past few years, to become one of our favourite white wines. While there is no doubting its appeal, Spain also produces a host of other very good white wines. There are plenty from Galicia yet to receive due attention, and other regions too, including Rioja, which is starting to produce some fantastic, eclectic white wine. Yet the first to come to international notice was the Verdejo grape from the Rueda region.
Rueda is a region with a long and noble wine history that has only recently been rediscovered. Legend has it that well-known Rioja producer Marqués de Riscal wanted to produce a white wine to match their red wines. At that time, most white Rioja lacked excitement, so their winemaker, Hurtado de Amézaga, and a French wine consultant travelled the country to find a suitable site. They advised Riscal to plant in the Rueda region of Spain. The region had a reputation going back centuries for producing an oxidative amontillado-style wine, but the team believed it was the best place to produce fresh, crisp, modern white wines.
The first vines they planted were Sauvignon Blanc, and the wine was universally acclaimed, but pretty soon they discovered Verdejo, an indigenous variety, that produced excellent fresh, aromatic, dry wines, sometimes uncannily like Sauvignon Blanc. The region was granted official DO status in 1980. Fast-forward 40 years and there are almost 70 producers and 1,500 growers in Rueda.
What makes Rueda special is the combination of climate and geography. On an elevated plateau a two-hour drive north of Madrid, the region enjoys a continental climate with bitterly cold winters and very hot summers, conditions perfect for ripening grapes, while still retaining acidity thanks to very cold night-time temperatures. The lack of rain means organic viticulture is widely practised, if rarely certified.
Other grape varieties are permitted including Sauvignon Blanc, but Verdejo makes up almost 90 per cent of the vineyard area. It can be used to make sparkling wine, or the traditional oxidative Dorado, but the vast majority are light dry wines.
Most of the wines are aromatic, light- to medium-bodied, usually unoaked, with herbal notes, vibrant acidity and stone fruits. There are one or two ambitious producers such as Belondrade experimenting with new oak and making spectacularly good wines.
SuperValu has the Albali (€12.99), the El Velero (€8) and earlier this year was offering the Marqués de Caceres for €10. Tesco has the Sangre de Toro (€11.50-12.50), Molloys has several on offer, and Dunnes Stores has the MasterChef Rueda for €9.80. All of these are perfectly decent, but if you spend a few euro more, you will certainly notice the difference.
Mantel Rueda Blanco 2021, Verdejo
A very moreish dry vin de soif with succulent fleshy pear fruits and a racy citrus acidity. Try it solo, with seafood paella, fish tacos, or soft cheeses with salad.
Rueda 2021, Verdejo, Marqués de Riscal
Floral aromas with a crisp, dry palate featuring lemon zest, pears and nectarines. Drink solo on a summer’s evening or with a seafood risotto.
From: widely available, including Dunnes Stores (€9.60 on promotion), SuperValu; Tesco, Molloys, O’Briens, Bradley’s Cork; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny and many others
Rueda Verdejo 2021, José Pariente
This is a very nicely crafted wine with a beguiling mix of pear and peach fruits, cut through perfectly by a refreshing streak of citrus zest. This would partner nicely with most fish and poultry dishes as well as summery salads and tomato dishes.
From: Wines Direct, Mullingar
Cucu Verdejo 2021, VdT de Castilla y León (organic)
A delightful aromatic with fleshy stone fruits and a mineral tang. Perfect with crispy calamari, a crab salad, or a fennel and olive salad.
From: Blackrock Cellar; Green Man Wines, D6W; Pinto Wines, D9; Martin’s, D3; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Lilliput, D7; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Baggot Street Wines; La Touche, Greystones; The Corkscrew, D2; Fallon & Byrne, D2; Greenville Deli, D6.