Before you start wondering exactly what I mean by “weird places,” let me assure you I’m talking geography here. For those whose proclivities have already taken them to another track all together, I’ll see what I can do to craft a follow-up post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you . . . .
Lately it seems that I’ve been drinking a lot of strange wine. When I say strange, I don’t mean that the wine itself is weird, but that the grape varieties used to make the wine aren’t normally grown within the region. Some of my recent experiences, once you think about it, aren’t all that weird after all, say, Albariño from Uruguay, or Tannat from Brazil. Considering the number of Spaniards that colonized South America, finding a Spanish variety outside the beaches of Punta del Este strikes me as inevitable. And, having just spent a few weeks researching the wines of Brazil, Tannat from the southernmost reaches of that country is unsurprising. But what about Gewurztraminer from Rioja?
Are you still with me? Or have you doubled over with laughter, convinced that I’ve gone off my rocker? Stick with me, there’s a good story here. And yes, I really did say Gewurztraminer from Rioja. That Rioja, the one in Spain. It’s part of the Spanish White Guerrilla Wine Project at Castillo de Maetierra, the creation of José Miguel Arambarri Terrero, a well-known entrepreneur. His goal? To reinvigorate the white wine industry of Rioja by focusing on two major issues: recovering the Muscat à Petits Grains vines that were obliterated by phylloxera 100 years ago, and to bolster production of white varieties not included in the original Rioja DOC.
Shaking Things Up in Red Wine Territory
His approach is novel (or heretical, if you happen to be slavishly devoted to the status quo.) After watching white grape plantings slide downward for twenty years, along with Rioja’s share of the white wine market, José Miguel decided to shake things up. His project takes a market-based approach, with an eye toward crafting wines that customers want – which often means fresh, aromatic, and fruity wines that can be drunk young. He believes that the best way to accomplish his goal is to expand the range of grape varieties available, making it possible to offer a broad portfolio of wines of all styles. Taking his cue from winemakers who made the first Super Tuscans (defying DOC regulations on approved grape varieties) he began blending these “outlier” grapes with the local Viura and Malvasía. José Miguel described his venture as “defending the quality of Spanish white wines.”
So in his vigorous defense of Spanish vino, he began planting non-native varieties like Viognier, Chardonnay, Riesling and, yes, Gewurztraminer. And he brought in grapes that had already found comfortable homes in other parts of Spain – Albariño from Rías Baixas and Verdejo from Rueda – and planted them, too. Working with the regional government of La Rioja, he launched the Vinos de la Tierra de Valles de Sadacia, specializing in white wines only, and covering four of the seven valleys of Rioja: Iregua, Leza, Cidacos, and Alhama. But perhaps more important, for purposes of his experiment, are the unknown villages where he has put down stakes, many of them not included (or subject to) the regulations of the Rioja DOC.
Thus far, Castillo de Maetierra, has produced wine under three labels:
Libalis – three wines based on Muscat: a sweet white, a dry white, and a dry rosé that is a blend of Muscat and Syrah.
Melante – the first sweet, white wine from Muscat produced in Rioja; and Melante Colección, a vin doux naturel fermented in French oak, and produced only in exceptional years.
Spanish White Guerrilla – white varietal wines based on grapes atypical of the region, such as Riesling, Viognier, Verdejo, and Gewurztraminer. To date, Viognier, Verdejo, and Gewurztraminer have shown much promise, delivering aromatic wines with lively acidity.
In addition to shaking up the type of white wine made in Rioja, Castillo de Maetierra takes its responsibility to local farmers and producers seriously. Its website and press kit lay out the following guiding principles that spring directly from the values they hold dear. I’ve summarized them below:
- Produce innovative wines that are young, fresh, and dynamic and that will broaden our customer base.
- Uphold the local interests of people living in La Rioja.
- Remain open and pluralistic, supporting entrepreneurs, farmers, and winemakers, inviting all to participate in crafting the vision of the future.
- Maintain a focus on quality products by staying agile and efficient in how we do business. This includes fostering sustainable viticulture practices wherever possible, using native plant species to limit erosion and soil compaction, and to replenish the organic matter throughout the vineyards.
I find myself rooting for this team, hoping that they can build a solid business model atop their idealistic foundation. Who’s with me?
2011 Maetierra Spanish White Guerrilla Gewurztraminer (12% alcohol; retail price about $11)
Right off the bat I noticed the wine’s deep golden color; it reminded me of a dessert wine. Even my husband, who’s not so into wine, remarked on it. Then the seductive aromas began to emerge: white pepper, honey, candied citrus, and a spicy floral component I can’t put my finger on. When I describe Gewurztraminer to people who are new to wine, I ask them to imagine Ginger from Gilligan’s Island in vinous form. That’s Gewurz! Well, this particular wine didn’t disappoint, on the nose at least. A sip left me a little puzzled: where were all those voluptuous aromas and flavors I was expecting? While delicious, it seemed much more restrained than I wanted it to be. That probably had more to do with its age than anything else, but still. I wanted Ginger! All in all, this wine was pretty, and it still had enough acidity to pair really nicely with fresh swordfish topped with pineapple, tomato, and jalapeno salsa (below). Bottom line: If you see a bottle of Guerrilla Gewurz in your local shop, don’t hesitate to invite it to dinner. You’ll be in for a fun adventure!