White Rioja: There’s a Style for Every Palate (#worldwinetravel)

Four ways to explore Rioja Blanco: I wish you could see the range of colors!

Welcome to the inaugural voyage of the World Wine Travel group! Started – and hosted this month – by Jeff of FoodWineClick, we’ll spend 2021 visiting the wine regions of Spain, exploring their culture and cuisine. Of course we’ll also taste some really fabulous wines!

Going forward, we’ll gather on Twitter the fourth Saturday of each month to share our tasting notes, food pairings, and travel tales. January’s topic is Rioja (read Jeff’s invitation post here), and we’ll be chatting at 11 am ET on January 23rd. Follow the hashtag #worldwinetravel and add your comments. All are welcome.

Scroll to the bottom of this post to see what each of the participants will add to the convo.

In a Sea of Red Wine, White Rioja Stands Out

Given that white wine comprises just 10% of production in Rioja, it’s not surprising that these wines are less well-known. Such a shame, really, as they come in a range of styles: from youthful, fruit-forward wines to complex oak-aged examples, these wines are deserving of our attention. On occasion they warrant contemplation.

For Immediate Enjoyment: Joven Wines

These wines are no more than 15 months old and have no oak influence: they’re fermented in stainless steel vats under cool conditions, with the goal of preserving the fruit’s primary aromas. Not the traditional way of producing Rioja Blanco (more on that in a moment) this style was more of an adaptation of the methods used to great success in Rías Baixas (Albariño) and Rueda (Verdejo). What’s in the bottle is fresh and light, full of citrus and orchard fruit. They make great apéritifs and pair well with lighter dishes. As they’re less expensive to make (no barrels; no time spent aging in the cellar) these wines are approachable and very easy to like.

CVNE’s Monopole is fresh, light, and perfect with grilled fish.

A perfect example of this style is CVNE’s Monopole.

CVNE stands for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, and was established in 1879 by brothers Eusebio and Raimondo Real de Asúa. The fifth generation runs the enterprise today, including 1,350 acres of vineyards directly owned by the family and which account for 50% of CVNE’s production.

The 2019 Monopole is pale lemon-green with aromas of white flowers, apple, pear, and hay. On the palate it is lemony, with flavors of green apple; medium+ acidity. The finish is moderate in length and has a tempting savory quality to it. Really delicious and drinks way above its modest price tag.

For the Patient Wine Lover: Oak-Aged, Golden Delights

According to Eric Asimov of the New York Times, “Good white Rioja is not so much about fruit as it is about the absence of it.” That’s quite a statement but, after having tasted two wines from López de Heredia, I completely understand it.

White Rioja was traditionally made from a Viura-dominant blend, with support from Garnacha Blanca and Malvasía Riojana. A few other Spanish grapes (Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanco, and Turruntés de Rioja) were permitted but seldom used. In 2007 the Consejo Regulador added Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Verdejo to the mix, allowing varietal wines to be made from these grapes as of 2017.

The famous castle at López de Heredia, specialists in producing long-aged white Rioja wines.

In the 1970s, these wines would come from fruit of old vines planted in poor, rocky soils. Viura, a high-acid, neutral grape would be blended with Malvasía Riojana, a variety prone to oxidation and one that would soften Viura’s acidity and contribute color. Skin contact before or during fermentation (often in barrel) was not uncommon. Winemakers typically used native yeasts, allowed malolactic conversion to take place, and allowed the wine to rest on its lees, with regular bâtonnage.

Classic Rioja Blanco aged for extended periods in neutral oak, allowing the slow development of tertiary aromas and flavors, and concentrating the wine’s color to a deep gold. After bottling, it aged further in the winery’s cellar until deemed ready for release.

I recently tasted two such wines, both from esteemed producer R. López de Heredia.

Four years in barrel give this 100% Viura wine time to evolve.
Still remarkably youthful in appearance after almost 20 years. How long can it go?

2011 R. López de Heredia Viña Gravonia Crianza

100% Viura, this wine has a gorgeous deep yellow-gold robe, testament to the four years it spent in barrel, with twice-per-year rackings. It was fined with fresh egg whites but was not filtered. Aromas of dried citrus peel (lemon, orange, grapefruit) and herbs; a hint of mushroom; and a nutty combination of almond and hazelnut. On the palate it was lively, with medium+ acidity, candied lemon, marzipan, and a savory-caramel-like sensation that lasted forever on the finish. A gorgeous wine, and a wonderful welcome into the world of aged white Rioja.

The Tondonia is a complex array of aromas and flavors. Even after a few days, it was still evolving.

2007 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva

90% Viura and 10% Malvasía Riojana, this wine was fermented in oak without skin contact. It aged for six years in barrel, with twice-yearly rackings. As with the Gravonia, it was fined with egg whites but not filtered. A bit deeper in color than the first wine (all gold!) it also had more pronounced tertiary aromas and flavors – especially upon uncorking. Dried fruit, slate-like minerality, forest floor, almonds – the aromas kept evolving as the hours passed by. Even two days after opening, this wine kept popping up new things to smell and taste.

Christmas Eve dinner of homemade white bean soup with ham was a great partner for the Reserva.

The palate was similar to the Gravonia but just, well, more. This wine was extra in all the good ways. I was amazed at how complex it was, how generous it was: I’m now an avowed devotée of aged white Rioja wines.

A Little Taste of Both Worlds

For those whose palates crave a fruit-forward wine with a bit of added complexity, but who perhaps aren’t quite ready to dive into full-on tertiary territory, there are wines that have elements of both.

Most of these wines are fermented in barrels – for a hint of oak influence – but are not aged for long periods of time. There is no oxidative character, no deep gold color. CVNE makes a special version of its Monopole wine, called Monopole Barrel Ferment. I haven’t tasted it but imagine it’s similar to the wine I described earlier but with a rounder texture and some secondary aromas from the time in barrel.

What I did taste was a wine that, in my opinion, truly occupies the middle ground between modern-day Rioja Blanco and the old-school, classic wines: CVNE’s Monopole Clásico.

I’d been wanting to taste this wine for a while; it exceeded my expectations.

Monopole was first produced in 1915, making it the oldest white wine brand in Spain. It is made much differently today than it was originally: today the free-run juice is fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats for a fruity, fresh wine that is ready to drink. At its inception, Monopole was barrel-aged in Manzanilla Sherry casks that held a bit of residual wine. The resulting wine was rich, with a hint of yeasty flor character, a style that remained popular until the 1980s, when consumer tastes turned toward unoaked, fruit-forward wines.

Back label art shows “la elaboración de blancos” in the 1960s.

CVNE still makes a version of Monopole that pays tribute to the original wine. It’s called Monopole Clásico, and is aged in barrels, as per tradition, with a small quantity of Manzanilla Sherry. Grapes are fermented in stainless steel vats at low temperatures; the wine is then transferred to large, used oak barrels, when the aged Manzanilla sherry is added.

Note: this would usually be a violation of Consejo Regulador rules for Rioja production. But, because the original wine was made in this fashion, CVNE received a dispensation allowing them to continue the process.

Chicken breasts marinated in sour cream and onions, breaded in panko and pan fried were delish with the Clásico.

How did it smell/taste? While not as complex as the López de Heredia wines, this one still had plenty to say. Less tertiary character but a step up from the primary fruit focus of the Joven wine, this Monopole Clásico offered bewitching aromas of beeswax, dried apple and pear, almond paste, and citrus zest. On the palate it was still quite fruity, very pleasant and approachable; but the finish hinted at its classic origins and the tiny bit of Manzanilla added to barrel. It in no way tastes like Sherry but there was a little saline/umami note that pumped the experience up a notch. I loved the one-foot-in-both-worlds personality of this wine. It was delicious and mysterious; a wine trip I’d like to take again.

My Take-Away

Rioja Blanco is an underappreciated treasure. The fresh, young wines are a pleasure to drink and won’t bust the budget. The longer-aged, traditional style wines are remarkably complex and worthy of exploration. And where else can you buy a high-quality, barrel-aged wine from one of the old world´s classic regions for around $50? I, for one, will be continuing this research project!

Here’s what the rest of the World Wine Travel bloggers are posting today:

References for this Post:

R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, S.A. (lopezdeheredia.com)

Amazing White Rioja Wines | Wine Folly

White Rioja: Great value wines to try – Decanter expert guide

The Rebirth of White – Rioja’s Lesser Known Side | Foods and Wines from Spain (foodswinesfromspain.com)

White Rioja (bnpdist.com)

White Rioja (wordpress.com)

White Rioja – an underrated classic? | Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page (wordpress.com)

Wine Store | Wine Importer | Wine Distributor – Rare Wine Co. Interview with Maria de Lopez de Heredia

Cune – Rare Wine Co.

López de Heredia Rioja – Rare Wine Co.

The New White Rioja: Progress or Perdition? : Vinography

Monople Clásico, the return of a Spanish classic | Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page (wordpress.com)

Castillo Ygay White 1986 | Marqués de Murrieta (marquesdemurrieta.com)

27 comments

  1. We’re delighted to see you shine a light on white wines from Rioja. We love the reds but our very first visit to the region opened our eyes to them and we’ve never looked back. Still (in our humble opinions) underrated and undervalued and always surprise guests when we serve them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know so little about white Rioja and I’ve never had the opportunity to try one but your descriptions are so amazing that I both feel like I tasted them vicariously and am even more anxious to try one myself!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an amazing dive into White Rioja! I learned so much from this piece! I tastedd one of those in between wines, barrel femented with limited aging. I now understand more of it’s place in White Rioja. Great piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hadn’t heard of Monopole Clásico wine with sherry, gosh I’d love to taste it! And that they received dispensation to continue making it… reminds me of the Slow Food Ark of Taste. If it’s not already on it, it should be! Super article Lauren!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great look at Rioja white wines! So underappreciated and these are excellent examples of the range of styles. I hadn’t seen the Monopole classico, and now am very intrigued and will have to keep an eye out!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I feel like my eyes have been opened up to the world of white Rioja. In the textbooks, the whites of this region are glossed over. You’ve shown, Lauren, that they are worthy of a deep dive. Hoping to take my own plunge sometime soon. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! You really showed out on Rioja Whites Lauren! I’ve got a bottle of that Cune Monopole you’ve inspired me to get to sooner rather than later. Your description of the Rioja Blancos as an underappreciated treasure is spot on! Great pairings too! Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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