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Guest Column: The White Wines of Rioja

Ryan Robinson, Director of Education, Brescome Barton and Worldwide Wines.

By Ryan Robinson, Advanced Sommelier-CMS, WSET Diploma and WSET Educator

Summer is around the corner, and I am always looking for new, fresh styles of white wine to enjoy. Tap into your adventurous spirit to step outside of your comfort zone and join me in embracing the white wines of Rioja! It’s Part Two as promised from last month’s look at reds.

Rioja is a diverse and ever-evolving wine region in northern Spain. Historically, Rioja cultivated more green grape varieties than red. Today, that balance has drastically shifted. When I think of Rioja, red wines of great quality and value immediately come to mind. The mass of the Rioja appellation encompasses three autonomous communities: La Rioja, Álava and Navarra. This growing appellation is protected by two mountain chains and is dissected by one major river with seven river valleys. To add to the diversity, the altitude ranges from 984 to 2,625 feet (300 to 800 meters).

With this wide array of geographic and geologic features, the wines produced here show great variability. If anything, Rioja is so much more than what you think it should be that it warrants a second or third look. Because of this diversity, it is hard to define a singular style of Rioja wine. One thing that is certain: The younger generation is returning to make wine and their style is very different than that of their predecessors.

Currently, white wine makes up 9% of the total wine output, but it is on the rise. These new white wines have been gaining praise from both wine critics and masters of wine. There are fittingly nine authorized green grape varieties allowed in Rioja. The most planted, despite its brief 10-year new planting ban, is Viura (also known as Macabeo, an integral grape in the production of Cava). Viura can build very age-worthy white wines that we find in the market from the traditional producers of Rioja, but it can also display a lively freshness that is quenching in the summer heat.

To me, Viura is akin to Chardonnay. It is like a blank canvas. On its own, it is not very appealing, but with the help of a skilled hand, it can be shaped into something beautiful with its own identity. The winemaking techniques and terroir play a heavy role in sculpting its identity that thrives in the bottle. This grape variety represents about 70% of the green grape plantings in the region, paving the way for great diversity.

Rioja white wines continue to show intrigue. The first Rioja wine to receive a 100-point score from master of wine and wine writer Tim Atkin was a white wine in 2021 with the R. López de Heredia Viña Gravonia 2001. This wine, 100% Viura aged in oak for four years, screams with both body and complexity. A perfect example of the traditional guard in Rioja.

Rioja white wines can also be very fresh and modern with a minimal touch of oak. The new generation of winemakers who are investing in white wine production are passing on the mandatory minimum oak aging of six months for white wines. While these wines still carry the Rioja DOCa label, they are not permitted to use the terms Crianza, Reserva or Grand Reserva. Instead, they are opting for the green Generico label. Don’t be fooled by the misleading name Generico, as there is nothing generic about the new white wines of Rioja! They are crisp and zesty, brimming with freshness, character and complexity.

The wines of Rioja were built on tradition and quality. Great lengths have been undertaken to ensure this continued quality through traceability and enforced standards. These standards have paved the way for the new generation of winemakers as they are allowed to experiment with new methods of production. Be adventurous and try a bottle of Rioja Blanco!

Green Grape Varieties of Rioja:
– Viura
– Malvasía
– Garnacha Blanca
– Tempranillo Blanco
– Maturana Blanca
– Turruntés
– Chardonnay
– Sauvignon Blanc
– Verdejo

Lastly, a quote to share that sums it up nicely: “Rioja whites (wine) are a silver lining in a sea of red. It’s a growing category in an internationally declining wine market. In the last 10 years, their sales more than doubled, which makes Rioja currently the second white wine appellation of Spain. ” – Peter Arjis, Education and Global Projects Manager, Rioja Wine.

Ryan Robinson is the Director of Education for Brescome Barton and Worldwide Wines in Connecticut. He is also the Wine Director for Cornerstone Restaurant Group in North America and South Korea, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of New Haven. He holds the credentials of Advanced Sommelier-CMS; WSET Diploma and WSET Educator in Wine, Sake and Beer; Rioja Wine Educator; Wine Scholar Guild Educator and Spanish Wine Specialist; and Certified Scotch Whisky Professional from the Council of Whiskey Masters.



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