Rioja Makes a White Turn

By James Lawrence, | February 8, 2023

There’s a quiet revolution going on in Spain’s most famous wine region.

In 2023, it wouldn’t be considered lunacy to incinerate a whole load of underperforming red vineyards in Rioja, and replace them en mass with Viura.

How did this happen? It’s all the fault of consumers, who continue to gravitate towards white, rosé, and sparkling wines at the expense of red. According to Rioja’s Consejo Regulador production of white Rioja accounted for 9.72 percent of the total volume in 2021, compared to just 5 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the acreage planted to white varieties has increased by almost 50 percent since 2015.

“We now produce over 300,000 bottles of white Rioja at Nivarius,” says Borja Larocca, international sales director at Vinos de Finca Palacios (Nivarius’ parent company). “We will expand production when we find suitable and quality vineyard sites that are available to buy”

This is occurring all over Europe. The head of Inter Rhône, an organization that represents growers in the Rhône Valley, recently announced plans to double the area’s production of white wines due to rising demand. Stories like this are doing the rounds every month – the investment into categories that offer a more sustainable future. Last year, several producers in Rioja told me that they intend to grub up some of their Tempranillo vines – or pay their growers to do it for them – and replace them with white varieties. Yet I was instructed, without a hint of ambiguity, not to divulge names, so I obeyed.

“A recent and very fast increase in the demand of white Rioja is, for sure,  leading growers to try to produce more,” says Jose Urtasun, owner of Remirez de Ganuza.  “If this consumer interest keeps rising, bodegas will probably plant more white varieties for the future. It is also important to mention that due to global warming, Tempranillo will suffer from extreme temperatures more often in the future and one solution is to plant other varieties, including some white ones.”

Today, there is scarcely a leading Rioja producer that does not dabble in white wine. Roda launched a new cuvée in 2022 – CVNE reintroduced a white brand in 2021, Monopole Gran Reserva, after a long hiatus. Indeed, there is no paucity of choice for buyers who wish to look beyond Meursault. A brief enumeration: Abel Mendoza 5V, Finca Allende Blanco, Marqués de Murrieta Capellania, Palacios Remondo ‘Placet’,  Remirez de Ganuza Olagar, Remulluri Blanco, Viña Tondonia Blanco, Valenciso Blanco.  And to think – most US consumers had no idea that Rioja was a multicolor region until quite recently.

Something for everyone

White Rioja is a very heterogeneous category, featuring both single-varietal and blended styles, retailing at everything from less than $12 (Campo Viejo Blanco) to more than $700 for the 1986 vintage of Castillo Ygay’s Gran Reserva Especial.  It’s all here: single-vineyard expressions; 100-percent Grenache Blanc whites; Tempranillo Blanco on steroids.  Telmo Rodriguez, meanwhile, pairs Chardonnay with Roussanne, Marsanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Garnacha Blanc, Moscatel del Pais, and Viognier in the 2019 Remulluri Blanco. I swear you’ve never tasted anything like it.

That said, many of my favorite wines are built around Viura’s pliable temperament,  judiciously aged in wood (now rarely American) to bring out a satisfying dollop of creamy richness and complexity. I defy anyone to turn their noses up at well-made, premium Rioja Blanco. It has become one of España’s safest bets, all ripe fruit this, and honeysuckle that.

However,  I’m more than a little biased. I spent some of my formative years in Spain; Rioja was the first region I visited and  Tondonia was the first premium Spanish white that passed over my palate. It was love at first sight – albeit, back then, there was relatively little competition.

The history of white Rioja is a twisty-turny tale: in the 1980s, almost 25 percent of the total vineyard area was planted to white varieties.  But jump into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and you’ll find a sea of white grapes in the late 1700s, with red varieties representing the minority. It was the Bordelais who helped to snuff out Rioja’s white wine industry; merchants needed new sources of plonk after phylloxera gobbled up Bordeaux’s vineyards in the 19th Century. Sadly, the acreage had dwindled away to almost nothing by the mid-2000s.

Then came the resurgence. Of course, one does not want to exaggerate; about one bottle of Rioja in 10 is currently white wine. Neither is all Rioja Blanco lip-smackingly good. Commercial wines seldom rise above the level of drinkable, if anodyne, weekend fodder.

Fortunately, there are others who aspire to greatness.  In 2021, Remirez de Ganuza released its inaugural vintage (2013) of the Olagar Gran Reserva Blanco. According to Urtasun, every allocation was sold in three weeks. “I have been desperately trying to increase the production of our white wines since the release of Remirez de Ganuza Blanco in the summer of 2015. Back in 2015, what was limiting us the most was that we didn’t have enough high-quality old vines,” he explains.

“However, since then we have managed to purchase some excellent quality old vineyards – nowadays we are more limited by the conditions at the winery than by the vineyards. Over the next few years, hopefully, we will be able to build a new space for white production and increase both quality and quantity little by little, but it´s going to take a while.”

His one fear, however, is that the market will be saturated in the coming years with labels based on young vines. “As has happened many times before, we will fail if the trend is only driven by the demand,” says Urtasun.

“So we have to make sure that we increase only not the volume exported, but the quality and  prestige of the wines and the region as well. If we overly rely on young vineyards, we will produce poor wines and stifle demand. This has to be done properly.”

Nevertheless, while we’re a long way off Rioja becoming a white-dominant vineyard, Urtasan concedes that returning to the glory days of the 18th Century is a distinct possibility. “Rising demand for premium whites, coupled with skyrocketing Burgundy prices, is forcing sommeliers to look elsewhere. This is our moment – our opportunity.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of consumer are discovering the truth: barrel-aged white Rioja can challenge the greatest wines of Puligny-Montrachet and Pessac-Leognan. But, for the most part, it’s cheap at half the price. ¡Olé!

Photo courtesy of Christopher Winkler from Pixably