Though Spain is better known for the red wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, the Rueda, located north east of Madrid, is home to arguably Spain’s best white wine, Verdejo. Similar in style and characteristics to Pinot Gris, Verdejo fully expresses itself in the high altitude of Rueda where it showcases lemon and citrus, minerality and above all, a sharp acidity which makes it compelling with the tapas so that are so ubiquitous around the region. It’s also inexpensive, with bottles exported to the U.S. usually less than $15. Verdejo has been planted in this area for over a thousand years, and it’s believed it was brought to Spain by the Moors. Some producing vines date as far back 130 years. However it has been only in the last few decades that Verdejo has proved to be the best fit for the cooler Rueda region.
Winemaker Pablo del Villar of Bodegas Hermanos del Villar says, “Verdejo is ideally suited to the poor soils and harsh environment in Rueda.” The stress on the vines and wide diurnal swings, where daytime temperatures can tumble as much as 25 degrees at night, help to create the fundamental acidity that Verdejo is known for. Rueda itself is geographically unremarkable; mainly flatlands, though high in altitude, about 2,300 feet above sea level for most of the region and some areas even get snowfall. The majority of vineyards are bush types, low to the ground which spread out their leaves along the sandy, rocky soils to absorb the sun. The area is also dotted with pine nuts trees; thin trunked trees with a round canopy which makes them look like lollipops. Palomino, Sauvignon Blanc and Viura are also planted here, but they pale by comparison.
There are fewer than 60 wineries in Rueda, and only a handful of those allow public tastings. But things are changing. The grape is catching on everywhere, so much so that acreage has doubled since 2005 and other regions in Spain are beginning to plant it. But like any signature grape, to understand its true identity you need to go to the source.
I visited Rueda in April, 2010 which allowed me the luxury to visit with producers, winemakers and growers, and sample more than 100 Verdejos in and around Rueda. The end result has been a newfound affinity for this white grape. At its best Verdejo is sharp and clean with lemon and lime notes, a backbone of minerality and a potent acidity. That may sound simple, but crafting excellent wines is not a simple process. It was also clear that many producers are trying their hand at a barrel fermented version and the results are less than spectacular. Verdejo is best when left alone and the inherent qualities are not interfered with.
“Verdejo is our personality,” says Juan de Benito Ozores, the director general of Bodegas Alvarez y Diez whose Montel Blanco wine is ubiquitous in the States. It’s understandable that any winery portfolio needs diversity and that has driven winemakers to experiment with oak. But thus far, with a few exceptions, Verdejo is best unadulterated. Though the vast majority of Verdejo should be drunk young, on several occasions, I was table to taste verdejos 10 to 12 years old, and while they are still drinkable and enjoyable, they are not compelling. The bright acids work best within recent vintages and the lively freshness of the wine is at its peak. Additionally, the local tapas in the area, most notably in the city of Valladolid, such as white asparagus, chorizo, bacalau (deep fried cod) and torreznos (a pan fried pork) are enhanced by this invigorating, firm young wine.
Some of the consistent producers of Verdejo include the mother/daughter winemaking team at Jose Pariente, Bodegas Lorenzo Cachazo, Bodegas Naia, Bodegas Yllera and Bodegas Nieva, all names to look out for. While visiting Naia I had the fortunate opportunity to taste through all of the 2003-2009 vintages which showed the differences in growing over the years as some of the Verdejos vary in acidity. This isn’t Napa, there are no picturesque tasting rooms dotting the landscape. There are however, dedicated producers who are striving to perfect the grape that is their own. It’s easy to assume that low yields or “proper” spacing of the vines have some impact on the quality of the fruit.
“Mathematics has nothing to do with it. You just have to pay attention to your vines,” says Victoria Pariente, winemaker at Jose Pariente, arguably one of the best Verdejo producers. And she underscores why the wines from Rueda are gaining notoriety; simply put, the winemakers are paying strict attention to their signature grape, making certain the world knows when they reach for Verdejo, it’s classic Verdejo they will get, not some funky blend or well-intentioned winery “project.” Pariente sums up the nature of Verdejo poetically. “Wine is like a bear. When it is cold, the bear wants to hibernate. When it is warmer out, the bear is more active.” Currently the wines from Rueda are indeed active with wonderfully crafted juice that truly reflects a sense of place.