Verdejo from Rueda, Spain: An Original
I love wines from Spain. For many reasons. They’re often inexpensive yet high quality. When they’re good, they’re fresh, layered, and delicious. And maybe best of all, they’re originals – you don’t see every country growing Spanish grapes. These are one of a kind.
The reds are fabulous and what the country is best known for, but the whites are compelling and outstanding too. Albariño from Rias Baixas and the rare white blends of Priorat are particular standouts, but maybe the best white grape of all is Verdejo, a full, creamy, pear and herbal tasting wine with nut and honey notes and enough acid to keep it fresh and lively. This grape -- possibly native to this area, possibly brought by predecessors of the Moors from North Africa --has settled in well and Rueda, located on a 2,300 foot high plain just northeast of Madrid, is where it shines.
In this dry, boring looking plain of north-central Spain, soils are rocky and well-drained. The vines struggle and if they weren’t so drought resistant they wouldn’t survive. Rueda’s climate is like that of any mid-western area — continental with hot summers and cold winters. The day to night temperature swings (diurnals) are extreme, and that means that the grapes can gather acidity in the cool nights to offset the ripeness they get from sitting in the hot sun all day.
Given the location, weather is erratic. Storms whipping over the Iberian peninsula smack the area and frost, wind, hail, and any number of other natural maladies can maim or kill the crops unexpectedly. And one of those maladies, the killer of all European grapevines in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, the phylloxera root bug, kicked the area in the teeth and put Verdejo at risk of falling into obscurity, if not extinction.
After ripping through the area and killing 2/3 of the vines, growers replanted on American grapevine roots (which are resistant to phylloxera, can anchor the plant, and can take a graft from a different grape species with no noticeable flavor difference). But they picked grapes that produced quantity over quality, and Verdejo, a slower grower, got bumped by Sauvignon Blanc and Viura (also used in Cava and white Rioja). Most of the stuff produced from 1922 through the 1970s was Sherry-like wine of variable quality often sold in bulk.
Help came from an unlikely source in the 1970s: Marquis de Riscal, a Rioja producer, who decided to bring Verdejo into the spotlight and make dry whites from the grape. The Bodega’s dedication to reviving the grape transformed it. Part of the problem for Verdejo-based wines was that they did seem to oxidize (turn into that sherry-like concoction) quickly. With investment and research, Riscal and other producers found that night harvest, cooler fermentations, and a good dose of sulfur dioxide helps preserve the aromas and freshness of the wines and makes them shine.
My opinion: Good call!
Named for the green color of its berries (verde), Verdejo is the 5th most planted white grape in Spain and is popular in its mother country. And it’s clear why: The grape is unlike any other. It’s aromatic with its citrus notes and usually a distinctive earthy, underbrush/shrubby smell. It tastes like bay leaves, almonds, and has a slight bitterness and great mouth-cleansing acidity. Despite its crispness, wines of Verdejo have a full, smooth, silky texture that I love. It’s a complex, food friendly white -- great with everything from sheep’s milk cheese to pasta or fish in lemon or lemon cream sauces. The grape’s acidity makes it refreshing for warm weather but the full nature of the wine makes it a great fall and winter white too.
Through this praise of the grape, I’ve failed to mention one of the coolest things about Verdejo: you can get great stuff for around US $15. That said, not all Rueda or Verdejo is created equal so let me give you some tips for buying before I sign off.
Wines labeled “Rueda” are only required to be 50% Verdejo — the rest is normally Sauvignon Blanc and Viura, a grape usually used for blending in white Rioja and in Cava, as I already mentioned.
Wines labeled “Rueda Verdejo” or Rueda Superior are required to be 85% Verdejo, but many are 100% and usually indicate so on the bottle. Rueda Verdejo are the best wines, in my opinion. Look before you buy – the label will usually indicate if the wine is 100% Verdejo and that’s what you need to seek out.
Have you had Rueda Verdejo? What do you think? Please go to winefornormalpeople.com/blog and drop a comment and get a full transcript of this audio blog.