Please note Part 1 is available at: www.costa-news.com click Cork Talk.

In 2007 the powers that be in the Denominación de Origen Calificada La Rioja gave permission for three extra grape varieties to be used in blends of White Rioja. I presume that this was because of some lobbying from bodegas and perhaps growers, so it’s a surprise to me that thus far there have only been two bodegas who have produced a wine using, in fact one, of the newly accepted varieties – Chardonnay.

Indeed, when questioned about the apparent lack of interest in using the new varieties some of the grandees of traditional Rioja poured scorn over the idea in the first place, one actually said that Rioja is a red wine area, adding a metaphoric exclamation mark to make the point!

Quite a slap in the face for those excellent and traditional Rioja houses who do make wonderful red Riojas but have also made acclaimed white Rioja, and for many years too – Bodegas Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva for example!

However there is a point, if a little hidden, in the controversial comment he made. In commercial terms, i.e. in volume of sales it could be concluded that Rioja is really just about red wines. I’m not sure of the exact figure, but it’s not far off to say that only 5% of total sales of Rioja wines are of their whites.

Of course statistics are tricky chaps (remember Reginald Perry’s brother-in-law?!). To get the whole picture one needs to look at the total production – red wines vastly exceed white wine production, so it’s clear that there will be more red wine sold, by virtue of the fact that there’s more of it!

But that’s not all. Readers will probably have guessed that I’ve nailed my colours to the mast already – and they are white as well as red. But white with a difference, whites that are enjoying the added dimensions afforded by the ‘new’ white wine grape varieties. And I’m not alone!

I asked one of my all time favourite wine writers, an acknowledged wine expert, Tim Atkin MW (Master of Wine), for his comments about the introduction of the ‘new’ white wine grape varieties who said,

I’m basically in favour of this. Viura is a fairly bland grape (except when it’s aged for a while in oak) and needs friends. I like Malvasia, but allowing other grapes as part of the blend will make white Rioja more interesting. I’m against varietals (who needs another Chardonnay?), but if other varieties are restricted to no more than 50% of the blend, I think this could work. I’m a big fan of the Remelluri white.

Who buys white Rioja here in Spain? Very few of us! I’m sure most white Rioja is bought by distributors who put it on their corporate lists, aimed primarily at restaurants and bars. And why? Well because to the uninitiated (in other words the sad people who don’t read Cork Talk[!]), the fact that it is Rioja, the internationally most famous wine-making area of Spain, will mean that it will sell – no matter how disappointing it may be. I wonder how many of those who are persuaded to buy it because of its name, actually buy a second bottle!

It is my belief that once more bodegas start to use the ‘new’ varieties, Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Verdejo, blended according to the rules with a maximum of 49%, the rest being traditional varieties, sales of white Rioja will gradually start to rise. Everyone’s a winner – the bodegas who will improve cash-flow (most of the ‘new’ wines will be sold immediately after bottling as joven, young, wines without any crianza) and increase profits; and consumers, myself for sure, will be able to buy white Rioja with more personality, flavour and aroma than is usually the case (though, in deference to my colleague, John Radford, not always).

I think it was Bodegas Finca Manzanares which was the first Rioja bodega to release a white using Viura and newly permitted Chardonnay. An e-mail resulted in a quick sample bottle and I guess I’m one of the first Brits living in Spain who has tasted the new style wine. I don’t have a bottle of their 100% Viura, from previous years so I can’t do a direct comparison, but one thing wine writers must have is a good memory and it’s for sure that this wine has a little more than your average white Rioja, courtesy of Chardonnay.

Typical warm climate, southern hemisphere Chardonnay notes of exotic fruit are very understated, if in fact present at all. There’s only 25% Chardonnay in the blend and its presence is more of a subtle French style. There’s an added roundness to the wine, a greater depth and a longer finish. On the nose, perhaps the faintest whiff of banana and butter.

Readers will have heard of Bodega Faustino, well they are also pioneers in this field as their new Faustino V Blanco has 25% Chardonnay blended with Viura as well.

The frosted glass of the bottle hides a lovely lime green with golden shades alluringly visible when poured into the glass. The colour alone will draw you to this wine. But pause to sniff over the rim and, provided it’s not served too cold (a temptation in this heat, I know, but one that’s best avoided if you want to appreciate fully a wine’s fragrance), you may just get a reminder of under-ripe pineapple and/or a recollection of a white peach, or better still a Spanish Paraguyo.

In the mouth it’s quite full, yet fresh and clean, again with a slight buttery note and this time a slightly bitter nuance on the equally long finish, making it a fine accompaniment to fish, seafood, salads and white meats.

Let’s hope we see more ‘new style’ White Riojas, sharing shelf-space with their traditional siblings!

Contact Colin: colin@colinharknessonwine.com and through www.colinharknessonwine.com – fancy a private: wine tasting/appreciation course/bodega visit etc – Colin’s your man!

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