First Published Costa News Group July 2012

Q. WHEN IS WHITE RIOJA, NOT WHITE RIOJA –

AS WE KNOW IT?

A. When it includes one or more of the ‘newly’ permitted grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.

The esteemed wine-world famous writer, broadcaster and luminary John Radford and I have had something of a friendly disagreement, on-going through the internet, since I served on the Decanter Magazine Spanish Panel, jointly chaired by John, last November.

He, and it has to be said, most of my eminent fellow panellists believe that white Rioja is best left alone. They, and it seems, many of the producers in La Rioja, are having no truck with the potential usurpers, preferring their wines to continue to be made with the traditional varieties, mostly Viura but also Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.

Indeed, when I raised the issue as a discussion point during my time in the UK this year on the Judging Panel of the International Wines and Spirits Competition, again most of my learned fellow judges, several of whom were Masters of Wine, were sceptical. Well, I may be one of only a few a voices in the wilderness, but I take a different view.

It was as long ago as 2007 when the ruling body in La Rioja, the Consejo Regulador, decided to allow the addition of the aforementioned varieties to the list of permitted grapes for use in blends of white Rioja. In an understandable, and in my view, wholly laudable, effort to ensure that the quintessential character of white Rioja was not totally lost, they stipulated that traditional varieties must still be used (therefore it will not be possible, for example, to make a mono-varietal Rioja Chardonnay) and that the new varieties could only form a maximum of 49% of the blend.

Nevertheless the door to greater variety in white Rioja aromas and flavours was left open. However, most of the producers have, it seems, been rather underwhelmed by this move as, to this day, there are I believe, only two bodegas who have bitten the bullet and gone for a blend, both in fact using Chardonnay, and even then hedging their bets by staying with just 25% of the blend.

In discussion with John Radford, and on reading his internet answers to my comments as well as his article in Decanter’s May edition, he points out a few exceptional white Riojas that have kept to the traditional varieties. It would appear that his point is that if white Rioja can be this good, why change it?

Well, although I haven’t yet tasted all the wines to which he refers (though I surely will) they are made either with Viura only (aka Macabeo), or a blend of the traditional Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia or have had some input from oak – be it FB (fermented in barrel), or aged in wood, or both. My question is why? Why is it necessary, apparently, for white Rioja wines made with Viura to have some help, be it from other varieties or from oak?

My answer has in fact been said, as well, by one of the brothers running one of the most famous Rioja houses, Bodegas Muga (although it must be admitted that they haven’t yet used any of the Sauvignon Blanc from their ‘experimental vineyard’ in their white wines) – Juan Muga believes, “Viura needs a little help.”

Do we say the same thing of Spanish grapes, Albariño or Verdejo, for example? And do we suggest that international varieties Chardonnay and Sauvignon need oak ageing, or some other form of assistance? No, we don’t. It’s true that Chardonnay, and Sauvignon can be successfully oaked. Same too with Albariño (check out Bodegas Fefiñanes!) and Verdejo (Bodegas Bornos and others). But these varieties, when left entirely on their own, also make wonderfully flavoured wines with character and super aromas too. Can the same thing be said of Viura? Well maybe, but not often, in my view.

So what’s wrong with the addition sometimes of more characterful varieties, from Spain as well as international varieties? The precedent is already established, white Rioja can be a blend of traditional varieties as we’ve seen above, so why not increase the number of varieties that can be used?

Indeed, one of the wines recommended by John Radford is the stunning Remelluri 2006, which lists, by a quirk of historical precedence, the normally prohibited aromatic and characterful varieties: Viognier, Chardonnay, Rousanne, Marsanne, Sauvignon and Moscatel as well as Garnacha Blanca!These varieties make a significant, positive contribution to the aroma and flavour profiles of Remulleri’s wine – as will Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Verdejo to regular white Rioja. And this will be achieved not at the cost of Viura, but will be complementary to it.

My guess is that there is a fear of homogeneity. I agree that it will be a poorer wine world if all we ever have to drink is Chardonnay, for example. But the rules as they are now in Rioja will ensure that this will not happen as traditional varieties will always have the lion’s share of the blend. Plus there is nothing to stop producers continuing with traditional varieties, with and without oak.

But let’s also look at this from a commercial viewpoint. Yes let’s, but next week as I’m running out of column space!

Contact Colin: colin@colinharknessonwine.com and through his unique wine services website: www.colinharknessonwine.com . Fancy a private: wine tasting/wine appreciation course/bodega visit? Contact Colin – for this and more!  

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