For most consumers, Spanish wine still means ‘red’ wine; few are aware of the transformation in its whites. Now, as a host of top producers exploit the terroir potential in Rías Baixas, Rueda and beyond, it’s a discovery well worth making.
Pazo de Señorans vineyard in Rías Baixas
While velvety reds from Rioja and more recently polished show ponies from Ribera del Duero, blockbusters from Toro and mineral gems from Priorat have steadily charmed consumers with their red offensive, it wasn’t always this way.
As recently as the mid-80s, around 80% of vineyard plantings in Spain were white. Not that UK consumers would ever see the results of this, as a high concentration of the country’s white grapes were blended with a tiny amount of red wine to tint the colour so that it could be passed off as red.
Spain’s hot, dry, Mediterranean climate hasn’t traditionally lent itself to the production of quality whites, but with increased investment in the latest winemaking technology and successful terroir mapping to determine the best sites in the country for the likes of Albariño and Godello to thrive, the last decade has seen an explosion of fine whites coming on to the market.
“The potential for Spanish whites is huge due to their wow factor. Most consumers know Spain for its reds but are eager to discover good whites too with naturally high acidity and good ageing potential,” believes Javier Galarreta, founder and CEO of Araex Rioja Alavesa. With winemaker knowledge increasing by the day and consumers thirstier than ever for top-end whites, the future of the category looks very rosy indeed.
A new generation of winemakers has entered the game who are placing terroir at the forefront of their agendas and are seeking to make whites from old vines at high altitude in the best soils for their chosen varieties. As a result, the character and complexity of Spain’s top whites has increased dramatically in recent years, as demonstrated by the following six whites in the Araex portfolio.
The best wines smell and taste of where they were made. Nowhere is this more true than of the whites from Rías Baixas in Galicia, in particular those from Pazo de Señorans. With vines planted on granitic soils a pebble’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, in the best Albariños from the region you can taste the salinity and smell the sea air in the glass. Fresh and bright with a steely mineral core, the wines offer a liquid expression of the landscape, and the top examples have great ageing potential.
Pazo de Señorans Selección de Añada is widely regarded as one of the best wines made in the region. Crafted from a 50-year-old half-hectare plot of sandy soils close to the Atlantic, the Albariño has scooped the ‘best white’ gong on numerous occasions at the Wines from Spain awards due to the complexity it develops from a painstaking grape selection process during harvest and being rested for 30 months on its lees, which lends it a waxy texture like Condrieu and notes of apple, pineapple, citrus fruit and white flowers.
One of the first Spanish regions to pioneer high-end whites was Rioja via old-vine Viura planted on limestone soils. Viura responds favourably to barrel fermentation, the kiss of oak adding richness, texture and depth while retaining Viura’s inherent freshness and vibrancy. Often featuring a touch of old vine Malvasía, these ‘new wave’ whites adroitly bridge the gap between fresh but one-dimensional entry-level Viura and traditional styles of white Rioja that can taste like you’re sucking on a stave.
Representing Rioja in the Araex portfolio is the barrel-fermented Amaren from Bodegas Amaren. Meaning “from the mother” in Basque, the wine is a tribute to owner Juan Luis Cañas’ mother, who dedicated her life to tending the vines at her family estate. Over half of the Viura grapes that go into the blend hail from 60-year-old vines. Along with 15% Malvasía, the Viura is barrel-fermented for 16 days then aged in French oak for eight months, resulting in aromas of citrus fruit and pineapple.
Among one of the finest new wave white Riojas made in the region today is the barrel-fermented Baigorri Blanco, which is produced in the bodega’s state-of-the-art gravity-fed winery that descends 32m into the bowels of the earth, from 90% Viura and 10% Malvasía. Grapes are hand-harvested, de-stemmed using vibrating sorting tables and fermented at 20 degrees for 20 days in French oak, then rested on the lees for eight months to add further complexity and depth.
Further inland, old vine Verdejo grown at high altitude on stony soils is turning heads in Rueda, which has been building a solid reputation for its fine whites for over a decade. The best of them are fermented in oak to give them their signature silky texture.
Keen to show off what Spain’s best terroirs are capable of, French consultant Michel Rolland and Araex founder Javier Galarreta have collaborated on a Rueda white made from 100% Verdejo from 23-year-old vines. In the winery, the must is cold-macerated with the skins for eight hours to bring out aromas of tropical fruits, melon and white flowers. The wine is then aged on its lees for three months to add complexity on the palate.
Navarra/Vino de pago
While perhaps better known for its rosé, Navarra in north-east Spain also makes whites. Among the best-known wineries in the region is Pago de Circus, located just outside the village of Ablitas. International varieties shine here, such as the Pago de Circus Chardonnay, which is fermented in stainless steel tanks for 10 days at 15 degrees, leading to a refreshing wine with notes of mango and pineapple.
And finally, it would be easy to overlook one of Spain’s best-known regions for white wines as they come in sparkling form, but to forget about Cava from Catalunya would be leaving out an important piece of the puzzle.
The Extra Brut from Villa Conchi is made with freshness in mind from a blend of Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Parellada and Chardonnay. Grapes are harvested at night and each variety is fermented separately before being brought together for the final blend. Aged on its lees for a minimum of 20 months, the result is a Cava with citrus and smoky aromas.