Rioja is a firm favourite in Ireland, but have you tried the white version?

John Wilson: Once seen as average, these wines have gained new respect recently

 A vineyard in the district of Haro, in the Rioja region of Spain. Photograph: Getty Images

A vineyard in the district of Haro, in the Rioja region of Spain. Photograph: Getty Images

 

We love Rioja, Rioja Reserva in particular. But how many wine consumers have ever tried the white version of Rioja? Once seen as very average, the wines have been gaining a new respect over the last few years.

The main white grape of Rioja is Viura. It was traditional to age the white wines for years in oak (this is Rioja after all) giving them a deep gold colour, and notes of honey, toasted almonds, beeswax and lemon peel. I loved these wines, but I was certainly in a minority, as they fell out of favour in a world that wanted only crisp refreshing unoaked white wines. In response, producers began fermenting in stainless steel and releasing young, fresh wines. The problem with Viura is that it doesn’t have much flavour, so for years most white Rioja was decent, lightly fruity, but anodyne. More recently the authorities permitted the addition of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, as if the world needed more of either. 

Then a few producers realised that if yields were kept low and grapes harvested at exactly the right time, you could actually make a very good wine from Viura, especially if you aged it for a short period in new oak. Around the same time, a new white clone of the red Tempranillo variety was discovered, and it produced very good wine too.

There are now three distinct styles of white Rioja; young fresh and unoaked; Burgundian-style wines aged for a short period in new oak, and the traditional style, aged for a prolonged period in oak casks. All three can be very good. 

Remelluri Blanco (€67, independents) from Telmo Rodriguez is an outstanding wine made in the Burgundian style. Traditional whites, back in fashion recently, are a world away from the floral, fruit-driven wines we are used to, but they have an array of very delicious complex flavours.

Where else can you find wines that have been matured for a decade or more before release? The current 2009 release of Tondonia Reserva Blanco for instance spent six years in barrel before being aged in bottle for a further period. The best of these wines include the sublime Castillo Ygay from Marqués de Murrieta (€450, O’Briens), and two brilliant wines from Bodega López de Heredia, Tondonia Reserva (€49, independents), and Gravonia (€37, independents).

If you are looking for food matches, think first of firm fish and white meats, but López de Heredia has an excellent guide on their website, lopezdeheredia.com. Bodega695.com has two excellent options, the CVNE Barrel Fermented Rioja (€18) and the Contino (€35). At the moment, Lidl is offering the very drinkable Nevei Rioja Blanco for a mere €8.99.

Rioja Blanco 2020, Bodegas Muga
13.5%, €17-18
Floral aromas, fresh citrus and peach fruits with very subtle notes of spicy oak. This would go nicely with grilled black sole and brill or maybe a seafood paella. 
From: Baggot Street Wines, D4; Morton’s, D6; Donnybrook Fair; Selected Fine Wines outlets; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, ; Londis, Gorey; La Touche, Greystones ; Grapevine, Dalkey.

Sierra de Toloño 2019, Rioja Blanco
12.5%, €20
Made by one of the rising stars of Rioja this is a beautifully crafted elegant unoaked wine with subtle melon and peach fruits and a refreshing seam of citrus. Dublin Bay prawns with a garlic mayonnaise. 
From: Grapevine, Dalkey; Cabot and Co, Westport. 

Capellanía Rioja Blanco 2016, Marques de Murrieta
13.5%, €29.95
Rich toasted almonds combine with mouth-watering pear and red apple fruits in a very stylish medium to full-bodied wine. Try this with richer fish and shellfish or grilled white meats. Maybe lobster with a buttery sauce?
From: O’Briens          

La Bastid 2018, Rioja, Olivier Rivière
13%, €30
A gently seductive, elegant, crisp dry wine with delicate herbal aromas, subtle fresh pear and nectarine fruits and a strong dry mineral finish. Grilled mackerel or sea bass with fennel or herbs. 
From: 64wine, Glasthule; Baggot Street Wines, D4; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock; Green Man Wines, D6.

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