Rioja can be golden too

Vines at sunset on the Contino estate, Rioja

A version of this article is publshed by the Financial Times. See also White rioja's evolution. Vines on the Contino estate are seen above.

Even the most dispassionate wine correspondents fall in and out of love with various categories. I loved the wines made in California in the 1970s, for instance. And then I rather tired of the much less distinctive and super-ripe fruit bombs that typified California wine in the 1990s and early years of this century, especially when they seemed so expensive relative to similar sorts of wine. But now I’m enthused again by a new generation of west-coast producers and the much greater range of styles of wine they are making.

Similarly, there was a phase – in the 1980s perhaps – when burgundy was often uncomfortably tart, thin and underripe – or just plain dull – and it has been only in this century that burgundy, red and white, has become much more reliable (even if, unfortunately, much more expensive). Despite the prices, I’m still considerably more enthusiastic about the whole category than I used to be – and there are still bargains to be discovered.

One category of wine that I have recently been reconverted to because the wine itself has evolved is white rioja. When I first encountered it in the late 1970s there were memorable examples, such as Castillo Ygay from Marqués de Murrieta, that were deep apricot colour, heady with beeswax and lemon and were clearly capable of ageing every bit as well as white burgundy. Then in the 1980s came the novelty of cool, temperature-controlled fermentation designed to preserve fruit and freshness, but often at the expense of character. Too many white riojas became just crisp, light and featureless, so I lost interest.

But tasting a selection of current offerings has reignited my enthusiasm for this wine. Many examples today are genuinely distinctive – interesting, often quite mature dry whites designed for drinking with food rather than simple thirst-quenchers. There’s the beeswax and lemon again, sometimes a hint of lanolin together with a rich, creamy texture but real refreshment too. Many, though not all, of the successful wines are, like Rioja’s reds, aged in oak barrels, and some seem (unusually) proud of it. Good white rioja seems to have the guts to stand up to oak ageing.

Only about 10 % of the vines planted in Spain’s most famous wine region are light skinned and Viura is by far the most planted of them. I have long been a fan of this grape, known as Macabeo in the rest of Spain and as Maccabéo or Maccabeu over the border in southern France. In Roussillon it has proved, in wines made by the likes of Domaine Gauby, Domaine de l’Horizon, Lafage, Olivier Pithon and Le Roc des Anges, that it can make serious wines worth ageing. See Macabéo/Viura – the Cinderella grape?

Another attribute of Viura/Macabeo is that nearly half of Rioja’s Viura vines are more than 40 years old, and therefore likely to produce small quantities of characterful grapes. The other traditional grape variety in the region, with which it was often blended, is a local form of Malvasia, 40% of whose vines are more than 20 years old.

But the local authority in Rioja, the Consejo Regulador, decided in 2009 to encourage growers to plant the international varieties Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for some reason, thereby potentially robbing white rioja of its local character. Together these two varieties now constitute six per cent of all white wine grape plantings. At the same time, the authority encouraged planting of the more truly Spanish varieties Garnacha Blanco (Grenache Blanc), Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana, Turruntes and Verdejo. Tempranillo Blanco has been by far the most popular of these varieties, already accounting for almost 13% of all of Rioja’s white wine grapes, even though this pale-skinned mutation of Rioja’s dominant red wine grape was first identified as recently as 1988.

I loved the fact that so many of the white riojas I tasted recently had real local character and did not taste ‘international’ at all. Finca Allende’s and Contino’s are fine blends of ancient and modern. The most traditional of the lot – perhaps too distinctive for some palates – are the two white bottlings produced by the López de Heredia sisters who run the historic bodega in Haro founded in 1877 just next to the station where barrels of wine would be loaded directly on to trains destined for France, whose own vineyards were then suffering from the crippling effects of mildew and the phylloxera that did not reach Rioja until 1901.

López de Heredia’s whites are aged for far longer than most wines today before being released, at really very kind prices. There is a worrying rumour that the vines for Tondonia Blanco have been grubbed up (though see full explanation* below) but you can find vintages of their Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva going back to 2003 on the market today; a Hong Kong merchant is offering this antique for just £40 a bottle while a US merchant is offering the 2002 Gran Reserva for $85. The current vintages of its stablemate, the single-vineyard Viña Gravonia, are 2010, 2011 and 2012 (see these recent wines of the week), which sell in the UK for an average of about £24 a bottle. Try finding any other 10-year-old wine at this sort of price.

A shortcut to this obviously American-oaked style is provided by Bodegas Riojanas’ Monte Real 2020 that was fermented in barrel and still carries very obvious, if unfashionable, traces of sweet vanilla oak that combine well with the fresh citrus character of Viura.

You might expect the head chef of our son Will Lander’s Quality Chop House in London to favour red wines but Shaun Searley is a huge fan of white rioja. ‘For me it is a wine that is so complex that not only can it be paired with food, it is perfect on a hot day just on its own’, he says. ‘I love the rich, almost caramelised, buttery flavour profile and the sharp candied lemon skin finish.’ He recommends it with ‘a big plate of hot shellfish steamed open with a splash of rioja (you may need two bottles) or simply an aged Comté.’

Restaurateurs are generally pretty keen on white rioja because they can offer their customers an unusually mature white wine that goes with a wide range of foods at a bargain price. Why not take advantage of these bargains yourself? I have listed some favourite examples in ascending order of richness and funkiness so that you could wean yourself on to the style gently.

*María José López de Heredia writes We saw Julia’s review of Gravonia. Thanks a lot. We follow the Purple Pages but, in addition, several friends from the UK sent us the review, as you might imagine. You have plenty of followers as it couldn’t be otherwise!

Replying to your question I remember Ferran Centelles asking the same and the reply is NO. We never removed white grapevines, neither on Viña Tondonia nor in Viña Gravonia. What we did is that when the time arrived to remove them due to the vines' age (which was 100 years old and more), we decided not to replant the same percentage of white grapes since there was no need. It is true that there was a time when we received plenty of congratulations for our style of white wine but few orders. In fact our father maintained a very high percentage of white grapes when no-one else in Rioja did, even when the market did not respond as well as nowadays. However, the reason why now we have limited quantities is not due to the removal of white plantations but the fact that our vines are very old so the yields are low. We have also suffered several years in which yields have been only around 2,000 kilos per hectare due to climate circumstances and we have our wines allocated in many different countries. Our white wines are not understood by everyone but they are appreciated by wine professionals as it is very well described and explained by Julia Harding.

In addition and what I believe is interesting for you to know is that, for many years (in the 1990s), the policy of our Rioja Agriculture Council was to give priority and stimulate the removal of white grapes by giving 50% additional rights for planting red grapes for each hectare of white grapes removed. This means that if you removed 1 ha of white grapes you could plant 1.5 ha of red grapes. And now, the Rioja DO is marketing white wines again due to current trends.

Viña Gravonia (in the municipality of Zaco) was bought by our great-grandfather between 1909 and 1912, and replanted as it is today (after phylloxera) in 1925 by our great-grandfather and our grandfather when he was 35 years old. So most of the vineyards now are 96-year-old Viura. Below is a nice picture of Viña Tondonia taken in 2015 by Jesús R Rocandio.

The majority of Viña Tondonia (in the municipality of Tondon) was bought between 1877 and 1900 and replanted (after phylloxera) in 1913–14. After that this vineyard has been replanted several times since phylloxera reappeared due to a lack of knowledge of the right rootstocks and other reasons. And has had more changes since it is our biggest vineyard.

Viña Tondonia in Rioja, belonging in Bodegas López de Heredia

Recommended white riojas

Beronia 2019 13%
£9.16–£9.95 The Drink Shop, Songbird Wines, Winedirect, Master of Malt

Hacienda López de Haro 2020 12.5%
£10.99 Majestic Wine

Santalba, Viña Hermosa Viura 2019 13%
£15.90 Catchpole Cellars

CVNE, Monopole 2019 13%
£11 RRP Noble Green Wines, Hoults Wine Merchants, Flagship Wines, Luvians, Shenfield Wine Co

Muga 2020 13.5%
£10.50 The Wine Society, £12.99 Majestic Wine and others

Izadi 2019 13.5%
£15.95–£16.99 Noel Young Wines, Loki Wine, Grand Cru Company

Riojanas, Monte Real 2020 12.5%
£14 RRP Stewart Wines, First Class Products

Ortega Ezquerro, Don Quintín Ortega 2019 and 2018 13%
£16.95 (2018) Jeroboams

Finca Allende 2016 13.5%
£26.99 Bancroft Wines

Contino 2017 Rioja 13.5%
From £20.99 Roberts & Speight, VINVM, Dulwich Vintners, Field & Fawcett, Evington's, Hedonism

CVNE, Monopole Clásico 2017 13.5%
From £24.50 Winedirect, Hedonism and other independents

López de Heredia, Viña Gravonia 2011 12.5%
From £22.90 Field & Fawcett, Vin Neuf, Hennings Wine, Bottle Apostle, Handford Wines

International stockists on

But if you still hanker after red rioja, see Ferran's big rioja report.