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Lab Notes


And You Thought You Knew Rioja...

January 26, 2024

Karin Rockstad, Spanish translator, WSET Educator SWS, FWS, IWS, Certified Rioja Educator, Certified Advanced Cava Educator, Albariño Ambassador, Sommelier 1


Imagine the Cantabrian Mountains marking their presence against the blue, blue sky, rugged gray rock with hints of greenery playing peek-a-boo. Below them, the hills and valleys are blanketed in vineyards, who have dressed up in their autumn best: deep crimson, pumpkin orange, and a yellow so sharp it almost hurts your eyes. The crisp, chilly air begs for guiso (stew) or patatas riojanas (potato chowder with chorizo on steroids) and a glass of Rioja.

Red Rioja, you're thinking. I know you are.

Photo credit: Rioja Wine Academy students

Photo credit: Rioja Wine Academy students

Well, you should be reaching for a glass of white Rioja. Yes, white.

Did you know that there are 9 authorized white grape varieties in Rioja? No? And you thought you knew Rioja...

How about red? Only 5.

And you thought you knew Rioja...

Perhaps the white Rioja you thought you knew was an oaky, oxidized Viura. That type is largely in the past. What's Viura again? AKA Macabeo; yes, the same refreshing, apple-y and citrus-scented grape used in the sparkling wines of Cava.

Viura is the most planted white grape in the region, but still only about 6% of the total. The red grape Tempranillo is far ahead of the pack with nearly 80% of the plantings. Viura is extremely versatile. It adapts well to different climates, soil types, and winemaking techniques. It blends beautifully with other varieties to create young, fresh, unoaked wines. Its high acidity gives it the ability to age in barrel or bottle and is key to sparkling wines.

Here are a few new favorite Viuras of mine:

  • 70-year-old vines

  • Aged one year on the lees in 3000-liter French oak vats

  • ZIPPY acid! Wow, it's refreshing! Aromas and flavors of green apple, lemon, and a bit of nuttiness. Nice long finish.

This wine is 70% Viura and 30% MB (which you'll meet later). 😉

  • Vineyards are in the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains (60-year-old vines)

  • Aged six months in small French barriques. They have a unique way of stirring the lees: manually turning the barrels.

  • Floral, tropical fruit, wet stone, and a touch of vanilla. Lovely creamy texture.

  • The only organic and Demeter-certified biodynamic sparkling wine in Rioja.

  • Traditional method; manually disgorged and corked.

  • Aromas and flavors of white peach, pear, quince, and a touch of honey. The tiny bubbles and delicate mousse keep you wanting more.

Old-vine Viura, gentle use of oak, organic and biodynamic farming, exciting sparkling wines, and freshness. So much freshness! This is not the Rioja I knew.

But wait. What about Tempranillo? Ah, Tempranillo...the workhorse grape that is the epitome of the DOCa Rioja. That's the Rioja you know.

Let me introduce you to Tempranillo Blanco. White Tempranillo. Yes, white.

Photo credit:

In 1988, the white grape bunch was found growing from a red Tempranillo vine near the town of Murillo de Río Leza. The picture above is definitely worth a thousand words. The grower contacted the local government office of agriculture which analyzed the DNA. It was a completely natural mutation of one gene.

Fast forward to recent times to find that Tempranillo Blanco has been allowed in the DOCa since 2007 in an effort to recover and promote the native grapes of the area. Tempranillo Blanco wines are aromatic with notes of banana, citrus, flowers, and tropical fruit. They blend well with Viura but are a shining star on their own.

I had stars in my eyes when I tasted the Queirón Mi Lugar Tempranillo Blanco 2021. This is an homage to Quel, the village in Rioja Oriental, where it's made. Like the villages of Bourgogne, Rioja has added some new indications, this one being a Vino de Municipio, or village wine. The grapes must come from the village, and winemaking, aging, and bottling must also take place there.

Fermentation began on the skins for a week and then they were removed. Afterwards, most of the wine aged for 6 months in large French oak barrels, but part was aged in amphorae, or tinajas in Spanish. It was then blended. This wine is a pale lemon color with golden highlights. It's very aromatic with citrus, apple, stone fruit, floral, and toasted bread notes. The bright acidity makes it lively and crisp.

I wanted to learn more about Quel. They are so proud of their little town and their desire to share it was infectious. Even the title of this wine shows that. Mi Lugar means "my place."

Another of the nine authorized white grapes that you may not know is Maturana Blanca. Maturana, what does it mean? To English speakers it may sound like "mature," meaning "grown up" or even "old." Well, it's the oldest grape grown in the Rioja wine region. It is also known as Ribadavia and has been mentioned in records dating back to 1622. The grape is a cross of Savagnin (Traminer) and Castellana Blanca, which also makes it a sibling to two other Spanish grapes, Verdejo and Godello. The variety was nearly extinct until recovery efforts began in the late 20th century. Winemaker and Professor of Enology Juan Carlos Sancha and Bodegas Viña Ijalba have played huge roles in this.

Juan Carlos's dedication to native grapes and to treating vineyards with respect and devotion is plain to see. Our group hiked up a steep hill in the Rioja Alta sub-zone so he could show us the old Cerro La Isa vineyard. Many, many old vineyards are co-planted with both red and white varieties. Keep in mind that some of these were planted 70-100 years ago, or even more. Families back then made both types of wine from small plots.

Hiking up the hill.
Coming down wasn't much easier.

Juan Carlos Sancha

Co-planted vineyards. Yellow leaves are white grapes and red/orange leaves are red grapes.

Juan Carlos farms organically and sustainably. He believes that if you treat a vineyard right, it will do what it's meant to do.

His Ad Libitum 2022 Maturana Blanca was one of the highlights of my week in Rioja. It enlivened my senses! And I thought I knew Rioja...

The Latin name of the wine roughly means, "free to do as you please," and this wine definitely does that. It's free to show us where it comes from: the Najerilla Valley, 565 meters up (about 1850 feet), from stony, calcareous-clay soils. The vines have to work hard at such an altitude and the results are concentrated, intense aromas and flavors. There are notes of pear, peach, white flowers, green apple, toast, and petrol. It was barrel-fermented in a 500-liter French oak vat and aged on the lees for 5 months. The racy acidity and long finish make this a wine that is invigorating and never boring.

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Do you still think you know Rioja? Then let's talk about Calagraño. The DOCa doesn't really mention it, but if you talk to growers, it's a grape that has just always been there. With more and more wineries emphasizing native grapes, Calagraño is a part of that. Vinos en Voz Baja and Ojuel are two wineries that make delicious, interesting wines using the grapes of their area. They are proud to work the vineyards that were passed down through the generations and they use what they have. Calagraño is vigorous and can be neutral but has excellent acidity. With controlled yields, and especially from old vines, the juice adds personality and brightness to blends. The high acidity also helps if any of those blends will be aged.

Ojuel, near the Sierra de la Demanda mountains, makes a white field blend called "Carrasojuela," which is Calagraño, Viura, and other unidentified varieties. It comes from a single vineyard that was planted in the 1960s. It's aged 3 months in acacia, which gives it a unique color. It's a tiny production, and we were told that harvest begins "when the rabbits begin to eat the grapes." The labels feature a butterfly since most of Rioja's butterflies can be found here.

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Are you getting to know Rioja now? Are you newly inspired? Then there's a place just for you! Join the Creative Program at Residence Wines. You'll live onsite for several months, doing what you do best: creating. Your muses will be the landscape, culture, food, and wine of Rioja. This program is for artists, writers, even perfume makers. One winery per year will be invited to collaborate with them on a vintage. Maybe you're not a creative type? Then just join their club—it's the only way to buy the wines.

Rioja. That achingly beautiful panorama of mountains, rivers, hills, valleys, and vineyards. The land of red wine, toasty oak, and sapphire skies. Yes, it's still that. But let's add young, exhilarating white wines, orange/amber wines, high-quality sparkling wines, organic and biodynamic farming, the importance of regional and village wines, creativity, and the recovery of and respect for ancient local grape varieties. THIS is Rioja.

And now you do know a little more...

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