There’s a whole world of exciting, high-quality and competitively-priced Spanish white wines to be discovered. Increasingly popular with wine buffs but unbeknownst to many, Spanish white wines are gaining status while reds like Rioja plummet.
At some stage in a man’s life, the attraction to Barbie doll types gives way to the need for a more substantial relationship with a girl of character.
That visceral attraction to *certain* attributes doesn’t exactly disappear. Those attributes just get afforded a little less primacy in the long-term, life partner selection process. Or so I’m told.
It’s like a graduation of sorts.
Never one to miss a dubious analogy, it strikes me that a similar evolution can happen in the world of Spanish wines.
When most people think of Spanish wine, they think: red.
Yet only a couple of decades back, 75% of Spain’s vineyard area was actually reserved for white wine grapes. Only in recent years has Spanish wine become so red-heavy, thanks in large part to the surge in popularity of (red) Rioja in the UK. Meanwhile, back in the wine heartlands of continental Europe and the New World, modern Riojas haven’t garnered much of a following. Why?
The Problem With Modern Rioja
With quite a few notable exceptions among artisinal Riojas – and that’s a caveat we’d underline – most modern (red) Rioja’s are now industrial beasts engineered to offer a predictable, one-dimensional experience. Normally this means over-ripe fruit flavours (from grapes picked too late), an unnaturally soft/creamy texture (from too much barrel ageing) or an unnaturally heavy mouth-feel (from unfocused winemaking), and sometimes lofty alcohol levels for good measure – all things winemakers are typically trained to minimise.
In other words, it’s about as slutty as European wine gets. The only Old World wine flaunting more silicon-enhanced cleavage, perhaps, is the Primitivo spilling out of Italy.
And there’s really nothing wrong with that. There’s still real pleasure to be had in these wines – the same way there’s very real pleasure to be had from guzzling donuts and watching Suits. Drink what you enjoy is a pretty good mantra for starting out.
But if you prize variety and authenticity in wine – the two things to care about if we’re looking to really understand wine and assess its quality – then you’ll eventually take issue with these modern Riojas. Through the unsubtle engineering techniques mentioned above, most are deliberately stripped of everything that can make a wine interesting, authentic or unique. It’s a phenomenon even Rioja producers are waking up to, belatedly.
Fortunately, while Rioja’s skimpy clothing distracts some, elsewhere across Spain there’s a more intriguing, inspiring and covert project going on. And it’s drawing increasing praise.
Graduating From Rioja: Spanish white wines
One of Europe’s most exciting wine scenes right now is the world of Spanish white wines.
There’s five reasons why Spanish white wines are a Great niche to discover:
1. They’re creative – Spanish white wines are often made with important Old World philosophies like terroir in mind but reinterpreted with a New World twist. This means their taste usually remains authentic to the natural traits of the grape and growing environment (top marks for authenticity), but with interesting experimentation in end flavours and processes to create it (top marks for variety).
2. Whereas most of the world’s dominant white wine grapes have their roots in France (and on a smaller scale, Germany and Italy), Spain boasts a host of Great white wine grapes of its own and most drinkers don’t know them. More on these below.
3. Being less known than their reds, Spanish white wines can be quite price-competitive relative to their European counterparts. In the mid-range, you can definitely find bang for that buck.
4. If you drink mainly red but are looking for a first step into white, Spain is probably the best place in Europe to look. Some people are put off by white wine’s high acid, a light mouth-feel and sometimes overly-discrete fruit flavours. Half of Spanish white wines offer a different experience.
5. On top of all this, there are a tonne of almost-extinct native grapes being resurrected by a young generation of winemakers, creating very authentic and promising Spanish white wines.
So, Spanish white wines offer creativity, novelty, affordability, approachability and old-school authenticity – what’s not to love?
Here’s a 101 on the grapes and regions to seek out amid the many Spanish white wines. If you spot one of these on a wine list, don’t be afraid to try a few and find your match! From our map below, you’ll notice the majority of Spanish white wines are made in the northern half. (Southern Spanish wine is abundant, but both white and red tend to get too flabby – the excessive heat down there strips them of the zip you need to keep a wine tasting lively and structured.)
The Best Spanish White Wines
The last six years have brought a leap in qualitative terms, with young winemakers committed to bringing out the full character of these grapes by experimenting with a range of different soils, climates and growing techniques.
Verdejo is one of Spain’s higher quality white grape varieties. It disappeared for a few hundred years, before being revived in the 2000s. It’s native to Rueda in North-west Spain and creates crisp wines with very slightly waxy, nutty flavours and sometimes a drop of honey. Look for Rueda Superior or Verdejo grown around Segovia and the Douro riverbanks.
Albariño produces fresh wines with citrus or peach flavours, often with a seashell minerality to them or some almond notes. It’s a fantastic pairing with most seafood and the finest come from the poorest soils of Rias Baixas in green, drizzly Galicia. Frequently drunk young, the most exciting winemakers are now executing a little oak-ageing to perfection and creating very age-worthy wines.
Godello is best grown in northwest Spain, where the climate’s cooler. It can make for very fine wines, combining the structure of white Burgundies with juicy minerality and some fruit and herb notes. Look to the Valdeorras region if you’re into maximum minerality. Bodegas Rafael Palacios (managed by the brother of Spain’s leading winemaker: Alvaro Palacios) leads the pack and can take much of the credit for reviving this grape.
Viura/Macabeo is the main white wine grape of the red-dominated Rioja region and it leads to a variety of wine styles. In the wrong hands, it will make for a bland wine. But good winemakers bring out the grape’s strong potential for perfumed aromatics, freshness and Great ageing. Marqués de Cáceres and Herencia Remondo are good ones to look out for. It’s an important grape in cava.
Garnacha Blanca is a cheeky addition here because it’s actually a French grape (Grenache Blanc). But it’s interesting because it can make for truly full-bodied whites that are deep, aromatic and sometimes smoky. Previously a blending grape, the best Spanish winemakers are increasingly making single-varietal wines from this grape. For the best, look in Montsant, Priorat and Terra Alta.
Pedro Ximénez is usually reserved for sweet wines in Andalucía and Priorat, but ambitious master winemakers are now also creating electric, Riesling-like versions with silky, petrol-like mouthfeel. If sweet is what you’re after, Moscatel de Alejandría from Málaga, and Malvasía from La Palma are at the forefront of the new Spanish trend to make more incisive sweet wines from fresh grapes rather than dried ones.
On top of those, of course, let’s not forget the exceptional dry sherries and two of the three classic Cava grapes: Xarel-lo and Parellada. Both deserve a future post of their own, so we’ll leave those hanging for now…
(There are plenty more interesting options well worth exploring if you’re recommended good versions, like albillo, albarin, dona blanca, hondarribi zuri, prensal blanc, zalema and listan blanco.)
If you’re in the UK and like to buy online, we’d recommend checking out Moreno Wines, Swig and DeVinos for a good selection.
So, next time your eyes turn to the Spanish section of the wine list, rest assured: there’s a whole load of exciting, dynamic wines to wake you up from the boredom of Rioja. They’re well worth discovering and sharing, before word gets out. We’ll be opening and discussing a few, as conversation lubricants in future podcasts…
The Great Everything is a blogazine and podcast dedicated to drink and discovery, and open to all. Founded by two recovering lawyers, we share enriching ideas and experiences over a drink of something special. You can share yours, too, by contributing a guest post.