Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine . . .
I LAST WROTE about red Rioja in June 2019 and said that the white wines of that glorious area would need their own article. I didn’t then write such as article because, frankly, I thought there wasn’t much to say. All the white Rioja I’d tasted had been decent, full-bodied, with a light, occasionally lemony tang, but without much individual character. Indeed, they only planted vines for white wine in Rioja in the first place to add them to the reds to soften the harshness, not with a thought of ever making white wine. Then, at a Rioja tasting at L’Atelier du Vin at Seven Dials, I tasted a white from 2008 which overturned everything I’d understood. It was full-bodied all right but the flavour was of toast and caramel, of nuts and marzipan. This, I now realise, is the true old-style Rioja white. The grapes are the same as in the ordinary white wines (Viura, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia). The thing to look for on the label is the word Crianza. This guarantees that the wine has been aged in oak for at least six months. In fact, to make these rich stunning wines, they are often aged in oak for three years then matured in bottle for 3 to 12 years. The wine I tasted was by one of the great Rioja firms, Lopez de Heredia, from their Gravonia vineyard. You can buy their 2005 version from Berry Brothers for £37 a bottle.
What other wine-producing area can make dry white wine of this intensity? I can only think of the great whites of Bordeaux and Burgundy. What is there about Rioja that makes this possible? Maybe it’s the Viura grape, which must contribute at least 51% for it to be called Rioja. Most writers think that’s the key, except Oz Clarke who points out that Viura is a pretty neutral grape. He thinks it’s the smaller amount of Malvasia, which we know of as one of the grapes used to make Madeira. Indeed, the richness of old-style white Rioja is reminiscent of Madeira – and there’s the clue. Madeira used to be the favourite wine of colonists in the Americas. They noticed that it tasted better when put into casks and shipped across the Atlantic than it did in Europe. Then it was shipped to India where it tasted better still, so much so that the best Madeira was sailed to India and back before bottling and it tasted magnificent. But it wasn’t the journey, of course, that made the difference, it was the time spent in oak casks. These casks had to be small enough to be lifted on and off ship so they used 225 litre ‘barricas’. These, we now know, are perfect for maturing wine; the wine has plenty of oak with which to react. What is so magnificent about these old-style Riojas is the result of the interaction between a fairly bland-tasting wine and the toasted oak, which allows tiny amounts of oxygen into the wine to give those caramel and fig flavours.
Incidentally, these wine tastings at L’Atelier are great fun, but, when we can all return to normal, go with a friend. They are more like a party than a clinical wine tasting. You do get to taste some really special wine and Charlie, the wine guy, says a bit about each one, but you need someone to chat to before the next wine comes round.