Most people associate Rioja with red wine, but the region also produces excellent white wines, says Roger Jones of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn
Located in northern Spain, Rioja is of course Spain's most famous wine region. With mountains protecting it from the heavy Atlantic rains and hot continental heat it has an ideal wine-growing climate.
The area is divided into three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja, with each region having an unique climate and terroir allowing for the diversity of the wines.
In a snapshot
Rioja Alta produces wines that are full-bodied, Rioja Alavesa light and aromatic, and Rioja Baja deeper in colour and more fruity in taste.
Rioja is of course associated with red wine, but the region also produces excellent white wines, from fresh and crisp to barrel-fermented and oak-aged.
Besides generally being lower in alcohol, they offer remarkable value for money especially in the mid-price category. They are very food-friendly wines and offer subtle flavours that encourage their enjoyment.
Crianza (red back label)
White Crianza wines are aged for at least six months in oak barrels, which add a hint of creamy complexity to the finish.
Reserva (scarlet back label)
White Reserva wines are aged a minimum of two years, with at least six months in oak. These wines in general display creamy, buttery aromas balanced with lemon acidity.
Gran Reserva (teal back label)
These rare wines are only made in exceptional vintages using the finest grapes. The whites are aged for at least four years with a minimum of one year in oak. The wines are golden yellow with rich, honeyed nutty flavours.
The golden cage
Some bottles of Rioja are encased in a metal wire; this is done purely for security on better bottles to stop wines being decanted and topped up with cheaper versions.
White grape varieties
Garnacha Blanca An intense grape, giving weight and body to Viura with wines that are to age. Small amounts of 100% Garnacha Blanca are made, which give highly concentrated and high quality wine.
The correct name for this grape is Malvasia de Rioja, which is entirely different to Malvasia grown elsewhere around the world. This variety is used in small quantities alongside Viura to make classic oak-aged wines, giving a savoury presence.
Rioja's oldest known variety, giving high acidity, with herbal, citrus and apple notes.
Relatively new (1988), this is becoming increasingly popular as a blending grape. It is aromatic, with citrus and tropical fruit flavours.
Known as Macabeo in the rest of Spain, this is the main white grape variety in Rioja. It produces clean, zesty herbaceous flavours when young but
when fermented in a barrel it develops complexity and some smoky spices. As of 2007, Rioja producers have been allowed to use Chardonnay,
Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo grapes in minority percentages in blends.
Rioja's recommended wines
Hacienda el Ternero Blanco 2013
£9.67, O W Loeb
A really elegant wine that's soft and delicate on the nose, with stone fruit on the palate and a pleasant toasty background. It can be substituted for a good white Burgundy.
ViÁ±a Tondonia, R Lopez de Heredia Reserva 1998
£19, Georges Barbier of London 90% Viura, 10% Malvasia
A golden coloured, beautifully made wine that has had at least six years in oak and a further six years in bottle, in the cellars. The depth, texture and complexity is truly exceptional, with flavours of dried pineapple, wax, honey and pebbles.
ViÁ±a Gravonia Crianza 2004
£12.20 Georges Barbier of London
This has beeswax, lemon zest and liquorice on the nose, and a citrus mouth feel with layers of flavours and a great freshness despite being 10 years old. An exciting wine, with the ageing having been completed for you.
Marques de Murrieta Capellania
£11.24, Maisons Marques et Domaines
Elegant white flowers on the nose, rich and textured with complexity throughout. This is a world class wine. Aged for nearly two years in oak, the grapes are from an 85-year-old single vineyard in the prestigious Ygay Estate.
Valenciso White Barrel Fermented 2013
70% Viura, 39% Garnacha Blanca
Delicate, tingling freshness, white flowers and buttercups. Passion fruit, and racy and lingering stone fruit, such as white peaches, and custard at the end.
Nivarius Blanco 2012
£8.70, Georges Barbier of London
55% Tempranillo Blanco, 45% Viura
Straw yellow colour. Nutty on first taste, bright and zingy, with citrus and pear flavours. The freshness lingers in the mouth for a while.
R Lopez de Heredia
The LÁ³pez de Heredia family is world famous for its ability to age white wine to unbelievable lengths. It is the sole bastion of the old-fashioned style of long oak ageing for its whites. This is achieved by ageing the wine in oak barrels for up to 10 years, during which time the wine is racked (transferred from one barrel to another) twice a year.
Following the barrel storage the wine is hand-bottled and individually corked, then dipped in wax before a further 10 years of ageing in bottle in its cellars.
These Gran Reserva whites can then be drunk immediately or aged for up to another 50 years. Currently the 1964 sits alongside the 1994 as the oldest and youngest examples of the wine in perfect harmony.
Rarely can you drink a 50-year-old white wine that delivers sheer perfection: a spiced bouquet, vanilla and walnuts, hints of dried pineapple, gentle white truffle aromas and clean fresh acidity. This wine is lingering liquid indulgence, pure gold.
The ability to declare Gran Reserva in Rioja is controlled by the governing body with the exception of R Lopez de Heredia. It is allowed to declare its own Gran Reserva years and is very selective when it does so, rarely abiding by the standard declarations.
Marques de Murrieta
Producing both traditional and modern styles, this bodega has just rebuilt its winery, and now has a visitors' centre, wine shop, lecture theatres and a state of the art kitchen. The winery has changed its white Rioja to a more modern style with less oak. As a result it has developed a wine that is perfect with modern Spanish food. On my visit it was matched with a ceviche of wild salmon.
At the Harrow at Little Bedwyn we have adapted the recipe to create a ceviche of langoustine with cucumber sorbet. The richly textured wine complete with its fresh citrus flavours delivers a great balance for this dish.