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Versatile Verdejo: Get to Know Spain’s Beloved White Grape

Walk into any bar in Spain and order white wine and you will likely be handed a glass of Verdejo from Rueda. The number one white wine in Spain, Rueda Verdejo has long been known as a bright, refreshing pour that delivers bang for the buck. While much of the attention on Spanish wine is given to its luscious reds, Verdejo has been quietly making inroads in wine shops and restaurants across the U.S. over the past several years. Since Rueda’s establishment as a DO (Denominación de Origen) in 1980, it has been known as the home of this distinct variety.

Located in the autonomous community of Castilla y Léon, Rueda is about two hours northwest of Madrid by car. A rich tapestry of Spain’s cultural heritage, Castilla y Léon is nourished by the Duero River, from which neighboring region Ribera del Duero draws its name. Set on a high flat plain between 2,300 and 2,800 feet above sea level, Rueda’s rugged landscape and lime-rich, rocky and sandy clay soils offer a backbone of minerality to many of the wines made here.

Rueda owes its prominence in modern times to a large investment in 1972 by Rioja winery Marqués de Riscal, which attracted other well-known winemakers to the region. At the same time, local winegrower Ángel Ródriguez Vidal of Bodegas Martinsancho continued to propagate and extol the virtues of Verdejo at a time when other wineries were ripping out remaining plantings of the variety, which had almost become extinct in the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Since the creation of the DO, Rueda has grown to include more than 70 wineries, which produced over 59 million bottles of Verdejo (including single-varietal bottlings and Verdejo-dominated blends) in 2022. Other allowable white grapes are Sauvignon Blanc, Viura, Chardonnay, Viognier and Palomino Fino. A wine labeled DO Rueda must include at least 50% Verdejo or Sauvignon Blanc, but single-varietal Verdejo with flavors of grapefruit, melon, lime, passion fruit, dried herbs and soft floral notes reigns supreme. Santiago Mora, director general of DO Rueda, comments, “Every time I visit a winery, I witness how they have incorporated different elements into their elaborations to continue searching for Verdejo’s full potential, [including] concrete eggs with different types of coating, different barrels in terms of sizes, toasting, and the origin of the barrels and the use of foudres and amphorae.”

In addition to the well-known crisp, citrusy style that is a by-the-glass mainstay at tapas bars, Verdejo is now being made in a fuller, more complex barrel-fermented and sur-lies style. In addition, a new category called “Gran Vino de Rueda” launched in 2021.

Fermenting Verdejo in eggs is an up-and-coming trend throughout Rueda
Fermenting Verdejo in eggs is an up-and-coming trend throughout Rueda / Image Courtesy of Ribera Y Rueda Wine

Barrel Fermented and Barrel Aged

Fermentado en barrica, or barrel fermented, means just that: The wine is fermented in oak barrels rather than stainless steel, which is used for most of the bottles produced within DO Rueda. Fermenting in barrel adds a fuller texture that is often described as creamy or buttery. Many wines are then aged for additional time in barrel, which will add texture as well as spice, coconut and vanilla notes. Further, most winemakers reserve grapes from their best plots for their wood-fermented and -aged Verdejo, yielding exceptional quality.

Pablo del Villar Igea, partner and winemaker at Bodega Hermanos del Villar, makes a Verdejo called Oro de Castilla Finca los Hornos, which comes from a single small plot of 30-year-old vines near the village of Rueda. Using only the yeast naturally occurring on the grapes, half of it is fermented in stainless steel and the remainder is fermented in 850-liter previously used French oak foudres, he explains. Both styles receive weekly lees stirring for 11 months and then are blended together and matured for another eight months, bottled and released after six additional months. The result is a wine that del Villar Igea describes as showing “a hidden part of the Verdejo character: Minerality, elegance and persistence, but not so fruit driven in style.”

Bodegas José Pariente was founded by Victoria Pariente in 1998; she named it for her father, José, a viticulturist who, according to his granddaughter Martina Prieto Pariente, the winery’s technical director, made barrel-fermented Verdejo at his small garage winery in Rueda before the founding of the DO or the current winery. Martina explained the difference between her José Pariente Fermentado en Barrica and standard Verdejo, stating, “In the case of barrel fermented, we assemble grapes from vineyards over 60 years old. … We ferment and age on lees for about 11 months in French oak barrels of 228 and 500 liters. With this elaboration, we intend to extol the expression of these old vineyards while maintaining freshness and complexity.”

Wide planings of bushvines are common viticultural practice throughout Rueda
Wide planings of bushvines are common viticultural practice throughout Rueda / Image Courtesy of Ribera Y Rueda Wine

Gran Vino de Rueda

Wine classified as a Gran Vino de Rueda, or Great Wine of Rueda, must be from a vineyard with vines older than 30 years; yields are limited to 6,500 kilograms of grapes per hectare, or 14,330 pounds per 2.47 acres. This is significantly less than the permitted 8,000 to 12,000 kilos per hectare for other white wines from the region. Older vines do, often, produce lower yields anyway—but they also tend to grow smaller berries, leading to greater concentration of flavor.

The eponymous Bodegas Félix Lorenzo Cachazo was established by one of the DO’s founding members and is run today by his son Eduardo Lorenzo Heras, the business director, and daughter Ángela Lorenzo Heras, who is the winemaker. Their Carrasviñas Félix Gran Vino de Rueda 2021, which Eduardo notes was made in honor of their father’s 80th birthday, is sourced from vines with more than 30 years of age. “We wanted to ‘undress’ the variety, to know how it is expressed without any type of element that distorts it,” says Eduardo. It was fermented and aged in wood for just five months, which, he points out, “maintains the varietal character.”

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Verdejo grapes ready for harvest / Image Courtesy of Ribera Y Rueda Wine

One of the largest wineries in the region, Cuatro Rayas, is a cooperative that makes wine from grapes grown by over 300 family growers who are partners in the winery. It produced over 18 million bottles in 2021, according to the winery’s director of communications, but oenologist Elena Martin Oyagüe also makes many small batch wines including two different gran vinos. The Amador Diaz range of wines is named for the winery’s former president. Oyagüe describes it as “the most artisan and unique product of the winery,” pointing out that in addition to being made from some of the oldest pre-phylloxera vines in the region, it is made in such small quantities—just under 3,000 bottles—that it is bottled and labeled by hand.

Although much of the Verdejo imported into the U.S. achieves a “bang for the buck” reputation because of the great quality-to-price ratio, understanding the painstaking grape selection, additional resources, aging time and artisanal approach to winemaking— these emerging Verdejo categories are worth our time, attention and maybe a few extra dollars.

This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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