Ask any Spaniard to tell you their favorite Spanish white wine, and it’s a good bet they’ll answer Verdejo. As Spain’s number one selling white wine, Verdejo’s popularity is undeniable.
Ask some of the world’s most famous winemakers inside and outside Spain to name their favorite Spanish white wine, and the answer is likely going to be the same. Winemakers from other parts of Europe as well as within Spain view Verdejo as a grape with huge potential. As a result, these winemakers have been quietly putting down roots – literally – for the past four decades in Rueda, Verdejo’s primary growing region.
Despite the fact the grape was brought to the area from North Africa ten centuries ago, it’s still nothing short of a miracle that renowned winemakers have been drawn to the area. The climate in Rueda, located in northwest Castilla y León, is harsh. The rocky soils seem as if they would be inhospitable to almost anything living, and the desert-like landscape is not typical postcard wine country.
Yet for just those same reasons, Verdejo is thriving. Winemakers are taking what was mostly considered a simple wine and turning it into head-turning juice. They have discovered that the hard dirt, pebbles, sandy clay soils, hot temperatures, high altitude (2,000 – 2,500 feet) and frigid winters conspire to produce a grape whose concentrated flavors translate to a wine that is equally at home at a summertime picnic as it is in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The combination of the Rueda terroir and the myriad winemaking styles that have been brought to bear in the region have made Verdejo much more than a representation of place. It is a world-class grape that reflects complexity, versatility, and ultimately deliciousness.
Joven is Everyday
Verdejo can best be described as a cross between sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. It has vibrancy, a little edginess, great acidity, and it loves food. The young or “joven” style of Verdejo is a magnificent everyday drinking wine, which is why it’s so popular among Spaniards. For those outside Spain, Verdejo may not yet be an everyday drinking wine (though it should be), but because its characteristics are at once familiar and at the same time distinct, it is endlessly intriguing and always enjoyable.
It could be said that Verdejo was ahead of the white wine curve in Spain. In 1980, Rueda became the first appellation in Castilla y León to receive the Designation of Origin (DO) and the first for white wine in Spain. This is a government-approved term with rigid specifications that singles out the region for the quality of the grapes grown there. Because Verdejo makes up 88 percent of all the white grapes in Rueda and accounts for over 99 percent of all bottles produced there, the DO and Verdejo are practically synonymous.
These days, some Rueda wine producers are kicking it up a notch by employing winemaking techniques used in the finest whites from Champagne and Burgundy. In the process, they are not only producing sensational sparkling Verdejos but also age-worthy still wines as well.
Awaken & Underscored
Part of the reason is because these winemakers are utilizing lees-aging to bring complexity and texture to the wine. Verdejo is well-suited to oak-aging too, which is why certain winemakers have turned to barrels, and large wooden vats – foudres – to make their wines. For flavor development and mouthfeel, some winemakers are using concrete eggs for aging as well. As a result, these wines can be laid down for years – a relatively unexplored possibility until heralded by notable winemakers who were first to set up shop in the area.
All this is to say that Rueda Verdejo is slowly but surely turning into a world-class wine with a reputation for richness, herbal notes, complexity, minerality and aging potential of 5-10 years. Similar to the world’s finest white wines that are produced in places like the Loire, Sancerre, Chablis and Bordeaux and well-constructed Verdejo from Rueda is on track to be mentioned in the same breath as those heralded regions.
Underscoring this quiet rise are two new Rueda wine designations: Vino de Pueblo and Gran Vino de Rueda. The first allows a village name to appear on the label if at least 85 percent of the grapes come from that village. The Grand Vino de Rueda specifies that the wines must come from vineyards at least 30 years old. In addition, the yield is capped at 6500 kg per hectare or about one-and-a-half tons for every two-and-a-half acres. The low yield translates to more highly concentrated, elegant wines.
In addition to these designations, a bottle of Verdejo from the Rueda DO will fall into one of two categories: Rueda Verdejo in which at least 85 percent of the wine is made from Verdejo – and Rueda in which at least 50 percent of the wine is made from Verdejo.
Labels and designations only tell part of the story. It’s about what’s in the bottle that most people care about. And it’s about value. For all its complexity and sophisticated winemaking styles now being employed, one would assume Verdejo’s prices are rising to match. Instead, most Verdejos can be had for less than $20. Those that cost more reflect refinement and ageability but are still far and away less expensive than their better-known French counterparts. Which is why Verdejo is as exciting to winemakers as it is to wine drinkers. Winemakers love a good challenge, and wine drinkers love a good wine at a great price. Score.