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Rich and Oaky, White Rioja Bends the Summer Standard

Wines of The Times

By ERIC ASIMOV AUG. 10, 2017


Though not the typical thirst quencher, good white Rioja is both refreshing and interesting.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Good white Rioja is not your typical summer white. It’s weighty not light, rich not tangy, and it demands a little more thought than the usual thirst quencher.

What’s more, good white Rioja is not so much about fruit as it is about the absence of it. Savory, oaky, mineral, spicy, nutlike; these words all come to mind. Citrus is the closest white Rioja comes to fruit, and, really, that is more of an allusion to its lively acidity than it is to a distant family member of the grape.

Still, white Rioja can be a great wine for summer. Lobster and corn, scallops, crab, meaty white fish like halibut — all of these would benefit from the rich embrace of a classic example. Good Riojas are refreshing, a quality that has more to do with balance and energy than it does lightness.

I had been thinking about white Rioja recently because it has been many years since the wine panel looked at a cross section of this unusual category. With that in mind, we recently tasted 20 white Riojas, including bottles from nine different vintages, from 2015 going back to 2003.

Why cast such a wide net? I will explain shortly. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Ashley Santoro, wine director of the Standard East Village, and Rachel Merriam, wine director at Casa Mono and Bar Jamon near Union Square.

It is fair to say that white Rioja is not exactly a well-known wine, nor is it well understood. Many people are not even aware of its existence.

“Ninety-five percent of the customers who order a white Rioja, when the wine comes, they say they thought they ordered a red,” Ashley said.

For those few who are keenly aware of white Rioja, one name stands above all others: López de Heredia, a producer whose zeal in guarding the old traditions of making Rioja is matched only by its fervor for upholding the highest possible standards for its wine.

Almost alone, López de Heredia continues the practice of aging the bottles at the winery until they are ready to drink. This means that the current vintage in the marketplace for its Viña Gravonia crianza, its least-aged white, is 11 years old, the 2006. The latest available vintage for Viña Tondonia reserva, the midage white, is the 2003, and, for the Tondonia gran reserva, which gets the longest aging before release, it is the 1996.

We could not fit the gran reserva into our tasting, as it exceeds our cap of $100 a bottle, but the other two were included, and, needless to say, they took the top two spots. The ’06 Gravonia was our No. 1 wine and received our highest rating, the rarely awarded four stars. It was rich and oaky, yet pulsing with energy, with a coiled core of mineral flavors.

The wines are so singular that we all recognized the producer in the blind tasting. Rachel called it “historical,” and Ashley said “this is what I want when I order white Rioja.” The Gravonia was also our best value at $29.

Theoretically, a reserva like the 2003 would be a step up in concentration and complexity over the crianza, and usually it is. But 2003 was a bizarrely hot year, often resulting in wines of lower acidity than usual. This seemed true with the reserva, which was nonetheless delightful. It was our No. 2 bottle, but it did feel as if it were tiring a bit. The 2006 vintage was also a hot one, but you could not tell it by the crianza.

 

Aside from the long aging, the other telltale sign of a traditional Rioja is the use of American oak in its aging vessels, rather than the French oak commonly used for more modern versions. The difference may not be neon obvious, but to my taste, American oak melds better with both red and white Rioja, imparting a light coconut creaminess that seems perfectly at home with the wines.

French oak tends to offer a spicier, toasty woodiness that sticks out. I should say these are generalizations subject to many variables, including how and where the barrels were made.

The contrast in woods was evident in our No. 3 wine, the full-bodied but resonant 2014 Que Bonito Cacareaba from Benjamin Romeo’s Contador. It was a modern, much younger wine with evident flavors of French oak that the traditional-minded panel still found impressive.

Most Rioja Blancos are dominated by the viura grape, supplemented primarily with garnacha blanca and malvasia as the primary supplements. A few international varieties like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are also permitted.

But the Que Bonita Cacareaba is, unusually, 73 percent garnacha blanca, with 15 percent malvasia and just 12 percent viura. By contrast, the López de Heredia wines were 90 percent to 100 percent viura. And our No. 4 wine, the 2008 Honoratus Aurum from Viñaspral, was 100 percent viura, aged in a combination of French and American oak. We found it rich and smoky, textured and energetic.

Wines like the Que Bonito Cacareaba and our No. 6 bottle, the 2015 Muga Rioja Blanco, are not so much aged in oak as they are fermented in oak. What’s the difference?

Those two wines were fermented in new French oak, which imparts the flavor of the wood. But they don’t receive the very slow interaction with oxygen that comes from long aging in barrels, which can deepen and enrich the texture of the wines. Nonetheless, the Muga, a $15 bottle, was focused and lively with flavors of nuts, oak and minerals.

 

The most surprising element in our tasting was the relative absence of fresh young whites, which maybe a decade ago seemed to be squeezing out the oak-aged and oak-fermented versions.

If anything, our selection of wines, not complete by any means, ranged from some oak to a lot of oak, with much diversity in the oak treatments. At one point, Rachel speculated that some of the wines may have been aged in old sherry barrels, as is often the case with malt whiskeys.

We rejected several bottles because they were overbearingly oaky, lacking the fine balance of our favorites. And a couple of bottles didn’t make our top 10 because the divergence of opinion was too great. They were the 2010 “B de Basilio” from Basilio Izquierdo, which I found rich but lacking energy and definition, and the 2012 Plácet Valtomelloso from Palacios Remondo, which Florence and I liked, but Ashley and Rachel did not.

Over all, the quality of these wines was high. They certainly made more of an impression on us than they appear to make on the public. But if you are interested in a break from the familiar, they are well worth exploring.