Wine tasting: White Rioja

Sarah Wong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 8:41am

Ninety per cent of output from Rioja in northeastern Spain, one of the country's most famous wine regions, is red wine. Thus, white Rioja remains a niche product - but its importance should not be overlooked.

The main component of the white Rioja is viura, also known as macabeo. British wine critic Jancis Robinson calls viura "the Cinderella grape", as it is "hardly ever written about and of which the authorities in the region … seem rather ashamed", but which has potential for great beauty.

In 2009, regulatory authorities allowed verdejo, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to be used for white Rioja and banned new plantings of viura. In an industry that requires more diversity, the move may restrict customers' choices in the future. As Rioja transitions from the old to the new, it is a good time to try the range of wines that this region has to offer.

In terms of style, there is a wide variety of winemaking methods. Traditional white wines receive extensive barrel ageing before being released. These tend to be nuttier, with some oxidative notes. These varieties are an acquired taste especially for consumers who are looking for fresh, vibrant, fruit-forward styles.

Modern white Rioja is fermented at cool temperatures to preserve primary fruit flavours. Oxygen contact is minimal and ageing the wine in French oak is favoured.

Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva 1981

"To talk about our bodega of white wines being exclusively young and uncomplicated would be asking for trouble," says this 130-year-old winery.

The "very good" 1981 vintage is made from 85 per cent viura and 15 per cent malvasia. It has been labelled a Gran Reserva, meaning that by law it has to be aged two years in oak and three years in the bottle. Tondonia exceeds this requirement and the wine has been barrel-aged for six years. Deep lemon in colour. Oxidative, nutty, cheesy nose. Medium body with crisp acidity and finishing fairly dry. It is at its peak and should be consumed immediately. HK$1,198

Remelluri Blanco 2008

Composed of nine different grape varieties including garnacha blanca, viura, roussanne, marsanne and viognier, this is considered one of the most unusual Riojas in Spain. Aged in French oak for 18 months. Floral, apricot nose. Medium body with balanced acidity and a long finish. An elegant wine for drinking now or in a few years. HK$480

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Que Bonito Cacareaba 2009

Vintner Benjamin Romeo is the face of modern Rioja. His wines have been awarded 100 points by wine critic Robert Parker. His white Rioja is painstakingly made with grapes sourced from 12 different parcels.

Grapes are 48 per cent viura, 32 per cent malvasia and the rest garnacha blanca. The wine spends eight months in new French oak. Honey and citrus, rich and powerful with intense fruit. Higher alcohol content and a slightly bitter finish. Still very youthful and will improve with age. HK$558