Strolling through the vineyards of Rueda, this barren, arid landscape seems an unlikely choice to support a thriving white wine industry. Yet Bodegas Beronia, and many others, are in the middle of the September harvest; Beronia has been one of Rueda’s major investors over the past ten years. Its euros have flowed into an area of Castile and León, a sparsely populated expanse of vineyards and cornfields north-by-northwest of Madrid that stretches from the border with Portugal and Galicia across Spain’s northern plain. It is a region that has been pivotal throughout Spain’s rich history; El Cid – scourge of the Moors (actually a mercenary who also hired his services to the Islamic caliphate) – was born near Burgos; Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the great unifying and centralising Catholic monarchs, were married in Valladolid. The region was also a frontline in the clash of Christian and Muslim civilisations during the Reconquista. Much blood has been spilled over Castile and León’s diverse terroir.
Today, however, it is a region renowned not for violent political clashes but the robust, powerful reds of Ribera del Duero, and the crisp, aromatic whites of Rueda.
The white rise
Historically, the first signs of an interest in modern white production in Rueda came in the 1970s, when leading Rioja producer Marqués de Riscal invested in the region. Made largely from the Verdejo grape – Spain’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc – Rueda wines were classically vinified and fortified like sherry, until Riscal revolutionised the local winemaking by investing in vineyards and changing production methods.
“Rueda has a long history of winemaking, although one that might come across as a complete anathema in the 21st century,” says Mario Muñoz Blanco, director of exports and marketing for the Denominación de Origen Rueda consortium. “For centuries, the region produced a style called Dorado de Rueda, which was a dry liqueur wine, obtained by oxidative ageing, which remained in oak for at least two years. This wine was served at the court of the Catholic monarchs and continued to be considered one of the great wines of Spain for centuries.”
Of course, the tastes and preferences of contemporary consumers have moved on slightly from the days of the Spanish court. Nurtured on a diet of New World Sauvignon Blanc, modern consumers by and large expect their white wines to offer clean fruit, good acidity and uplifting aromatics – a style that for decades, Spain was not able to provide in any volume. Godello, a native Galician grape, is a case in point. At one time extremely prolific in northern Spain, by the 1970s much of it had been ripped out in favour of Palomino, for sherry production. However, inspired by the success of Albarino in Galicia, Godello was replanted in the 1980s, initially led by the producer Godeval. Galician whites are now a major on-trade fixture, particularly in London and New York.
But it is Rueda that continues to drive Spain’s global image as a producer of affordable dry white wines. It is the nation’s fastest growing white wine region, planted to a vineyard area of 16,358ha, with an increase of 1,673ha between 2017 and 2018. Of these, 97% (15,904ha) are white varietals and 86.7% is Verdejo. Today 1,540 growers and 69 wineries contribute to Rueda’s ongoing prosperity, while investment continues to flow into the region.
Bodegas Beronia, owned by the González Byass group, saw the potential for a relatively easy sell in marketing an affordable white wine from an established Rioja brand. “The Rueda D.O. [appellation] has seen a boom in Spain in recent years, being currently one of the top three denominations in sales volume,” says the group’s international marketing manager, Victoria González-Gordon. “We had been interested in a Rueda winery for a number of years and around three to four years ago the opportunity arose to acquire two very special plots of vineyard.”
She says the company initially entered the region in 2014 and subsequently acquired 65ha spread over two estates. “We opened our new winery in 2017. It is completely sustainable and has already received two architectural awards due to its integration into the landscape and the use of natural resources, such as the recycling of rainwater.” They make just one wine, a 100% varietal Verdejo, which accounts for most of Rueda’s output. While some growers have planted Sauvignon Blanc, either to blend or market as a standalone wine, Rueda’s signature product is largely uniform in style.
However, Rueda’s terroir is anything but monotone. González-Gordon explains: “The Rueda D.O. is located in/at the old Duero River’s terraces. These soils were formed by a decrease in the river’s level during the tertiary and quaternary periods. That fact gave rise to these terraces and soils that can currently be split into three distinct groups: sandy, clay loam and gravelly soils.” According to González-Gordon, the sandy soils are typical of the middle and lower areas of the old Duero terraces, while the clay-loam soils make up most of the Rueda D.O. territory. “The gravelly soils are the most characteristic of Rueda D.O.; these are the soils where some of the oldest vineyards in the D.O. can be found. That fact, together with the limestone veins found throughout the area, give the wines the differentiating nuances of Rueda Verdejo.”
Establishing a reputation
Almost all big and most medium Spanish brands now market a Rueda wine. “Rueda has performed extraordinary well over the past five years. Despite some doubts on the quick evolution of its planted surface, the success of a fresh, enjoyable, not-too-expensive white wine, even in traditional Spain, has attracted so many new wineries,” says Rafael del Rey, general manager at the Spanish Observatory of Wine Markets. “However, it will be increasingly hard to find someone in the region who may produce at someone else’s request. Since most companies are interested in developing their own brands, that may also foster direct investment. And international markets still represent a very small part of Rueda’s sales, which gives a great opportunity to keep on growing.”
Interest in exporting and expanding production in Rueda didn’t really occur until the 1990s, according to Marqués de Riscal’s marketing director, Ramón Román. “Spain’s association as a red wine country, in addition to the relatively recent technological advances and progress in white wine making, forestalled our entry into this segment,” says Román. “We didn’t work on promoting our wines abroad until the ’90s, which did initially put us at a disadvantage in comparison to other white wine regions.” It was the same story in Galicia, whose seafood-friendly whites were consumed largely domestically until the end of the 20th century.
Now it’s a different story. Paradoxically, the parlous economic situation in Spain has been positive for growth, necessitating the need to search out new markets. “Madrid’s on-trade used to be a major centre of demand for Rueda whites, for example, before the crisis,” observes José Pizarro, owner of the successful Pizarro restaurant group in London. As the Consejo Regulador reveals, in 2017 Rueda exported more than 12m bottles globally (including red but predominately white wines), compared to 7.9m in 2008. The headline countries for Rueda exports – in descending order – are Holland, Germany, US, UK, Switzerland, and Belgium. However, del Rey emphasises that while growth has been impressive, there is further potential to increase Rueda’s presence in markets such as the US, which has shown greater interest in the wines of Galicia. “It is true that Rueda has initially been placed by the market in lower price segments, also influenced by lower production costs. It is also true that Rías Baixas has a longer experience in different markets, including export, particularly in the United States,” he says. “Increasing our distribution in the US is a key goal for us,” agrees González-Gordon.
Verdejo has also made some headway in Asia, even in urban China, where the white market has been traditionally minute. “We are making progress in China, with sales improving over the past five years,” says Ignacio Pariente of Rueda firm José Pariente. Nonetheless, the key thirst remains for Spanish bulk wine, although 102,985 bottles of Rueda were imported in 2017, compared to 1,500 in 2005. Nevertheless, the majority of Rueda’s considerable output – more than 82m bottles – is consumed in Spain.
If there is a threat on the horizon, it is that Rueda’s growers may upset the delicate equilibrium between supply and distribution capacity, with plantings set to further increase in 2019. Demand remains strong in the domestic market, but there are clearly no guarantees of sustained growth in an economy with 15% unemployment. In addition, Rueda has built its export success around a very mass-market friendly price, at typically €12 or less. This puts Rueda at odds with the rest of Spain’s white wine industry. Globally, Spanish white wine exports are growing at a faster pace than reds and rosés from the country, and bottled wines, which generate more value than bulk white wines, are increasingly gaining recognition internationally. This is significant for a nation that made its name as a producer of cheap, domestically consumed plonk, Rioja aside. The premiumisation narrative continues to lift sales of terroir-driven whites such as Finca Allende’s white Rioja and Rafael Palacios’ As Sortes, which both retail at €40-plus. There is a risk that in a zeitgeist where consumers are drinking less frequently, but spending on average higher sums, Rueda may get left behind.
However, it appears that investors are listening. “We are working on a new premium white made from hand-harvested, old-vine Verdejo, a blend made from wine fermented in 500-litre oak barrels and concrete tanks. With this wine we are looking to create an intense Verdejo with the capacity to age,” says González-Gordon. This interest in producing high-quality, more expensive wines, made with very old Verdejo vines, is an important development in the region, which runs in parallel and is perfectly complementary to Verdejo’s main product.
“There is an increasing number of companies, particularly small ones, which are developing extraordinary and more complex quality white wines,” says del Rey. “The ability of Rueda to manage a segmented portfolio of large quantities of popular wines together with some exceptional quality wines will be key for the future. And it can be done.”
His enthusiasm is understandable; the progress Spain has made across all fronts over the past 15 years is remarkable. This proud nation will always be known and loved for its red wines. But as consumers become increasingly thirsty for lighter, fresher wines, the country also has a white future ahead of it.