HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

BY ROBERT CALVERT

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The red wines of Spain’s Rioja region lope along from strength to strength, gaining steadily in repute as the years pass. The blancos—whites—are not yet as well known as their carmine cousins. In fact, as one writer observes, Rioja is so famous for its reds that “many people remain completely unaware that the region also produces white wines.” What a shame.

Extending along the Ebro river in north central Spain, Rioja comprises three subregions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. The principal white grape in Rioja is Viura, which makes up the largest part of the blend in virtually all Rioja white wines. As Ana Fabiano writes in The Wine Region of Rioja, “Viura contributes acidity and structure to wines, and barrel fermentation seems to extract complexity from the grape.” You may be familiar with Viura under another name—Macabeo— which is what it is called elsewhere in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, where it is used to make Cava.

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In addition to Viura, Rioja whites may include modest quantities of Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca. Malvasía is planted on fewer than 200 acres in Rioja, but as Ms. Fabiano notes, the aromatic grape is a “good partner to blend with Viura.” Garnacha Blanca is a mutation of Garnacha grown on only 37 acres that adds acidity and apple and citrus aromas to blends.

Regulations now allow Rioja growers to use additional varietals in their white wines— Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Turrantés (not the same as Argentina’s Torrontés). A few foreign varietals also may be used.

Blanco Pairings

The white wines of Rioja are eminently quaffable at any time of year, and as we slide through spring into what promises to be a long, hot summer, they will be especially appealing. Their subtle fruitiness and refreshing acidity make them delightful aperitifs, and they pair wonderfully with food, particularly light summer fare—from hors-d’oeuvres to main courses.

The Control Board of the Rioja Designation of Origin reported on a recent tasting of Rioja whites with Spanish cheeses. According to the report, there was general agreement by the panel of wine and food journalists that Rioja whites complement Spanish cheeses very well. Cheese specialist Guillermina Sanchez opined that fruity, young Rioja whites “pair perfectly with fresh cheeses of delicate acidity,” while barrel-fermented and barrel- aged wines are appropriate with older cheeses.

My wife and I did some tasting of our own, pairing six Rioja whites with a variety of foods. We didn’t taste the wines with exotic cheeses or Spanish specialties, choosing instead to pair them with more familiar dishes you can easily find or make in this country.

Chicken dishes—including even chicken paprika—generally pair very well with white Rioja wines.

Our favorite pairing was with shrimp ‘n’ grits. And what a wonderful combination it was! The acidity of the wine perfectly complemented the creaminess of the grits, even as it resonated with the clean, briny flavor of the shrimp. A related pairing was with garlic-cheese grits.

The wines also paired well with corn risotto—risotto made using chicken stock, with a hint of thyme and with corn kernels added at the finish. In the middle of winter, we used frozen corn for our risotto, which works perfectly well. As summer advances, it will be possible to prepare the dish using fresh corn. You really should try this. It is boffo—especially if you have scallops available to serve with the risotto. (Send me an email if you’d like the recipe.)

Three Delightful Exemplars

Made of 100 percent Viura from 40-year-old vines, Cortijo III Blanco DOC Rioja 2013 ($12) is delightful and refreshing, a “pure, youthful expression of Rioja Alta,” as someone observed. It was fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged two months on the lees before it was filtered and bottled. (Aging on the lees—deceased yeasts that fall to the bottom of the tank during fermentation—imparts extra flavor to wine.) Pale lemon in color, the Cortijo emits cheerful fragrances of citrus, bananas, minerals and subtle herbs that herald what is to come—its refreshing flavor, full and fruity, with components of citrus and grapefruit rind. Rich and almost buttery in the mouth, possibly due to aging on the lees, the Cortijo’s precise acidity makes it an excellent food wine.

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Cortijo means “small farm shack,” by the way. According to the importer, the name suggests that “shacks, oftentimes, make better wine than most high-flown chateaux.”

Located in the town of Haro in Rioja Alta, Muga (bodegasmuga.com) is a family-owned establishment, one of the “oldest, most elegant and traditional Rioja producers.”

Muga Blanco Barrel Fermented Rioja DOC 2014 ($16) comprises 90 percent Viura and 10 percent Malvasía, fermented in barrels of new French oak and aged on its lees for three months before fining and bottling. (Fining is a process that takes tiny floating particles of yeast and grape skin out of the wine.) This wonderful, mellow yellow wine exudes fragrances of honeysuckle and white grapes encircled by a halo of vanilla. Its poignant flavor includes components of grapefruit, pears and hazelnuts complemented by flinty minerality. It finishes with evanescent honey flavors. The Muga Blanco is delightful paired with creamy grits.

Viñedos y Bodegas de la Marquesa–Valserrano (valserrano.com), another family-owned winery, is located in Álava (Rioja Alavesa), the northernmost of Rioja’s three subregions. The family’s vineyards are situated “within the boundaries of Villabuena, a short distance from the wine cellar, on sunkissed slopes which descend from the Sierra de Cantabria … towards the banks of the Ebro” in the south and southeast. According to Valserrano, Viura grapes for its wines are “grown in the highest plots and poorest soils of our vineyards, exclusively to be used to make our cask-fermented, cask-aged white wines.”

A wonderful and intriguing wine that cannot fail to please, Valserrano Blanco Barrel Fermented Rioja DOC 2014 ($16) is 95 percent Viura with 5 percent Malvasía, fermented in barrels of new French oak and aged on the lees. It is a bright, inviting straw color and has a fragrance that evokes the oak in which it was fermented. The flavor is subtle and complex, combining restrained citrus with honeysuckle, almonds, thyme, minerals—and a lovely kiss of oak. Crisp and refreshing, it offers good acidity. It is luscious.

Summing Up

You won’t necessarily find these wines on the shelf at your favorite wine store, but you can order them, which takes only a few days. If you see a different Rioja Blanco on the shelf, take a bottle home to taste while you wait for your order to arrive. Be on the lookout for CVNE’s Monopole Blanco, Valserrano’s Gran Reserva Blanco and Otoñal’s Blanco—other excellent whites from Rioja.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.