I’ve spent much of the past six months prepping for an exam on wine regions from all corners of the new and old world. From the furthermost reaches of the Southern Hemisphere with New Zealand’s Central Otago and Chile’s Biobío to Canada’s Okanagan, New York’s Finger Lakes, and the great span of appellations throughout the European continent, I’ve scribbled out flashcards and blind-tasted myriad wine samples in an effort to gain some level of mastery. Inevitably, there are always a few areas that remain my Achilles heel. (Ok, more than a few.) One, in particular, is Spain.
For some reason, the red wines of the Iberian Peninsula feel relatively straightforward. After all, more than half the country is planted with Tempranillo in all its various synonyms. Follow that with the distinctive characteristics of Graciano, Mencía, Garnacha, and Mazuelo, and you pretty much have the five major red players of Spain.
But I always seem to struggle with differentiating the white wines of Spain—excluding Cava and Sherry, of course. Those are relatively dead giveaways. But aside from Albariño, which has drawn a decent amount of popularity in Texas over the years, I rarely encounter Spanish white wines where I live. Perhaps they’re in shorter supply in the Lone Star State. Or maybe I simply haven’t sought them out regularly. But when faced with potentially having to recognize them from one another in a blind tasting, I’ve been slow to gain a level of comfort. I’ve recently felt an urgent need to untangle my confusion and get these wines sorted out in my brain. And what better way to do that than in written form? So here we go: here’s my concerted effort to make heads or tails of the white wines of Spain.
While Tempranillo is the most planted red variety in Spain, Aíren is the most planted white variety, though you’ld be hard-pressed to find it as a major star in any of the more iconic white wines of the country. Instead, the major players include Albariño, Viura (or Macabeo when in Catalunya), Verdejo, and Godello.
Albariño in Rías Baixas: Home of the Albariño grape, Rías Baixas is on the far northwestern coast of Spain. The white wines here are typically 100% Albariño, which can easily emulate Gruner Veltliner, Muscadet, or Chablis. These wines are fresh and crisp, with lovely floral aromatics and notes of stone fruit, sweet tangerine, and sometimes those fruity breakfast cereals I remember as a kid. These wines are typically meant to enjoy in their youth, with fermentation normally taking place in stainless steel to avoid exposure to oxygen.
Hondarrabi Zuri in Txakoli: The Basque Country of Spain is an autonomous region that’s home to three provinces, including Álava, Biscay, and Gipuzkoa. While tourists often flock to the sunny coastline of San Sebastián or the idyllic or the parallel ranges of the Basque Mountains, the region is also known for a racy white wine known as Txakoli. Made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape, Txakoli’s hallmark is a slight effervescence to compliment light floral notes with dried herbs and lemony citrus tones. Generally crisp and low in alcohol, these wines are also distinguished by a slight salinity on the palate, making them exceptionally seafood-friendly.
Godello in Galicia: A lesser-known variety common in the Galicia regions, Godello is a variety known for wines with full body, and vibrant acidity. In many ways, its structure is akin to Chardonnay but with notes of grapefruit, lemon pith, quince, and mineral chalkiness. Godello is notable mainly in Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra or Valdeorras regions. Arguably one of the most interesting Spanish white grapes that fly under the radar. Texturally, it can be aged in oak, or simply given lees stirring for added depth but still has a racing acidity. This combined with its potential for complexity, makes it akin to some white Burgundy.
Verdejo in Rueda: Located in the Castilla y León region in northern Spain, Rueda is a high-plateau region with a dramatic continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers. Though several red and white grapes are planted here, Verdejo is perhaps the most important. As part of the Duero River Basin the soils here are very deep and well-drained, primarily of sandy-clay or a clay blend. Many of the sandy sites have remained resistant to phylloxera and have 100+-year-old Verdejo vines. Generally produced in a youthful style, Verdejo in Rueda tends to have a pale, greenish-yellow hue and herbal notes of fennel, grass, lemon, and soft peach. It’s often likened to Sauvignon Blanc. Vibrant acidity aids in allowing some of these wines to age well, offering rich, nutty notes along with orange peel.
Note: A white wine simply labeled “Rueda” may only have up to 50% Verdejo grapes blended with Sauvignon Blanc or other white varieties. Instead, look for “Rueda Verdejo,” which is required to have at least 85% Verdejo, and many are 100% Verdejo.
Viura in Rioja Blanco: Viura, is the star grape in white Rioja. In the glass, Viura is a fairly neutral variety with a moderately juicy, tart palate—excellent for Cava production. As Rioja Blanco, it can exhibit a wide range from light and crisp, to round and full-bodied. Like red Rioja, these wines follow certain aging requirements to merit a particular category from Joven, which does not require any oak aging to Gran Reserva, which requires 48 months of aging with a minimum of six months in cask. Younger Rioja Blanco is lean and dry with racy acidity and notes of lime and lemon peel, ripe melon, and herbal tarragon. These wines can take on oxidative notes of toasted pineapple, honey, preserved lemon, and toasty hazelnut when aged with oak.
As it turns out, with a bit of focus and organization, I think I’ve been able to lay out a reasonably discernable map for deciphering these wines. Most of them fall in between what my friend Justin Vann deems as delicious seawater or silken, oxidized baked apples with a pop of citrus. Here’s hoping it’s enough to win me a few points on my exam next month. Wish me luck!