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  • Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space
  • Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space
  • Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space
  • Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space
  • Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space
  • Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space
  • Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space
Some wines made with neutral grape varities grown in Spain. Photo credits: Amaya Cervera.

Grapes

Spain’s neutral white varieties claim their space

Amaya Cervera | April 28th, 2020

You are immensely proud of your wine but then someone insits on the fact that it is made with a “neutral” grape variety. Piedad Garrido’s smile vanished. Bodegas Marisol Rubio was her family’s first foray into the world of wine and she was presenting an off-the-beaten-path wine: a dry Pedro Ximénez from Toledo (Central Spain), far from this grape’s natural habitat in Andalucía. 

It was not a derogative comment though -quite the opposite. Balanced, sapid and slightly bitter, Cima 2018 is a world away from the standard whites in the region. A food-friendly wine with 12.5% abv., it is yet another example of the potential of some grape varieties that have been neglected because of their muted aromas.

None more so than Airén, Spain’s most vilified, widely grown white variety. “It’s by far the most neutral grape I work with,” says Elías López Montero of Bodegas Verum in Tomelloso (Castilla-La Mancha), who works both with indigenous varieties and others that are adapted to the region’s climate. “Airén is a delicate variety and very good at reflecting the soil and the vintage conditions,” he points out. The best proof is the recently released Las Tinadas 2018. Grapes are sourced from an ungrafted vineyard planted in 1950 on markedly stony soils. With bitter, dry stone notes on the finish, this wine is aged in large clay tinajas so it feels contemporary in style and fits in perfectly with today’s near obsessive search for minerality in wine. 

Early and late aromas

These neutral grape varieties have benefited from the growing interest in whites and the growing trend in the 21st century towards all things local in terms of wine.  In Gredos, Albillo Real has found its voice following in the steps of the region’s acclaimed Garnacha. In Castilla y León, Albillo Mayor has grown by leaps and bounds after the DO Ribera del Duero allowed whites made with this variety last year -a progenitor of Tempranillo, this ancient grape was limited to blends.

In the southeast Merseguera and Tardana are starting to be heard. In Galicia, Dona Blanca is a rising star and so is its version further south in Toro (Castilla y León) where it is called Malvasía. Even Viura (or Macabeo), a grape variety firmly established in Rioja, Catalonia and other Spanish wine regions, lives a sort of renaissance in the hands of terroir-driven producers. In the south, a new generation of producers with a strong focus on the vine has propelled Palomino (known as Listán Blanco in the Canary Islands) and, by extension, to Pedro Ximénez in Montilla-Moriles and Málaga. The echoes have even reached the few Palomino plantings left in Castilla y León and Galicia with a significant share of old vines.

In Andalucía the discreet aromas of Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and also Zalema in Condado de Huelva have traditionally been seen as a positive feature -a blank canvas for biological and oxidative ageing.

Things are seen differently at present. “I dislike the word neutral; it is totally unfair,” claims Ramiro Ibáñez (Cota 45, De la Riva), one of the producers at the forefront of the terroir-driven movement in the Sherry Triangle. “Terpenic grape varieties have intense, primary aromas, but their development in bottle does not match that of others with a considerably lower amount of these compounds.” This is why he proposes renaming grape varieties based on their aromatic potential: early aromatic varieties or late delayed aromatic varieties. “Many aromatic compounds tend towards bitterness. This is the reason why aromatic grape varieties benefit from some residual sugar, while neutral or late aromatic grapes are used for bone dry wines,” Ibáñez adds.

Neutral vs. aromatic

In Monterrei (Galicia), José Luis Mateo of Quinta de Muradella works with different grape varieties such as the neutral Dona Blanca and Monstruosa and others like Godello and Treixadura, with more aromatic precursors.

“I have been pleasantly surprised by the ability of neutral grape varieties to transmit the soil,” he points out. This is particularly true with Dona Blanca, which he grows in three different types of soils. Additionally, he can compare young vineyards of about 10-20 years old with others planted by himself 30 years ago and some very ancient post-phylloxera mountain plots and others planted immediately after the Spanish Civil War. “In young vines, differences have to do with texture and structure, based on their higher or lower clay content. But old vines offer higher levels of minerality. Even if I cannot provide a scientific explanation, there is distinctive salty character in the wines based on the composition of the soil. The land here is rich in sodium, sulphur water and minerals. Dona Blanca has moderate acidity but the wines eventually develop floral nuances.”

Toni Sarrión planted Viognier in Valencia in the late 2000s (“we wanted a Mediterranean, aromatic grape variety”), but his top white is made with Merseguera grown at high altitude in Finca Calvestra. Cuttings come from very old vines in Baldovar (Alto Turia). “Merseguera is not an aromatic grape; it smells of white stone fruit and freshly cut grass and it needs to be aged,” Sarrión points out. In fact, I recently had the chance to taste a superb, full, delicate 2014. It is fermented with natural yeasts and plenty of lees. They favour acacia wood for ageing but they are trying to use barrels only for fermentation and intend to age the wine in the most neutral vessels possible.  

In Aragón, Garnacha lover Fernando Mora MW favoured Garnacha Blanca for his top whites until he discovered Macabeo (Viura). “It is richer in structure and texture. Despite its limited aromatic scope on the short term, it reflects the sites accurately and has an amazing ability to age,” he explains. He has thus converted his wine Frontonio into a blend of Garnacha Blanca and 60% Macabeo. Grapes for his new top white El Jardín de las Iguales come from an ancient Macabeo plot planted in 1890 in Alpartir (Sierra de Algairén). This wine does not only rub shoulders with its red Garnacha counterpart but it’s arguably even better. 

“No doubt an aromatic grape variety can reflect the terroir, but there are so many other things floating around that it may be less obvious. That is why neutral grape varieties are great catalysts of what is going on in the vineyards. They may seem plain, but they act as fabulous terroir translators,” says Mora.

Willy Pérez (Bodegas Luis Pérez and De la Riva) mentions the example of Axarquía in Malaga, a rugged wine region where two contrasting varieties, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, grow side by side. “The robust character of Pedro Ximénez provides a precise expression of the site, even though, with the necessary care, Moscatel is also capable of achieving this". From his point of view, "it's like putting a daisy in a poppy field or in a green grass meadow. Both landscapes are beautiful, but in the first one, the red colour stands out too much whereas in the meadow everything is more subtle and elegant".

Evolution and ageing

Yet Pérez doubts that neutral grape varieties reflect the soil better: “We have a small plot planted with Chardonnay in our distinctive albariza soils and the wine that comes from it is the most markedly chalky. But whereas Palomino continues to develop in bottle, Chardonnay feels as if it loses its aromas,” he notes.

Ramiro Ibáñez agrees that one of the most notable attributes of these grapes is “their ability to age; these wines are at their best after a relatively extended ageing in bottle.” This has been fully proved with Viura (think of Tondonia and other rare old whites from Rioja) and the same is true of a good bunch of Sherry wines bottled before the 1970s as we wrote in this in-depth article.

Few records exist of other grape varieties worked in the past without quality and terroir in mind, but some interesting examples are Marañones Pies Descalzos, one of my favourite Albillo Real wines in Gredos, or Dominio del Águila white, made by Jorge Monzón in Ribera del Duero, which cries to be cellared.

With past experience at Romanée Conti in Burgundy where he did his apprenticeship, Monzón has been experimenting with Albillo Mayor since 2003, even if his first white was not released until the 2012 vintage. He thinks it is a fine variety that should be respected and made without employing abusive winemaking techniques. It reminds him of Chenin Blanc: “neutral and suitable to produce good wines.” Albillo Mayor, Monzón stresses, “can fully ripen while keeping low pH levels, even below 3.” 

My most comprehensive vertical tasting of Albillo Mayor was at De Blas Serrano, a small family winery located in Fuentespina (Burgos). Sophie Kuhn, their Alsatian winemaker, saw the potential of the ancient white plants scattered among red vines. She made her first white in the 2006 vintage and continued producing limited amounts (between 350 and 600 bottles) from 2009 onwards.

In search of minerality

“It is not an aromatic grape but conveys well the spirit of the area,” remarks Sophie Kuhn. She makes the wine in the Burgundian style, with no treading, low must yields ("to avoid extracting unwanted stuff"), bâtonnage during the first year and between 12 and 24 months of ageing in 500-litre oak casks. The style is balanced and unctuous with good weight on the palate given the natural concentration provided by old vines. Many of these wines have a delicious sapid-salty quality.

Undoubtedly, these non-fruit descriptors (saltiness, chalk, dry or wet stones...) which we generally refer to as minerality appeal to a whole new generation of wine enthusiasts. According to Pedro Parra, the Chilean soil expert who first connected geology and tasting descriptors, "ethereal, subtle whites, which express themselves fully on the palate rather than on the nose, are the way to go for small, terroir-driven producers. Of course, each variety is different and therefore you have to find what suits each best. That takes a lot of work. You can't copy Burgundy all the time; every region has its own rhythm and its own secrets.”

Ramiro Ibáñez mentions an added benefit. "Because of their subtlety, wines produced with these grapes can be drunk in larger quantities as you don't get tired of them.” After many years of neglect, perhaps it is time to turn our eyes and glasses to some of our most traditional white varieties.

Recommended wines

This list includes some of the wines mentioned above as well as others that may be interesting to delve into this category.

Airén
Las Tinadas 2018, Bodegas Verum, (Castilla-La Mancha). €11.

Albillo Real
Arrayán Albillo Real Granito 2018 (Castilla y León). €14.
Picarana 2018, Marañones (Vinos de Madrid). €15. 

Albillo Mayor
De Blas Serrano 2016, De Blas Serrano (Castilla y León). €28.
Dominio del Águila 2016 Reserva Blanco (Castilla y León). €60.

Dona Blanca/Malvasía Toro
Gorvia 2014, Quinta da Muradella (Monterrei). €32.
San Román Malvasía 2018 (Toro). €40.
Las Vidres 2017, Alvar de Dios (Arribes). €40

Macabeo/Viura
Camí de la Font 2016, Vinyes del Tiet Pere (Tarragona). €12.
Abel Mendoza Viura 2018, Abel Menoza (Rioja). €22,50
Viña Gravonia Crianza 2011, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia (Rioja). €22.
El Jardín de las Iguales 2016 Blanco, Bodegas Frontonio (Aragón). €175.

Malvar
La Malvar de Más que Vinos 2017 (Castilla-La Mancha). €13.

Merseguera
Finca Calvestra Merseguera 2018, Mustiguillo (Valencia). €17.50.

Palomino
El Muelle de Olaso 2018, Bodegas Luis Pérez (Cádiz). €9.50
Gavela do Vila 2017, Daterra Viticultores (Galicia). €.
Barco del Corneta Las Envidias 2016 (Castilla y León). €20.
UBE Carrascal 2016, Cota 45 (Cádiz). €44.

Pedro Ximénez
Cima 2018, Bodegas Marisol Bueno (Castilla-La Mancha). €17.
3 Miradas Paraje de Riofrío Alto 3º Año 2016, Alvear (Montilla-Moriles). 17 €.
Voladeros 2017, Victoria Ordóñez (Sierras de Málaga). €29.

Tardana
Sol 2019, Bodegas Gratias (Castilla-La Mancha). €9 .

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