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Verdejo's Gran Vino Status

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Rueda’s New Premium Category

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A bottle of wine is the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.

Amor Towles

Verdejo's Gran Vino Status

Article by James Beard Award-winning author Laura Werlin @cheezelady

Rueda Verdejo is having a moment. While it has long been Spain’s number one selling white wine, it is getting renewed recognition inside Spain and now by the admiring eyes of outside wine drinkers and winemakers alike. The reason: Gran Vino de Rueda – Rueda Verdejo’s newest and arguably most exciting designation since the formation of the Rueda DO in 1980.

This designation doesn’t come easily. To earn Gran Vino status, the wine must come from vines at least thirty years old; it must be made with fruit that has been culled to no more than about 2,800 tons per acre; and it must be held in bottle, barrel, tank, concrete, clay, or whatever vessel the winemaker chooses, for at least one year before release – a provision that underscores Verdejo’s aging capability. Designated by a special black back label, these old vine Verdejos are slowly making their way to American shores, proving that what is new can actually be very old. And very good.

A sense of place

Santiago Poveda, Director General of the C.R.D.O Rueda, says the motivation for the Gran Vino designation was the increase in white wine drinking in Spain and with that, the interest in white wines with added value and longevity. But it was also to bring what is special about Rueda Verdejo under one label. “To collect all those wines produced with old vineyards and low yields and low extractive processes produced by the wineries of the D.O. Rueda; to bring the best product (the best raw material) and total freedom for the winemaker to give his/her personality to the wine,” he explains. In other words, to bottle the magic of Rueda itself.

Currently, about 14 percent of vineyard land in the region is planted with vines over 30 years old. In 10 years, that number will jump to 25 percent. Likewise about a third of the 74 wineries in the D.O. are now making at least one Gran Vino de Rueda – a number that is expected to rise to 50 percent by 2026. Brands already making Gran Vinos include Shaya Habis, Niadades, Campo Eliseo, Meraldes, and Protos Reserva.

The root of the matter

As most of us know, wine starts in the vineyard. The roots from which the grapes grow, the climate and soil in which they grow, the way they are managed, the altitude – all play a crucial role in defining a wine. But unlike some other winegrowing regions, Rueda and its Tempranillo-growing neighbor, Ribera del Duero, have an additional story to tell. Vine age. Here, thousands of acres of vineyards have vines that are decades old – some even a century – many of which dodged the phylloxera scourge and adapted to the extreme conditions that define these regions.

Age matters

The 2,800 tons per acre yield requirement for Gran Vino is decidedly low. Its purpose is to ensure that the fruit that goes into a bottle of Gran Vino is highly concentrated. As it is, old vine crop yields are inherently low anyway. The vines – individual bush vines rather than leafy, trellised ones (though more disease resistant) – are simply not capable of producing much fruit. But Dr. Megan Bartlett, a plant biologist and assistant professor of enology and viticulture at UC Davis, says there’s an upside. “Old vines are usually less productive in terms of yield – less fruit per vine means more resources are available for the clusters that are produced. [But] you tend to end up with higher quality.”

There have been no side-by-side studies of old vine vineyards next to more newly planted ones, but the proof is in the glass. Debbie Zachareas, Managing Partner of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco, says there may very well be something different about old vine wines. “Complexity and ageability often come with older vine wines that I have tasted,” she said.

Mora Poveda, of the Rueda DO, amplifies this. “[Old vine wines] are wines with greater aromatic potential and structure in the mouth due to the grapes coming from older vineyards and lower yields and extraction, and also due to the elaboration processes with longer contact with the fine lees.” This elaboration process also includes the use of various types of aging vessels– concrete, clay amphoras, and oak barrels of different sizes. These create depth and complexity in the wines. Some Verdejo producers use these vessels for newer vine wine production too, but the old vine wines tend to have “greater aromatic potential and structure in the mouth,” he says, and winemakers are making the most of that.

An experiment gone right

Juan Antonio Perez, the Iberian wine portfolio specialist for Wine Bridge Imports, is originally from the heart of Verdejo country in the city of Madrigal de las Altas Torres. This city owns hundreds of acres of century-old vines, the grapes from which had always been mixed with newer-vine grapes to make the wine that came from there. Suspecting the old vine grapes might be worth separating and bottling, they collaborated with the wine company, Gonzalez Byass, to produce 3,000 bottles of Gran Vinos. According to Perez, the idea behind the project was “to offer more complex and unique wines connected with excellence, tradition, sense of place, terroir, and limited production.” Although this experiment was not the reason for the DO’s new designation, it certainly bolstered the case for it. Gran Vino de Rueda became official in 2021.

Old vines meet new times

The Gran Vino de Rueda category can be said to be the perfect confluence of nature and consumer interest. So too winemaker interest. This explains why Rueda Verdejo, often likened to Chablis, the wines of the Loire, and white Bordeaux – regions known for producing wines with aging ability –  is getting a second look. Nature has given it a boost by providing an abundance of pre-phylloxera vines (and newer ones too, though still decades old), and an increasing number of curious and skilled winemakers are casting an eye toward Verdejo and leveling it up. The Verdejo-drinking public is thirsty for the results.

Age has value

Although some Gran Vinos de Rueda are value-priced, most are or will land in the more expensive tier. There are several reasons for this.

For one, old vines are more difficult and expensive to manage – each vine is separate and low to the ground. The necessity to hand-harvest is the painstaking result.

Also, the overall output is less, which is a mixed bag. As Professor Bartlett explained, each vine has less fruit, but the fruit that is produced is more concentrated. Another bonus is that old vines tend to have more consistent results.

In addition, the arid conditions in the region mean these vines are heavily dependent on water far below the surface. The result is the growth of long roots as the vines continually dig further and further to slake their thirst. Again though, the intensity of the fruit from this labor results in a more concentrated wine.

Finally, the combination of the inherent vineyard struggles and the more sophisticated methods being implemented in winemaking is making the bottle of “simple” Verdejo anything but. It is world-class.

An exciting future

Many wine experts believe the Verdejo grape is still being defined. As Perez of Wine Bridge Imports says, “Because every winemaker has his or her own styles and methods, the wine inside a designated Gran Vino will vary.” His personal hope is that that won’t translate to new-oak influence because he wants to show the pure expression of the Verdejo varietal that comes from the Moraña area in particular – Segovia, Valladolid, and Avila in the heart of Rueda country. But winemakers will do what they do, and there will be wine drinkers for every style.

Mora Povera from the D.O. says the best may still be yet to come. “Longevity of the Verdejo grape is very important as a goal – looking for the potential of the Verdejo grape in Rueda is still to be discovered, as all the oenologists in Rueda tell me.” It’s a sure bet those oenologists are right, but the proof is unquestionably in the glass.

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