White Rioja gets far less attention and plaudits compared to red Rioja, mainly due to the fact that white varieties only account for 10% of the total vines in the region. However, when one particular white Rioja recently received a glowing review from Tim Atkin I thought it would be interesting to try. I subsequently saw that Tim had given an early vintage of the same wine his “Wine of the Year” tag in 2017. Before we look at the wine itself, we start with a refresher on the Rioja wine region and a brief background on the producer, Conde Valdemar.
The Rioja Wine Region
Administrative divisions and sub-regions
Although Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine region, there are differences between the area of the DOCa and the administrative divisions of the area. There have also been a few name changes over time, confusing things further. To sum up, the wine region extends into four administrative areas:
- La Rioja (formerly Lagroño)¹
- Álava/Araba: a province in the Basque country
- Navarra: historically part of the Basque region, but not currently included in the Basque Autonomous Community²
- Burgos: just a tiny part of Burgos for a single vineyard: Hacienda El Ternero³
As can be seen from the map above, the bulk of the Rioja wine region is within the Autonomous Community of La Rioja. The sub-regions are partly based on politics, partly on geography:
- Rioja Alavesa: 17 municipalities, entirely within Álava from whence it takes its name
- Rioja Alta: literally “Upper Rioja” consisting of 80 municipalities of La Rioja and 1 in Burgos
- Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja): literally “Eastern Rioja”, nowadays preferred to “Lower Rioja” which has intimations of low quality, consisting of 42 municipalities in La Rioja and 8 in Navarra.
Structure of Rioja wine trade and 21st century innovations
Although there was a lot of influence and interest from Bordeaux producers in the later part of the nineteenth century, at a high level the Rioja wine trade is more like that of Champagne than Bordeaux; there has long been a distinction – or even divide – between small grape growers and large wine producers.
Wines often consist of several different grapes from across different sub-regions; Rioja Alta tends to be somewhat reserved due to its altitude, Rioja Alavesa is a bit more generous while higher in acidity and Rioja Oriental can be very high in alcohol though a little less elegant. A blend of the three is often the best compromise, though the wine can lack a sense of place and exceptional plots may ended up being blended away.
Two innovations in Rioja this century have had a small affect so far but will be increasingly important in the region. The first has been the addition of new permitted grape varieties in 2007: Maturata Tinta (Jura’s Trousseau), Maturana blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo. Of course it will take time for these varieties to be planted in the places most suitable for them, but in my opinion this is a good initiative – particularly for the white grapes – as Viura can be too neutral and some of the new grapes have more recognition among customers.
The second initiative is much more recent; in 2017 the Rioja wine authorities announced new label indications including Single Vineyard (Viñedo Singular), Zone and Village names. The hope is that the cream will rise to the top and more top quality wines will emerge.
Family and History
The story begins with Joaquín Martínez Bujanda who began making wine in 1889. His son Marcelino then grandson Jesús both followed into the family business. It was the third and fourth generations – both called Jesús – who set up Conde Valdemar itself in 1985. Today the winery is in the hands of fourth generation Jesús plus his son and daughter Jesús and Ana; the fifth generation are spearheading the family’s fortunes in Valdemar Estates in the USA.
The family has gradually expanded their holdings over the years, and bottles wines from their own estates separately. A notable addition was the 1982 purchase of Finca del Marquesado which is now planted with over 180 hectares of vines.
White Rioja has consistently been championed by Conde Valdemar; they were the first to plant Viura in Alto Cantabria in 1975 and the first winery to make a 100% Tempranillo Blanco wine in 2005. In between these vineyard firsts they were also the first winery to make a 100% barrel-fermented and -matured Spanish white wine in 1988.
Conde Valdemar Wine Range
There are five distinct wine ranges within the Conde Valdemar portfolio; three in Rioja, one in Ribero del Duero and one in Washington State. Unusually for Rioja, Conde Valdemar only produces wine from its own grapes.
- Conde Valdemar
- Valdemar Lands / Estate Wines
- Finca del Marquesado
- Fincas Valdemacuco (Ribera del Duero)
- Valdemar Estates (USA)
Details of the wines in each range are given at the bottom of this article.
Finca Alto Cantabria
This map (Credit: Conde Valdemar) shows the three grapes planted on the 23.3 hectare site: Viura, Tempranillo Blanco and Tempranillo, with the first accounting for 8.6 hectares. The vineyard is at 489 metres above sea level, 114 metres above the River Ebro. The steep inclines at the edge of the site and strong winds help to avoid frosts and humidity which leads to disease pressure. The soils are a combination of limestone and sandy loam.
Conde Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria 2019
So here we have a wine from a high altitude vineyard which is particularly suited to white grapes and has been classified as a “Viñedo Singular”. As mentioned above this is a 100% Viura wine, but the excellence of the site helps it to exceed the limitations of the variety; a longer growing season means that the grapes can develop fantastic aromas and flavours by the time sugar maturity is reached.
After being hand harvested into shallow boxes the grapes are first temperature stabilised before being pressed. Fermentation of the free run juice begins in stainless steel tanks before being transferred into French oak barrels. The wine matures in barrel for six months with weekly lees stirring.
In the glass this wine is a mid straw yellow. On the nose, oak dominates initially but then gives way to citrus and stone fruits with enticing blossom notes. The palate is complex and smooth, full of ripe fruit and nutty notes, succulent and viscous, rich ripe and vibrant.
This is among the top few white Riojas I have ever tried and represents exceptional value for money.
- ABV: 13.0%
- RRP: €26 – €27
- Stockists: wineonline.ie; The Wine House, Trim
- Source: media sample
These are the Bodega’s original wines:
- Conde Valdemar Tempranillo: 100% Tempranillo, made using a blend of carbonic and traditionally fermented grapes
- Conde Valdemar Crianza: 90% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha & 5% Mazuelo, matured in American oak barrels for 19 months
- Conde Valdemar Reserva: 80% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Maturana [aka Trousseau, Bastardo] & 5% Garnacha, matured for 27 months in American (65%) and French oak (35%) barrels
- Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva: Old vines; 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano & 5% Garnacha, matured for 36 months in French (50%) and American (50%) barriques
- Conde Valdemar Edición Limitada: a modern style Rioja made from 60% Tempranillo, 25% Maturana & 15% Graciano, matured for 24 months in French (60%) and American (40%)oak barrels
Whites and Rosés:
- Conde Valdemar Rosé: 75% Garnacha & 25% Mazuelo
- Conde Valdemar Blanco: A traditional white Rioja blend of 60% Viura, 25% Tempranillo Blanco & 15% Malvasía.
- Conde Valdemar Tempranillo Blanco: 100% Tempranillo Blanco
- Conde Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria: 100% Viura from a single vineyard – further details below
Valdemar Lands / Estate Wines
These are very limited edition wines made from specific single vineyards and single varieties
- La Recaja Tempranillo: 100% Tempranillo from a two hectare portion of La Recaja vineyard in Rioja Alavesa, matured for 16 months in French oak barrels
- Las Seis Alhajas Graciano: Named “The Six Jewels” after six different clones of Graciano planted as a trial in 1991 to bring the grape back from the brink of disappearance. Matured for 29 months in new, fine-grained American oak barrels.
- Balcón de Pilatos Maturana: A revival of the Maturana grape which had disappeared in Rioja during the phylloxera crisis, matured for 13 months in new, fine-grained American oak barrels
Finca del Marquesado
An estate in the east of Rioja, yet at a considerable altitude of 600 m.a.s.l., particularly suitable for Garnacha:
- Finca del Marquesado Rosado: 75% Garnacha & 25% Mazuelo
- Finca del Marquesado Crianza: 75% Tempranillo & 25% Garnacha, matured for 13 months in American oak barrels
- Finca del Marquesado Selección: 80% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano & 10% Garnacha, matured for 12 months in French and American oak barrels
- La Gargantilla Garnacha Single Estate Wine: 100% Garnacha from La Gargantilla vineyard, matured for 7 months in French Allier barriques
- La Gargantilla Tempranillo Single Estate Wine: 100% Tempranillo from La Gargantilla vineyard, matured for 15 months in French (60%) and American (40%) fine-grained oak barrels
Wines from the Valdemar family’s new outpost in Ribero del Duero:
- Fincas Valdemacuco Crianza: 100% Tempranillo from selected vineyards in the area of Nava de Roa (Burgos), matured for 4 months in French (70%) and American (30%) oak barrels
- Fincas Valdemacuco Roble: 100% Tempranillo from selected vineyards in the area of Nava de Roa (Burgos), matured for 5 months in American oak barrels
Valdemar Estates (USA)
The family’s newest venture in Walla Walla, Washington State. This was driven by Jesús and Ana Martínez Bujanda
- Valdemar Estates Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Klipsun Vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA, matured in French oak (60% new, 40% 3 years old) for 18 months
- Valdemar Estates Dubrul Vineyard Chardonnay: Barrel-fermented Chardonnay from the Dubrul Vineyard in Yakima Valley, matured for 12 months in French oak (22% new, 78% 3 years old)
- Valdemar Estates Blue Mountain Syrah: 100% Syrah from the Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla, matured for 12 months in neutral French oak
¹ The initial letters of Lagroño, Álava and Navarra were the origin of the name of Bodegas LAN, a well known producer.
² The Rioja DOCa extends into the south west part of the Autonomous Community of Navarre, separate from the Navarra DO which is further north.
³ Thanks to Tim Atkin for the info