The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
The name derives from verde, or "green," but one could argue that verdejo's sudden global allure has had more to do with its recent makeover from brown to blond. For centuries, this vivacious white grape had been deprived of its true glory, drafted into producing an oxidized, amber-coloured wine akin to fortified sherry. It surfaced only recently with a paler hue and bone-dry profile and has been rapidly earning a reputation as one of Spain's most thrilling white bargains.
Picture this: lip-smacking freshness, smooth, seductive body and a complex yet unpretentious character, the sort of drink that could put the spark back in your weekday house-wine rotation.
The vine's bright-green berries may have given rise to its colourful moniker, but verdejo is often spoken in the same breath as another name: Rueda. That's the appellation in the northwest Castilla y Leon region synonymous with the variety. Cultivated there perhaps as far back as 1,000 years ago by Christians living under Moorish rule, verdejo spent most of its existence as a sort of poor man's palomino, the primary grape of the famous sherry region far to the south in Andalusia. Intentionally exposed to air to yield rich, nutty and generally sweet wines in the amontillado and oloroso styles, it eventually fell on hard times, uprooted in favour of more productive palomino during the hardship decades of the Spanish civil war and Franco's military regime.
Modern Rueda as we know it dates back only to the 1970s, when large producer Marques de Riscal saw potential in verdejo to yield a dry wine with more international appeal than syrupy, fortified fare. That gambit coincided with the spread in Spain of newfangled temperature-controlled steel tanks, which keep fermentations cool to preserve freshness – just what verdejo needed after struggling for a millennium in Spain's sweltering heat.
Other producers quickly followed suit, and some of the best verdejo makers today include Telmo Rodriguez, Jose Pariente, Bodegas Naia, Belondrade y Lurton and Finca Las Caraballas. Their fine offerings could set you back $16 or $18, though that's still a steal compared with the upper end of more popular crisp whites, such as sauvignon blanc. Think of verdejo as a Spanish word for white-wine value. At the lower end, Marques de Riscal, among others, makes an excellent entry-level Rueda for about $12.
Though verdejo remains the appellation's signature, white wines labelled simply as "Rueda" are permitted to be blended in part with sauvignon blanc as well as lesser-known viura by up to 50 per cent. This has given rise to a spectrum of styles, with zestier examples generally containing high proportions of herbal sauvignon blanc versus more verdejo-heavy blends that offer richer texture (with nary a hint of sauvignon's grassiness). Wines labelled "Rueda Verdejo" must contain at least 85 per cent of the named grape, though they'll more likely be made entirely from verdejo.
Light to medium-full-bodied, verdejo almost always comes with vibrant, citrusy acidity (even when it's been treated to the softening influence of moderate oak-barrel aging) and it often suggests floral overtones and stony minerality. It's perfect for light seafood dishes and as a tongue-teasing aperitif. Be forewarned, though: Verdejo is the sort of subtle white that may hook you partway through a glass rather than on the first sip. But that's a good thing – unless you believe in speed dating.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.