There are obscure wines, old-school wines and acquired-taste wines. And then there's white Rioja, a style seemingly destined to never to be mentioned in sentences that contain the word "trendy" (this one excluded). Perhaps you were unaware that Rioja came in a shade other than red. That would be understandable.
Spain's most famous grape region is a sea of crimson, which accounts for about 90 per cent of the output, the reds based mainly on the tempranillo grape. The rest is rosé and white.
Not for the faint-hearted, white Rioja has two strikes against it where the modern market is concerned. It's made mainly from the crisp viura grape, not exactly a threat to, say, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc in the popularity sweepstakes. It's also generally crafted to exhibit oxidative flavours – that nutty tang and caramel quality typical of sherry, another tough-love wine that's anything but in vogue.
The nuttiness derives in part from time spent in old barrels, which courts a communion with oxygen, hence the oxidation. It can amplify with time in bottle and – with the exception of newer, fresher-styled offerings – much white Rioja is in fact designed for the cellar (and for people like me with a taste for roasted-nut and mushroom nuances in their wine). To be fair, some of it, I must say, goes too far and simply tastes tired and wonky. Too much time in barrel, especially poorly cleaned wood, results in juice that's more worthy of a museum than a dining table.
I think the first wine I cite strikes a fine balance. It's a moderately traditional offering from a producer founded in 1992 – a "new-old" wine.
It's got that woody, slightly oxidized character, but it's fruity and fresh enough to be considered a friendly introduction to the style.
Curiously, Rioja producers recently voted to permit the inclusion of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in the blend with viura. The hope is to win new consumers with more familiar flavours and entice estates to produce more white for the domestic market.
Spaniards have been turning to lighter wines of late thanks to the delicate flavours of its world-conquering modernist cuisine. But so far few producers have uprooted viura (or tempranillo) to make room for the international grapes.
Tradition is alive and well in the region. How do you say "untrendy" in Spanish? How about "white Rioja"?
Senorio de P. Pecina Chobeo de Pacina 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Made from 100-per-cent viura, this displays woody character (as opposed to the vanilla of many other whites aged in oak), with a creamy texture, nutty tang, candied fruit and flowers. Age it for five more years for a nuttier, earthy surprise or pair it now with grilled seafood. Available in Ontario.
Painted Rock Red Icon 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $55
The flagship Bordeaux-style blend from a top Okanagan estate is big and succulent, with a cartload of plum and currant, rich chocolate and chalky, cellar-worthy tannins sculpted for the long haul. The big surprise is its mineral character: Think cult Napa cab crossed with fine Bordeaux. Available direct from the winery through .
Baron de Ley Gran Reserva 2001 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
This red Rioja displays the same aged style that characterizes most white Rioja. It spent 24 months in oak and has now evolved more than nine years in bottle. Expect some funky barnyard, crushed cherry and floral notes along with juicy acidity. Rack of lamb would be nice. ($28.55 in Que.)
Pascual Toso Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Argentina)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Velvety and super-ripe, with plum giving way to prune. Tobacco and earth get in on the act, then bracing spice and fine, dry tannins add support. Great for juicy steak. $19.99 in B.C.
Monneret Père et Fils Mercurey 2009 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
Here's a remarkable red Burgundy for the money, showing medium-body, with a concentrated cranberry-cherry core, spice and charred wood. The structure is solid and tight, with astringent tannins that beg for four to six years in the cellar. For current enjoyment, it would be best decanted and served with something like roast duck or grilled salmon on a bed of bacon-infused lentils. Available by the case only in Ontario from Le Caviste (e-mail or call 647- 344-4326).
Aces Okanagan Seven Deuce Red 2009 (B.C.)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $27.95
Professional poker player Holger Clausen has lived a double life, grape grower by day and card shark by night. The branding reflects his passion for Texas Hold 'em and – judging by his website – poker puns. I imagine the wines, with screened-glass images of playing cards, would do solid business in Vegas. This one, a blend of merlot, shiraz and cabernet, is ripe and luscious, with plum and chocolate up front, a velvety texture and slightly sticky tannins. Serve it (no pun intended) with steak. $19 in B.C. through .
Vega Murillo Verdejo 2010 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
The crisp whites of the Rueda region are enjoying new popularity in Spain thanks in part to the country's new, lighter cuisine. The verdejo grape in this example yields light-to-medium weight, silky poached-pear fruit and an invigorating bitter note on the dry finish. Try it with light seafood dishes. Available in Ontario.
Ravine Sand & Gravel Redcoat 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
The brilliant consultant Peter Gamble crafts the wines here with Shauna White on property in the village of St. Davids that features a restored early-19th-century farmhouse. This entry-level blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon is the estate's first red from the great 2010 vintage. It's medium-bodied, polished in texture and well-balanced, with cherry, licorice and a spicy-earthy essence. The oak is just a whisper. Versatile at the table, fit for roast chicken, vegetarian lasagna, sausages, burgers or pizza. Available at the Ontario winery through www.ravinevineyard.com.
Les Jamelles Merlot 2009 (France)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $12.95
A red from southern France's Languedoc region, it's medium-full-bodied and smooth, with good concentration for the money, delivering plum jam, earth and zippy acidity. Nice on its own or with stewed beef or pork chops. Available in Ontario.