Rueda and its struggle for innovation

31 March 2022

Every year that we go to Rueda to taste the new vintages of their wines, we realise how well defined the style of their wines is. Its sauvignon blanc coexists among the balsamic, thiol and fresh nuances of this variety, and its verdejo, the queen of the land, enjoys the most absolute varietal definition.

We have talked about the Rueda phenomenon on previous occasions. This is an area whose growth in recent decades has been overwhelming. It is the fastest growing Denominación de Origen in the last 22 years. To get an idea of the magnitude of this growth, in 1999 (Peñín Guide 2000) the DO registered 6,000 hectares of vineyard, while today the number of protected hectares is 20,610 according to the data provided by the Regulatory Board to the Peñín Guide, which represents a growth of 243% in the period between 1999 and 2021.

Why did this appellation grow so much?

We can say that Rueda's great success is due to its Verdejo, a white variety on which they worked hard until they achieved its desired profile. There were so many and such important producers seeking to define this variety as faithfully as possible that it did not take long to identify the most primary style. Once both the varietal profile and the yeasts to be used had been clarified, it was possible to mechanise and to a certain extent industrialise a process that would allow Rueda wine to reach all corners of Spain at a competitive price. The Rueda phenomenon was born and with it came the call for investment from other large groups and wineries that did not want to miss the opportunity to produce wine there. Due to the success of the wine style and the great demand, for many years the verdejo was paid at 1€ kg, which caused an explosion of plantations in an agricultural area that had subsisted on cereals growing on rainfed land. Most landowners jumped on this bandwagon, but not all of them with a good sense. 

In recent years, there have been more kg of grapes than real demand, which has meant that the wine has had to be sold using the price as sales pitch, especially if we take into account the DO's vocation to bring out wine of the latest vintage. Nearly 75% of the wines tasted were from the last harvest in progress.

It is understandable that the appellation adopted this style as dogma, as it had given it the keys to enter the great white wine trade in Spain.  They had found the key to producing wines with identity, great balance and overall quality. However, this protectionist zeal ran the risk of becoming a phenomenon with negative consequences if it was not stopped.

Vineyard at Rueda

Rueda wine entered the Spanish ideology as a fresh, varietal and cheap wine, an image that has been modified in recent years. The problem arose mainly from the wineries that were more focused on quality, which found it difficult to sell their best wines at higher prices. Perhaps this whole story is reminiscent of what Cava has experienced in recent years.

Aware of the low retail prices and the fact that Rueda was feeding an image that clashed directly with the values of its premium wines, in 2021 the DO decided to create the Gran Vino de Rueda distinction, a seal that tried to transmit the values of the great wines of the territory through certain limitations in their production, mainly linked to the yield per hectare, the average age of the vineyard and the degree of extraction from the grape.

"The aim is that the winemakers of the area can experiment and obtain the maximum potential of the permitted varieties, especially of our native variety, the Verdejo. We want to demonstrate its versatility and ageing capacity, making wines that will position the Rueda brand in haute cuisine," said Carmen San Martín, then president of the appellation.

The idea is positive, however, while on the one hand the aim is to demonstrate this versatility, on the other hand, in the Regulatory Board tastings, any wine that does not follow the religious stylistic pattern is prevented from being released.  This overzealousness in protecting a global Rueda style has led them to homogenise the tasting of their wines to such an extent that they all seem the same. Fresh, herbal, with good acidity and very balanced, but very similar to each other. The great differentiation is found in the ageing on lees and above all in those wines that have taken a risk with the concept of time and the development of aromas and flavours typical of their evolution in the bottle.

The Great Wines of Rueda

Rueda has among its ranks high quality wines, as we have been able to verify after analysing more than 220 samples during our last visit. You can consult all these tastings and evaluations of their wines by clicking here. Great wines ranging from their excellent and traditional Dorado wines, which are a pure genius, to the whites with some degree of ageing, either on their own lees or in oak barrels. However, something is being lost in the way of Rueda, where 42% of the wines tasted reach or exceed 90 points. Other areas such as Valdeorras (63% of its wines reach or exceed 90 points) or Rías Baixas (64%) seem to have taken the lead in the struggle to be the top producer of white wines in Spain, and this despite the potential of old vines growing traditional Verdejo with adjusted yields. It is implausible to see how the doors are closed to other winemaking processes or to visions that bring new styles. Many of these rejected wines will end up labelled as Vinos de la Tierra or Vino de Mesa, when they could be contributing content and diversity to the appellation itself, something that would benefit all its producers.

Rueda's vines

Managing an appellation with wineries that produce so many bottles is always complicated, just ask Cava. But if Cava has been able to bring about change despite concentrating a large part of its production in just a few hands, Rueda can too. All consumers understand that in a DO there must be representatives of all qualities with a wide range of prices. They also understand that although there is a certain style of Rueda, a trait that makes them identifiable with their origin, there must also be greater differentiation between producers.

An interesting way to make all this creativity grow would be to loosen the parameters by which a wine passes or fails the qualification cut, focusing the axis and the restriction on quality and not so much on the purely stylistic. Perhaps the problem is to understand the concept of style in such a narrow way, when there has never been a problem in accepting highly tropical wines in varieties that inherently are not. Another important step could be the creation of oenological "criaderos", spaces where young producers are allowed to work in common facilities. It is necessary to facilitate the entry of young people into each production area, and they must feel that they can create under the protection of the DO. One of the most important appellations in the production and marketing of white wine in Spain faces major challenges and responsibilities. The first steps such as the Gran Vino de Rueda distinction have already been taken, and we hope that this will be the first of many. We hope that the coming years will be exciting and that the great explosion of Rueda and its great wines will arrive once and for all to stay with us.

    Written by Carlos González, director de la Guía Peñín
    Written by Javier Luengo, director editorial de Peñín