Spotlight on Spain: Abel Mendoza Rioja Malvasia 2007

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Thus far I have looked at the red wines of Rioja, but the whites are perhaps some of the most interesting and unknown wines of Spain outside of the circles of wine professionals and wine geeks. This could be explainable by the fact that traditional white Rioja is aged for a considerable time before release, with considerable oak treatment and therefore also oxidative effects. The impact of so much oxidation on white wine can be a turn off (or at least particularly unusual) to many wine drinkers, making these wines some of the more challenging whites in the world of white wine.

The best white Riojas, however, have a searing acidity that provides them with a near immortality when it comes to ageability. Most white wines could never handle as much age as the insanely complex and acid driven whites of a producer like Lopez de Heredia. Traditional white Riojas are made predominantly from the grape called Viura (aka Macabeo), which is northern Spain’s most planted white grape. Interestingly, this is apparently also planted in the Roussilon region in southern France, although I have never had a chance to taste the French versions.

Now, according to Jancis Robinson, Viura is actually a low-acid grape, which makes me wonder how Lopez de Heredia has such searing acidity in their whites. However, Viura is also exceptionally good at withstanding oxidation, so perhaps this ability preserves the acid over time. This is an intriguing question that hopefully someone has the answer to.

However, Viura is also almost always accompanied in Riojan whites by Malvasia, often added to blends in quantities of 5-10%. The encroachment of phylloxera into Spain actually ended up in a huge decline of Malvasia plantings, explaining the now dominant use of Viura. This makes today’s wine particularly unusual, since it is not only made in a modern rather than traditional style, but it is made with 100% Malvasia.

Unlike the Lopez de Heredia whites (see my review of the 1989 Tondonia Reserva), Abel Mendoza’s Malvasia is clean and modern, without a hint of oxidation. Mendoza is quite a modern producer from Rioja, having established in 1987, and they tend to make wines of their own style and direction.

However, despite the modern approach, the nose retains some of the unusual qualities I associate with white Rioja, such as nuts, nail polish and some ripe apple and cardamom. That it does so without the oxidation and with plenty of freshness makes this a particularly successful wine for a completely different set of foods. Start your meal with some Serrano and old white Rioja and then move on to a bevy of fresh seafood in some sort of cream sauce with this very modern Malvasia.

The use of American oak was in no doubt with the flavours of vanilla, cream and cardamom on the palate. The fresh apple and citrus notes provided a clean sharp line through the centre of the wine and into its finish. I loved the texture and richness here because it was also coupled with structure and balance: fresh, but big, clean but classic. On oaky and fresh white wine, together at last.

And, as with all the best wines, this has a distinct personality – you won’t get a wine like this from anywhere else. 13% ABV.

$35 at Marquis

NB: this wine was also poured at Marquis Wine’s blogger tasting – although I had my bottle at home with a meal.


  1. Weston
    March 18, 2010

    You know I tasted that at the tasting, and It doesnt really bring back any memories I mean the sparkling Chenin Did, and the St Joseph White, and that other french White [well so did the Over Oaked Alban] Its funny sometimes when tasting you forget completly what you have tasted

  2. Shea
    March 18, 2010

    This needs to be consumed on its own with a meal. And, I do not think the Alban was over-oaked! It may not be your style, but it’s an extremely well made wine :).

  3. Yaffler
    March 22, 2010

    I thoroughly agree with your comments on Rioja Blanco Shea, an interesting wine with some intriguing variations in style and quality. Hopefully it will not become too diluted or mundane since the rules were recently changed to allow Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay & Verdejo into the blend. Let’s hope most growers stick to Viura & Malvasia and concentrate their efforts on restricting yields and planting on better sites. White Rioja can truely shine

  4. Shea
    March 22, 2010

    Ew, SB and Chardonnay? Please, please say no.

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