Spotlight on Spain: Martivilli Verdejo White Wine 2006

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Rueda is perhaps the most interesting wine region in all of Spain. Its story is certainly amongst the most compelling in the wine world. It begins as the Moors withdrew from Spain during the Reconquista, aggressively destroying everything they left behind. The devastation in the region between the Duero and Valladolid rivers was so severe that the lands remained uninhabited and unplanted for 100 years. During that time, the lands lay fallow and began to regenerate. One of the products of this regeneration was an obscure wild vine now known as Verdejo.

In the 11th century, the king of Castile-Leon provided incentives to entice farmers to return to Rueda. The incentives were successful and many farmers tried their hand at making wine from the local wild grape vines. However, during this period Sherry was considered to be one of the greatest wines in the world, and since Jerez was still under control of the Moors at the time, wine makers in Rueda decided to mimic the style by producing oxidized wines. What’s particularly weird about this is that Verdejo oxidizes pretty much naturally. It is so sensitive that it starts severely oxidizing as soon as it is picked. The inherent quality of the grape made it easy to create a style of wine that mimicked sherry and eventually became extremely popular in its own right.

Everything came crashing down in the 19th century when phylloxera entered the region and devastated the vines. The destruction of Verdejo meant that these wines lost their inroads to Sherry, which saw a resurgence that lasted for about 100 years. The strange agricultural policies of Franco led to consistent prices being paid for tons of grapes no matter what kind of quality. This led to massive plantings of the easy to grow Palomino, which did not make wines of any distinction.

This stagnation remained in place until Rioja producer Marques de Riscal entered the region in the 1970s. Riscal is intriguing because then director Francisco Dolagaray was not a fan of the traditional oaky style of white wines being made in Rioja, so much so that Riscal did not produce any white wines. To remedy this he decided to search around Spain to find the best possible place to make white wine. After looking at Penedes and Rias Baixas, he settled on Rueda and its indigenous grape Verdejo.

Now, the most significant change by the 1970s was the advent of sophisticated modern technologies that allowed for the harvesting of Verdejo with inert gases that prevented oxidation. This same technique is used today and it is very extreme. The pickers pick wine at night and put the grapes into small plastic boxes on trucks where inert gas is blown across them to displace any oxygen present. The harvest is then transported to the winery where grapes are fermented in a sealed tank which is filled with inert gas. The entire process all the way up to bottling sees the grapes and, eventually, the juice and wine, completely protected from oxygen until bottling.

This crazy modern process completely changed the character of Verdejo. No longer were oxidized wines necessary. Instead, Verdejo exposed its character as a crisp, herbal and very aromatic white, and one that many now believe is perhaps the best in Spain.

These days, Sauvignon Blanc is also planted in the region, but it is the indigenous Verdejo and its crazy history that is sure to capture the imagination of wine lovers around the world. It helps that these wines compete with the Albarinos of Rias Baixas and the Chardonnays of Penedes for the title of Spain’s greatest white.

Founded in 1988, Martivilli is making modern styled whites in Rueda. This particular 100% Verdejo based white wine is actually fermented in barrel rather than in steel, and the oak character adds an intriguing level of richness to the normally crisp and bright Verdejo.

The nose is very expressive and lovely with apple, bright clean mineral and an almost mossy component. The oak notes are there but restrained. When I tasted this wine I loved the combination of fresh cut mountain herbs, clean and crisp citrusy mineral and the wine’s overall cleanliness and delineation. This is extremely balanced with medium+ acidity and the underlying, almost hidden, richness really starts to strut it stuff with food (try duck terrine, triple crème cheese, or Moroccan/Spanish stewed chicken).

The wine is not only fantastic, but the story and history of Rueda has to be one of the most compelling I’ve encountered in my years as a wine geek. I truly feel like I’m drinking one of the strange fortuitous accidents of history when I sip a Verdejo based wine from Rueda. Awesome. 13% ABV.

Very Good+ and Highly Recommended Value
$30 at Marquis Wine Cellars

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