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Roll Wine & Spirits by Timothy Buzinski & Mei Ying So, owners of The Artisan Wine Shop, Beacon

The flat plateau of Castilla y León in northwestern Spain region is a bleak and arid place, strewn with ruined castles that offer stark reminders of battles fought generations ago. Starting in the eighth century and stretching to the fifteenth, Christians and Moors clashed fiercely here as they struggled for control of the Iberian Peninsula. As the Moors were pushed south, they razed the ground behind them, rendering the land inhabitable; it was deserted for over a hundred years. This tierra de nadie or no man’s land, eventually recovered, and as it became repopulated in the 11th century, the region’s once-plentiful verdejo grape vines were rediscovered and cultivated. From this scene of political and military turmoil was born a joyful partner for spring’s fresh and bright flavors; the vine eventually emerged as the leading white grape in Spain.

Verdejo is thought to have traveled from North Africa to the Rueda region, which is located in the heart of Castilla y León, when Spain was in Moorish control. When the area became inhabited again after the Christian re-conquest, sherry from the region of Jerez was quite popular. However, at the time, the Moors still had hold of Jerez, so it was decided that Rueda would produce wines from the verdejo vines found growing wild in the sherry style: oxidized, fortified, and made using the solera system. Coincidentally, verdejo oxidizes quite easily on its own, and successfully mimicked the sherry loved by royal courts and academies of learning and religion that developed in that region.

Then came phylloxera, the tiny louse that devastated the wine industry beginning in the mid-1800s; it began wreaking havoc in this region of Spain in the late 1800s. A period of replanting occurred, this time on phylloxera-resistant rootstock. However, largely due to its prolific nature, palomino (the dominant sherry grape of Jerez) began replacing verdejo in vineyards; a government policy had been instated that paid the same price for surplus wine, no matter what the quality.

Unfortunately for Rueda, the sherries of Jerez had by this time rebounded on the world scene and were clearly dominating the market. Winemakers in Rueda turned to dry, unfortified versions of verdejo that quickly browned in color; however, this type of wine was losing favor. The more productive palomino and viura grape vines continued to spread. In the early 1970s, there arose a push to rip out verdejo completely. Winegrower Ángel Rodrđguez owned Martinsancho, a vineyard of ancient verdejo vines that had been in his family since 1780; he refused to uproot them. Rodríguez went further and regrafted his other vineyards with the outcast varietal from Martinsancho cuttings. He is thus credited with having saved verdejo, keeping the door open for a new direction in Rueda.

Surprisingly, the driving force for this new direction came from outside of Rueda and even partially outside of Spain. Seeing the growing popularity of fresh, vibrant white wines, Marqués de Riscal, the well-known Rioja producer, began searching for a region to create their own. With the help of equally renowned French oenologist Émile Peynaud, they settled on Rueda and the verdejo grape. Riscal’s efforts gave birth to a new category of Rueda whites, one that was initially met with controversy but was eventually embraced by other producers and is now the most popular style.

The lessons taught by Peynaud surely revolved around keeping verdejo fresh, preventing the previously sought-after effect of oxidation. Common practice today includes early morning harvest, cold fermentation, and the use of nitrogen gas to defend against exposure to oxygen. The results have been impressive. Rueda has achieved a bright freshness with plenty of fruit and aromatics followed by a weighty texture that does not eschew acidity. While Peynaud clearly saw this potential, the team also brought to Rueda sauvignon blanc, most likely for its compatibility with the soil and climate and as insurance. To this day, many of these whites use sauvignon blanc and the viura grape, of Rioja fame in the blend. Some examples have a lemony, citrus note that speaks of sauvignon and viura while others have more of a green melon-y, stonefruit bent. With time, these wines develop a touch of nuttiness that is even more compelling.

As in France and Italy, Spain has an appellation system for wine, and the main classification of quality wine is Denominación de Origen (DO). Rueda gained DO status in 1980, the first DO to be approved in the Castilla y León region. While sauvignon blanc and viura can also be used, only wines produced with at least 50 percent verdejo are permitted to be labeled Rueda. For the Rueda Superior designation, at least 85 percent must be verdejo. Sauvignon blanc became an authorized variety for the Rueda DO in 1985. In fact, the importance of this grape is underscored by the fact that it has its own appellation, Rueda Sauvignon, which has to be 100 percent sauvignon blanc.

Although Rueda is grown in an area known more for blood sausage and cheeses than gambas à la plancha, the wine’s fresh, zippy fruit and lively acidity make it a fine match for foods outside the traditional. Break open a bottle with a platter of grilled spring vegetables, goat cheese crostini, or pan-roasted shrimp doused with lemon. Rueda is inexpensive and easy to appreciate and enjoy, so you don’t need to be a conquering king to afford these pleasures this spring.

Hermanos del Villar Ipsum Rueda DO 2007—This easy drinking wine is packed with soft, rounded fruit. A blend of verdejo and viura, this wine begins with melon-y flavors then moves to ripe peach. ($11-$13)

Bodega Ángel Rodríguez Martinsancho Rueda DO 2007—A more intense style, this pure verdejo is a compact package of melon, stonefruit, and citrus with a minerally core that is as persistent as the fruit. ($16-$20)

Telmo Rodríguez Basa Rueda DO 2007—Produced with all three grapes, this 50 percent verdejo blend is crisp and lean, with plenty of grapefruit and floral notes. ($12-$15)

Bodegas Naia Náiades Rueda DO 2006—This richer style is produced from old-vine verdejo fermented and aged in new French oak barrels. This is an opulent style that manages to maintain freshness, but shows the range of the varietal. ($24-$30)

Garciarevalo Casamaro Rueda DO 2007—This mainly verdejo is at least in part harvested from pre-phylloxera vines. This is very crisp, clean wine that smells of grapefruit and citrus. ($12-$15)

Sitios de Bodega Con Class Rueda DO 2008—Another wonderfully fresh version that leads with citrus aromas, follows with fresh acidity and finishes long. ($11-$13)

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