The town of Rueda lies on a plateau at between 500 and 800 metres above sea level just 90 minutes drive north west of Madrid and is a favourite day out for urbanites who often zoom up for a cracking weekend lunch – often of lechazo – and to fill up the car boot with plentiful supplies of the region’s excellent white wines, charcuterie and cheeses not to mention the fabulous local bread. Indeed the first thing one sees on arrival is La Cuba, an enormous very recently built modern wine store and deli, with the most excellent and more intimate Casa Lola also just a couple of hundred metres further down on the left.
This is very much a one horse town, with less than 1,500 inhabitants, one very long main street and no hotels (so aim for rather more picturesque Tordesillas if in search of accommodation, avoid the Parador, and while there be sure to visit both the leather shop in Calle San Antolín, where the owner will make you a belt on the spot under the strict supervision of his fabulous upside down inclined parrot – as well as wonderfully imaginative ceramic specialist Luis Rivero, whose shop is on the major hill to the left once you’ve crossed the splendid bridge that spans the Duero and beneath which, during the summer, there’s a chiringuito where you can order a modestly priced bucket of gin and tonic and watch the river flow by).
Rueda, meantime (remember Rueda?), together with the nearby villages of Serrada and La Seca, comprises a DO of some 12,000 hectares founded in 1980 which is currently perhaps the best region in Spain for fresh, well-priced modern whites.
It was not always like this, for until the late 1970s, a lot of Palomino was grown here and typical Rueda wines were often golden brown in colour, purposely oxidised, and more akin to rather aged sherries – a style often called dorado.
Locals, though immensely friendly, hospitable and exceedingly amiable, are basically quite shy; so it was prestigious outsiders Marqués de Riscal who created initial excitement about the region’s potential when, in 1974, with the advice of the legendary Émile Peynaud, they decided to start making modern white wines here and introduced Sauvignon Blanc from Loire cuttings, given that this windswept region with its alluvial soils containing elements of clay, gravel and a high incidence of pebbles – not to mention its altitude, low rainfall, warm summer days but cool nights, and yet glacial winters – is ideal for the cultivation of white grapes and quality wines.
The true power of the area, however, is and was the Sanz family who had been making wines in La Seca since the 1800s and of which there are multifarious offshoots given a history of family fallings-out; and it was fifth generation Antonio Sanz who not only made the family’s Palacio de Bornos wines a household name in Spain as of the late 1970s but, simultaneously, especially during the 1990s, provided wines that triumphed abroad and brought increasing recognition of the area bearing, however, the labels of eminent non locals such as Marqués de Griñón, the Lurton brothers, and Telmo Rodríguez.
And the bandwagon still rolls, as, with the region’s fame now firmly cemented, everyone wants white wine from Rueda – with the number of producers jumping from perhaps 17 to some 58 (and more coming) in the last ten years or so.
Today, therefore, arguably but unsurprisingly, the most interesting winery in the DO is Menade, run by the dynamic sixth generation of the Sanz family – siblings Richard (the winemaker), Marco (the vineyards) and Alejandra (the sales) – who produce a series of wines not just from their own 180 hectares of vineyards but also from father Antonio’s 60.
Their top five wines are: Menade Verdejo (fresh, aromatic, and mouth-watering with zesty lemony acidity and attractive grassy notes); Menade Sauvignon Blanc (elegant and intense with good structure and the same exuberance as its sister in style but with perhaps a tad more attitude); Antonio Sanz Verdejo and AS Sauvignon Blanc (made from 40 year old vines and with approximately 30% barrel-fermentation, so deeper, more structured and with a more pronounced minerality); and star of the show (eat your heart out Burgundy): the pricey but awesome Verdejo V3 (made from 18 plots of pre-phylloxera vines, whole cluster pressed, fermented with wild yeasts and aged in 500-litre French oak barrels of different ages. It sounds complex and it is. It’s also seamless, perfectly integrated and with great depth).
Words Carlos Read – Photography Courtesy of menade