Origin: North Africa
Region: Rueda, Spain
The Verdejo grape originated in North Africa more than a millennium ago. In the 11th century, it was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Mozarabs who helped repopulate the Duero basin in northwestern Spain during the reign of King Alfonso VI. This basin is home to the Castile and León community, which also houses the Rueda DO winemaking region.
For much of its history, Rueda was one of the lesser known Spanish wine regions due to its lack of international tourism attraction. The Verdejo grape, despite its longstanding presence in the area, was also overlooked in favor of other grapes such as Palomino. Palomino was often made into fortified, sherry-like wines that were not highly regarded in the international community.
Despite these challenges, the Rueda region was revived, in no small part due to a renewed appreciation of the Verdejo grape. In the 20th century, famed Riojan winemaker Marqués de Riscal arrived on the scene to help begin this rapidly spreading trend. Riscal worked with renowned French enologist Émile Peynaud, and together the pair began to recognize Rueda’s potential for high quality Verdejo wines.
The Riscal-Peynaud duo began producing a crisp, unoaked white wine style that impressed the wine community, leading Rueda to be granted Denominación de Origen (DO) status in 1980. Since then, many other winemakers have established their own variations of Rueda Verdejo. Dry and aromatic white wines were already on the rise around this time, so it was perfect timing for this relatively new wine to burst on the scene and gain the appreciation it has today.
The Grape Itself
The Verdejo cluster is not that large. The berry is of medium size. The varietal got its name due to the extremely bright green color it retains during the growing season. Usually grapes change in color during verasion from a bright green to their native color. Verdejos coloring pretty much stays the same.
Where It’s Grown
In terms of latitude, the Rueda region is located within the Mediterranean area. With very long, cold winters, short springs with late frosts, and dry, hot summers, only altered by untimely storms. Its altitude, however, gives this area its continental climate. Atlantic Ocean influence is very rare.
The best vineyards in the D.O. Rueda have the typical “gravelly” soils. Dark grey-brown soils, rich in calcium and magnesium, stony but easy to farm, with good ventilation and draining and limestone outcrops on the hilltops. Permeable and healthy, their texture varies from sandy-loamy to loamy.
Aside from a few experimental plantings in Australia and California, the variety is not really found in volume anywhere else on earth. There are about 41,000 acres planted in Rueda.
How Is It Made?
Timing for harvest for this grape is crucial. The grape harvest is all done by machine. Verdejo is prone to oxidation. Machine harvesting quickly pulls the fruit off the vine. Also, a large part of the harvesting takes place at night, with no sunlight to oxidize the grape. The grapes enter the cellars at 50 – 60°F, as opposed to September’s daytime temperatures of 75 – 85°F.
Cold fermentation takes place at about 50°F in stainless steel tanks. Aging is quick and also done at about the same temperature in stainless steel.
Three months later the wine has taken on a slightly yellowish color, with a youthful, greenish hue, and has a fresh, fruity aroma and flavor. Verdejo wine’s claim to fame: a quickaged harvest wine, the result of a completely aseptic process and the implementation of state-of-the-art technology, with the Verdejo grape full of primary fruit, powerful acidity and elegant aromas.
Verdejo sometimes goes through barrel aging for a completely different style of wine. The oxygen introduced during the aging process reduces the acid and allows the fruit to come forward. Most of the time neutral barrels (older barrels that don’t give oak flavors to the wine) are used. This wine does not go through any secondary malolactic fermentation. That process would mask the great fruit and nutty finish it is known for.
How Does It Taste?
A typical young Verdejo wine appears pale greenish yellow in the glass, with flavors to match — fennel, grassy and citrus notes, as well as hints of stone fruits like white peach. Its herby citrus character has much in common with Sauvignon Blanc, and sometimes the two are blended to make aromatic, full-bodied white wines.
It has a unique flavor, with a hint of scrub herbs, a fruity touch and an excellent level of acidity. The extract, a key factor when assessing the personality of great white wines, is perceived through its volume and its characteristic bitter touch, which leaves a glint of originality in the mouth, accompanied by a rich fruity expression. These wines are harmonious, and their aftertaste invites to go on drinking.
You may also see Verdejo blended with Rioja’s green Viura grape, but bear in mind that wines labelled Verdejo must legally contain 85% Verdejo and more balanced blends or 100% Verdejo are usually labelled Rueda instead.
Verdejo is popularly sold to be drunk young, when its green notes are most prominent. However, the oak aged versions do age favorably in the bottle, as its high acidity can provide good structure and rich nutty flavors as it bottle ages.
One of the best ways to drink Verdejo is alongside food. The wine’s higher acidity and subtle bitterness make it work very well as a palate cleanser. Things to keep in mind when creating pairings is to use Verdejo’s lime and citrusy flavors to offset a dish. As a general rule, if you would put lime in the meal, it will probably pair well with Verdejo. That said, a Verdejo wine that has noticeable oak-aging will work better with dishes that have more cream or with coconut-based sauces.