Could Rueda be the best wine to order in a restaurant?

Peter Ranscombe meets the white wine that can even go with lamb.

RESTAURANTS – remember those?

The mythical places where we used to gather to share food and drink and laughter with family and friends and strangers-who-weren’t-friends-yet.

Soon, those days will return.

And with them will come that age-old conundrum – which bottle of wine do you pick for the table?

Big Dave is having fish, but Wee Dave is having steak. Plain Jane has gone for the salad (again), while Adventurous Amy wants that weird, deep-fried Glaswegian-Italian fusion tasting platter. And chips.

Meanwhile, Fussy Freddie says he’ll drink “anything but chardonnay”.

It seems that Rueda might hold the answer to that riddle.

Sitting next door to the powerhouse red wine region of Ribera del Duero, Rueda is giving Rias Baixas’s albariño a run for its money in the race to be crowned as Spain’s flagship white wine.

Up until the 1970s, the Rueda region was dominated by the palomino grape, a fairly dull variety that was used to make the area’s sherry-like fortified wines.

Then, along came Marqués de Riscal from Rioja.

After two years of searching Spain for a place to produce white wines that could sit alongside its red Rioja, the winery settled in Rueda in 1972 and – with help from Australian consultants from Petaluma – turned the region’s native verdejo variety into a star.

Other Riojan wineries followed – including Beronia and Ramón Bilbao – and Marqués de Riscal redrew the landscape again in 1984 by introducing sauvignon blanc to the area.

Rueda gained denominación de origin (DO) status in 1980 – the rough equivalent to France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or now appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) labelling system – and became a hit all over Spain.

Yet only 17% of the region’s wines are exported; the remainder is gobbled up enthusiastically by the local market.

And, during tonight’s DO Rueda tasting hosted by Diana Thompson from Wine Events Scotland, it’s easy to see why the Spaniards want to keep these great-value white wines to themselves.

Acidity is the name of the game

Take, by way of example, the 2019 Diez Siglos Verdejo (£9.29, Great Grog), made by a co-operative of 60 farmers.

It’s got a surprisingly-complex nose full of red apple, apricot, and lemon, which then turns much fresher on the palate, with lemon rind becoming the focus.

Verdejo is often said to give a fennel note on the finish, although tonight it was closer to mint for me.

Either way, it’s the wine’s crisp acidity that helps it to shine as a food-matching colossus on a restaurant wine list.

Pair it with fish or richer shellfish like crab, or harness that acidity to match the acidity in tomatoes or slice through the fattiness of lamb.

In a similar fashion, the acidity in the 2019 Bodegas Naia S-Naia Sauvignon Blanc (£10.35, Great Grog) would perform an equally-impressive tomato-matching job.

Thompson suggested serving it alongside gazpacho; a fine idea that echoed some of master of wine Rose Murray Brown’s suggestions during our 12 wines of Christmas exploration of Spanish food and wine matching.

As with Ramón Bilbao’s examples, the Naia is a really intriguing style of sauvignon blanc, with echoes of New Zealand’s juicy gooseberry and even passionfruit flavours on the nose, yet more of the Loire’s asparagus and green pepper on the palate.

It’s the wine’s lemon flavours that win out on the finish though, along with a touch of chalky texture too.

As we saw with Whitehaven’s Marlborough example at Wright Brothers back in 2019, sauvignon blanc can also make a decent case in its own right for matching food throughout a meal.

Stepping up a gear

Indeed, sauvignon blanc has become so successful in Rueda that the DO’s council changed its rules last year to allow generic wines labelled as “Rueda” to contain either 50% verdejo as before or now 50% sauvignon blanc, with the remainder often made up of viura, also known as macabeo.

Sauvignon blanc even makes up a 15% chunk of the 2019 Bodega Naia K-Naia Verdejo (£10.19, Great Grog), which displays warmer apricot and lemon notes on the nose.

That fresh acidity is back again, and it’s the asparagus and green pepper flavours from the sauvignon that take the lead on the palate, with just enough concentration to the fruit flavours to provide balance.

Thompson suggested the wine would work nicely alongside lamb dishes involving yoghurt, and I agree that the freshness would certainly cut through both the fatty meat and a creamy sauce.

The star of the show tonight was perhaps the most distinctive wine – the eponymous 2019 Bodega Naia (£12.79, Great Grog).

A relatively-small step-up in price yields more cash for winemaking techniques, including stirring of the lees – the dead yeast cells that add body – in the 30% component of the wine that was aged in a mixture of large and small oak barrels.

That use of oak to add a tiny bit of oxygen and therefore more body and mouthfeel shines through on the palate, with a lemon rind or dried apricot texture.

On the nose, there’s a lick of butter, a whiff of wood smoke, and plenty of red apple and apricot aromas, but it’s the more savoury nutty notes that win through on the palate – that step up in texture means this is the one to pair with salty roast chicken or meaty white fish.

While, for me, the Rias Baixas region’s albariño still has an edge in the Spanish white wine stakes, Rueda certainly makes a very strong case for being listed alongside gruner veltliner, grenache, and savoury Champagne in the gastronomic pantheon of food and wine matching heroes.

Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, whisky, gin and beer reviews in his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.