Rueda is a wine region at the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, located just north-west of the Spanish capital, Madrid. It is known for its dry, aromatic white wines made predominantly from Verdejo, with small quantities of Viura and Sauvignon Blanc. These fresh, aromatic whites are an ideal complement to the heavy Tempranillo-based reds of neighboring Toro.
Standard Rueda Blanco must be made from at least 50% Verdejo, a variety so aromatic that even substantial additions of neutral-scented Viura (aka Macabeo) do little to reduce its character. Relatively recent additions to the region's wine portfolio are the varietal wines 'Rueda Verdejo' and 'Rueda Sauvignon', which must be made from at least 85% of the stated variety. Rueda Espumoso is the area’s sparkling wine, made in the traditional method with nine months on the bottle-ageing on lees.
As of early 2014, the Rueda vineyard area covered 32,000 acres (13,000ha), planted almost exclusively to white-wine varieties. Verdejo vines occupy an impressive 90% of this land, demonstrating quite how far the variety has come since its renaissance in the 1980s (when this figure was closer to 50%). After a long period in the shadows, Verdejo's potential was 'rediscovered' by the respected Rioja producer Marques de Riscal, which produces several white Rueda wines.
Viura and Sauvignon Blanc together constitute just 5% of Rueda's annual harvest. Palomino Fino, once much more popular but now being phased out, makes up less than 0.25% of the Rueda vineyard area. In among the sea of white wine, a tiny amount of tinto and rosado (red and rosé) is made here, from Tempranillo and Garnacha with a little help from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Here on the high plateau of Castilla y Leon, the landscape is wild and the earth low in nutrients. Plants are forced to work hard to survive, so only cereals and grape vines grow here with any vigor. The local soils, rich in lime and iron, are also a vital factor. These are very stony, yet provide good drainage and are easy to farm. The Duero wine region is marked on its northern edge by the Duero River, which then continues on to Toro, and Portugal beyond. Almost all of Rueda's vineyards are somehow connected to the Duero, located along its banks or those of its various tributaries. The finest Rueda vineyards are those closest to the Duero, where the soils have a higher limestone content.
The climate here is clearly continental, which means hot, harsh summers, and cold winters when temperatures often drop below freezing. Torrid, dry summer days are followed by crisp, cool nights, which refresh the vines and help to retain all-important acidity. The region is deprived of any maritime influence by the Cordillera Cantábrica, the mountain range that separates it from the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. To illustrate the importance of these mountains on Rueda’s climate, on the other side of them lie Asturias and Cantabria – regions with relatively cool, fresh climates and fertile green landscapes.
A key turning point in Rueda’s history was the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th Century. Prior to 1865, the region was home to many hundreds of vineyards, but these had all but disappeared by the beginning of the 20th Century. When it came to replanting post-phylloxera, Palomino Fino was the variety of choice for most vineyards. Palomino is very well suited to oxidative wine styles (it is responsible for the vast majority of Sherry), which were the norm in Rueda at that time and are still made there in small quantities even today. The variety also thrives in hot, dry, nutrient-poor conditions, such as those found in Rueda and Jerez.
Fortified wines are still made in Rueda today, but in tiny quantities. Rueda Dorada is aged oxidatively in barrel for at least two years. Its color is very much as its name suggests (dorada means ‘golden’), and its aromas are of toasted nuts and rancio. The minimum alcohol content for Rueda Dorado is 15% by volume. The lighter Rueda Palido is aged under a film of flor, and is not dissimilar in style to a dry fino Sherry.
Rueda's wine laws and marketing efforts are managed by the Consejo Regulador de Rueda.