A Spanish white, Verdejo captures the summer sun


Summertime’s all about indulging our whims and our desire to be a kid again. Whether it’s dribbling watermelon juice down our chin or running through the sprinkler, there’s nothing like the summer sun to evoke nostalgic memories and to awaken our appreciation for the simple pleasures in life. Now that we’re adults, one of those pleasures is drinking beverages as refreshing as lemonade, but with the ability to soften the edges of a day buried in spreadsheets instead of sand. A wine that fits that bill (albeit for more than a quarter) is a white called Verdejo.

EIGHT WAYS TO DRINK IN THE SUMMER SUNBodegas Tionio ‘Austum’ Verdejo 2010 (Spain). Tastings of Charlottesville. $17.95

Divine Light Verdelho 2010 (Western Australia). Wine Made Simple. $14.99

Herdade Do Esporao Verdelho 2011 (Portugal). Wine Made Simple. $14.99

Keswick Verdejo 2011 (Virginia). Keswick Vineyards. $21.95

Naia Verdejo 2010 (Spain). Wine Made Simple. $14.99

Prado Rey Verdejo 2011 (Spain).
Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet. $11.99

Shaya Verdejo Old Vines 2010 (Spain). Market Street Wineshop. $15.99

Tierra Buena Rueda 2011 (Spain). Market Street Wineshop. $9.99

The name for the wine and the grape, Verdejo is indigenous to Rueda, an area which runs along the Duero River smack in the middle of Spain’s northwestern Castilla y Leon region. An ancient land dotted with castles, Rueda’s history with verdejo vines dates back to the 11th century, when the Mozarabs brought them over from North Africa. Then, the region and its grape was best known for its production of a fortified, oxidative wine similar to, but not as good as, sherry. It was phylloxera—that pesky sap-sucker that devasted European vineyards at the turn of the 20th century—that halted the production of fortified Verdejo. Probably not wine’s biggest loss.

However, it took a while for the region to rebound after the Spanish Civil War, and then four decades under authoritarian dictator Francisco Franco. Sherry’s workhorse grape, palomino, replaced verdejo until the 1970s, when Rioja winery Marqués de Riscal came to Rueda in search of a region to produce a bright, young wine suitable for export (the oaked whites of Rioja were too serious and time-consuming). French oenologist, Emile Péynaud, helped Riscal revive the verdejo grape, other wineries followed suit, and Verdejo grew roots in Rueda, becoming recognized with a Denominación de Origen (DO) status by 1980.

By the DO’s governing, wines labeled Rueda must contain at least 50 percent verdejo with the rest typically made from sauvignon blanc or viura (also called macabeo). Wines labeled Rueda Verdejo must contain at least 85 percent verdejo, but are often 100 percent. Even in these latter examples, the aromatics and flavor profiles of Verdejo are quite similar to Sauvignon Blanc. The nose is a summer panopoly of juicy citrus, wildflowers, and freshly mown grass and the palate flits from gooseberry to kiwi fruit to ripe pear. There’s also a delightful mineral quality reminiscent of an asphalt driveway steaming in the sun following a summer rainshower.

Where Verdejo differs from Sauvignon Blanc is in its weight. Spain’s blazing temps ripen the grapes’ sugars into soft, round, mouth-filling fruit with a honey and almond finish, while the modern practices of harvesting at night and cold fermentation (see Winespeak 101) keep the wine fresh, vibrant, and free of oxidation. Most Verdejo producers ferment exclusively in stainless steel, but some are going for a richer style by barrel-fermenting. These examples age on their lees and taste like an orange creamsicle.

Any summer food—from ceviche to corn-on-the-cob—becomes an extra special treat with a glass of Verdejo. It’s crisp and non-committal enough to sip on its own poolside, yet verdant and full-bodied enough to take on pasta with pesto, crabcakes, paella, and veggies off the grill. It’s one of those easy wines that requires no thought, yet commands your attention once your glass is empty.

While Verdejo from Rueda is the wine’s benchmark, it’s also produced in Spain’s coastal region, Galicia (where it’s known as Verdello), and in Portugal, where it’s called Verdelho. Off Portugal’s mainland, on the island of Madeira, Verdelho gives its name and grapes to one of four kinds of Madeira, the world-class fortified wine known for its acidity, nutty sweetness, and everlasting shelf-life. Verdelho from Australia, on the other hand, is tart and flowery with expressions of lime zest and honeysuckle, and has a mouthfeel like soft serve custard.
Here in Virginia, Keswick Vineyards makes a dreamy Verdejo blended with a small amount of Viognier that’s like a market basket brimming with melons, green apples, grapefruit, and basil. It’s a perennial favorite that, with fewer than 300 cases in production, goes fast—just like the barefeet, fireflies, and carefree days of summer.

Winespeak 101
Cold fermentation (n.): A method of fermenting grape juice into wine at lowered temperatures (around 55 degrees) in order to preserve as much freshness, aromatics, and fruit character as possible.