Spanish experiments with sauvignon blanc

Creativity is at the heart of good winemaking – and self-confessed science geek Peter Ranscombe never turns down the chance to lift the lid and look at how blends are made.

THERE must be something in the water at Ramón Bilbao.

Last year, we explored how winemaker Paula Fandino at the Spanish drinks giant’s Mar de Frades label in the Rias Baixas region likes to experiment with her albarino, a point that was emphasised during an online tasting earlier this month.

This afternoon, it was the turn of Sara Banuelos, Fandino’s colleague at the group’s La Finca Las Amedias winery in Rueda, to pull on her white lab coat and demonstrate some of her concoctions.

Ramón Bilbao expanded from its heartland in Rioja into Rueda in 2010, initially in partnership and then in its own winery since 2015.

It’s a well-trodden path, with Riojan brand Marqués de Riscal kicking off the trend in 1972 and other Rioja producers like Beronia also following suit.

Ramón Bilbao site is surrounded by 60 hectares of verdejo – a white variety that was introduced to the area in the 11th century and which has been enjoying a revival since the 1970s thanks to its freshness – and sauvignon blanc.

Every day’s a school day

Spain isn’t renowned for its sauvignon and so it’s fascinating to see how the grape performs on the high plateau of Rueda, where its 800 metres of altitude help the grapes to retain their crisp acidity.

Banuelos suggests its style sits somewhere between the savoury vegetal flavours of France’s Loire valley and the tropical fruit notes of Marlborough in New Zealand.

She’s been experiment with different methods for making her sauvignon blanc and presented an interesting tasting this afternoon via Zoom, with participants receiving a bottle of the finished sauvignon blanc and its three component parts – one part aged in stainless steel tanks, another aged in concrete tanks and a third aged in large wooden barrels known as foudre.

The stainless steel version was really expressive on the nose, with tinned peaches and the tiniest whiff of wood smoke, then more tropical guava and passionfruit on the palate, with a huge kick of teeth-licking acidity.

The concrete incarnation was less aromatic and more savoury, with lots of lemon rind aromas and flavours, and slightly dampened-down acidity.

The acidity was higher again in the foudre version, with apricot flavours joining the lemon rind.

The finished article

Put all three together and you get a wine like the 2018 Ramón Bilbao Rueda Sauvignon Blanc (equivalent to £11, The Fine Wine Company), which had a surprising amount of lemon rind amongst the peach on the nose.

It’s really textured, thanks to the small amounts of oxygen allowed to mix with the liquid in the foudre and the concrete tanks, in contrast to the fermentation, which excludes oxygen so as to retain all the fruity freshness.

The acidity in the finished wine is well balanced by – as you’d expect – a mix of guava, passionfruit and peach at one end, and more obvious green pepper and asparagus notes at the other.

Banuelos’s experiments aren’t limited to her sauvignon blanc – she’s also been figuring out what works best for her verdejo too.

The 2018 Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo (£12.95, The Fine Wine Company) is made in stainless steel tanks and ageing on its lees – the leftover yeast cells from the fermentation – for three months, producing a wine that’s more textured than the stainless steel sauvignon  blanc component, and tastes more savoury too.

In contrast, her 2017 Ramón Bilbao Edición Limitada Lías Verdejo (£14.07, GP Brands) spent eight months ageing in a mixture of French and Hungarian oak barrels and underwent more stirring of its lees, which resulted in lots of buttery, vanilla and wood smoke aromas mingling with the lemon rind and apricot on the nose, and a buttery roundness in the mouth, with a peachy lift on the finish.

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