The area’s dry climate, dramatic diurnal shifts, and rocky soils create ideal conditions for Rueda’s prized grape—Verdejo. This native variety has been cultivated in Rueda since the 11th century. It yielded commercially successful wines until phylloxera devastated the region in the late 19th century.
After the phylloxera blight, Rueda was largely replanted with Palomino Fino grapes for bulk fortified wines until the 1970s, when Verdejo was revived and once again became the region’s star grape. In 1980, Rueda received Denominación de Origen (DO) status for its white wines. Production focus remains on the region’s dry aromatic whites, which are predominantly made from Verdejo. Very little fortified wine is produced in Rueda today. Red wines were added to the DO in 2008, but they represent only a small percentage of production.
There are 13,500 hectares under vine in Rueda. Approximately 1,500 growers provide grapes to 67 wineries. A number of large winery groups have moved into the region, but Rueda is a wine zone that mostly comprises small family farms. While organic viticulture is becoming increasingly popular throughout the wine world, most growers in Rueda have always farmed organically. The favorable soil and climatic conditions encourage sustainable agricultural practices.
Rueda’s vineyards are located in the flat highlands, approximately 600 to 800 meters above sea level. Of the 13,500 hectares that make up the total vineyard area, 13,000 are planted with white wine varieties. Approximately 11,300 hectares are devoted to Verdejo. Fewer than 500 hectares are planted with red varieties.
The main wine-growing areas of Rueda are within the provinces of:
Dark gray and brown alluvial soils rich in lime are found in the Duero River depression in the region’s north. Farther south, the soils become browner and sandier, with a mix of pebbles and rocks. Rueda’s stony soils are lacking in most nutrients but are rich in minerals, such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. Atlantic winds regularly blow across the plateau. Good ventilation and drainage help make the poor-quality gravel soils easy to farm without the use of herbicides or fungicides.
Rueda has a continental climate. To some extent, it is moderated by maritime influences resulting from its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The area gets a lot of sun and minimal rainfall; it’s subject to long, cold winters, short springs, and dry and extremely hot summers, with some rainfall in autumn. The region is at risk for late spring frosts. Hail, high winds, and freezing fog can also threaten crops.
Rueda experiences dramatic temperature shifts of up to 50 degrees in a day. These fluctuations help concentrate flavors and balance sugar and acidity in the grapes. Rather than harvesting during intense daytime heat, Rueda’s grapes are harvested by machine at night when temperatures are low. This process prevents the sun from oxidizing the must and preserves the aromatics and flavor compounds of the fruit.
Wine production by local settlers and monastic orders flourished in Rueda as early as the 11th century, under the reign of King Alfonso VI. Verdejo wines were commercially successful until the grapes were nearly wiped out by phylloxera in 1890. When the region recovered, the focus shifted to bulk wines. The Verdejo vines were replaced with Palomino Fino, a high-yielding grape that was used as a base for solera-aged fortified Palido and Dorado wines. It wasn’t until the 1970s that quality over quantity was sought, and Verdejo began to thrive once again.
Recognizing Rueda’s potential for quality white wines, Bodegas Marqués de Riscal—a producer known for its Rioja reds—expanded operations to the region in the early 1970s with the goal of creating fresh, vibrant white wines whose quality could be compared with its red wines from Rioja. With the help of professor Émile Peynaud from Bordeaux, Marqués de Riscal winemaker Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga became a pioneer in Rueda, incentivizing growers to maintain their Verdejo vineyards rather than giving way to more productive varieties or turning them over to other crops entirely. The exceptional white wines made by Marqués de Riscal at that time were a catalyst for Verdejo’s revival in the region. The producer also jump-started the cultivation of Sauvignon Blanc, which now occupies approximately 6 percent of Rueda’s vineyards.
Overall, 96 percent of Rueda’s vineyards are planted with white varieties and 87 percent of those grow Verdejo. A minimal number of red wines and rosés are also produced. The demand for Rueda’s fresh Verdejos has surpassed the market for the fortified wines of yesteryear, although a few producers still release limited quantities of these unique wines. Some winemakers are also trying their hand at producing sparkling Verdejo using the methode traditionelle.
The DO of Rueda was established in 1980. Initially, the designation covered only white wines. Reds and rosés were added to the regulations in 2008. There are no regional sub-appellations in Rueda, though different areas within the appellation yield a variety of qualities and styles.
The Consejo Regulador is the governmental council that monitors and regulates Spain’s DOs. It requires winemakers of the Rueda DO to post a seal of identity, known as a back label, on wine bottles, indicating the origin of the grapes, the vintage, and other information.
Back labels are required for:
- Rueda Verdejo
- Rueda Sauvignon
- Rueda Espumoso
- Rueda Dorado
- Rosado Espumoso (sparkling rosé)
- Tinto Joven
- Tinto Crianza
- Tinto Reserva
- Tinto Gran Reserva