Like "friendly" fire, the coupling of the word "great" with Spanish white wine has long been one of life's oxymorons. In the wake of the success of Galicia's albariño however, Rueda, with its native verdejo grape, is fast catching the eye as a region capable of making distinctive dry white wines of genuine flavour and personality. Home to sheep, pigs and cereals, Rueda, a couple of hours north-west of Madrid, sits on the windy plateau of Castilla y Léon. At 700-900 metres above sea level, higher even than some of Argentina's Andean vineyards, altitude is one of its secrets. While you could fry an egg on one of its stones in summer, the temperature plummets at night, leaving the grapes full of crisp natural acidity.
The other secret of Rueda's indigenous verdejo, said to have come from Algeria in the 11th century, is the age of its vines. Ismael Gozalo's vines are astonishing: 150 years old, their thick gnarled trunks sprout from the windswept plain, their sprawling branches curving first up and then groundwards. Ismael's family had been churning out bog-standard whites for five generations, but when he decided to go the quality route in 2005, he and his partner Javier Zaccagnini brought in a French consultant, Pierre Millemann, to advise on using burgundian techniques. The result, the 2007 Ossian, £19.06, Justerini & Brooks (020-7484 6400), is delicious, subtle oak toastiness bringing complexity to the crisp stonefruit flavours and mineral finish.
Victoria Pariente is another local who's taking the family business to a new level. She's building a new winery at La Seca near Valladolid to improve the quality of her wines, some of which are also made from old bush vines, others from sauvignon blanc, a relative newcomer to Rueda. Her 2008 José Pariente Verdejo, £11.30, Theatre of Wine, Greenwich (020-8858 6363), displays a zesty freshness that could almost be Bordeaux sauvignon. For more affordable tapas-friendly dry verdejos, try Tesco Finest Rueda 2008, £6.99, with its dash of tropical ripeness and zingy acidity, or the palatable, citrusy 2007 Carrasviñas Verdejo, £7.50, Great Western Wine, Bath (01225 322810).
The unoaked style lends it a bracing freshness but the variety works well with oak too, as rioja specialists Marques de Riscal, among the first to modernise Rueda, have shown with their richly full-bodied, lightly smoky 2007 Marques de Riscal Limousin, £8-£11.99, Cambridge Wine Merchants (01223 568993), Edencroft Fine Wines, Nantwich (01270 629975). Perhaps the greatest exponent of the variety is a Frenchman, Didier Belondrade Lerebours, whose intense Belondrade y Lurton is a candidate for one of Spain's best dry whites.
Each of the 19 plots of vines in his 30 hectares is treated differently to create a dry white of great poise and complexity. Attractively perfumed, his second wine, the Quinta Apolonia 2007, £11.30-£11.99, Raeburn, Edinburgh (0131 343 1159), Amphora Wines, Leicester (01664 565013), is refreshingly zesty and grapefruity. For a glimpse of what Rueda is capable of at its best, the 2006 Belondrade y Lurton, £22.95-£24.50, Tanners, Shrewsbury (01743 234500), The Flying Corkscrew, Leighton Buzzard (01442 412312), Uncorked, London (020-7638 5998), is a powerful, almost Graves-like dry white of beguiling richness of texture, subtly woven oak and superb intensity of peachy flavours.