Rioja: a wine for all seasons

POSTED ON 17/01/2015

In 2004 the American super-critic, Robert Parker, predicted that Spain would emerge as a leader in wine quality and creativity by 2015. He was not far wrong. When he foretold that traditional fine wine regions such as Rioja would play second fiddle to up-and-coming regions, Toro, Jumilla and Priorat, his crystal ball let him down. The fact is that Rioja has more than kept pace with change. It has embraced change to become Spain’s most diverse wine region, with a broad mix of styles ranging from traditional to modern, from oaked to unoaked, from commercial to great, from blends to single vineyard wines and from fine reds to excellent whites.

How has it managed the transition? Broadly speaking, Rioja’s producers have grasped the nettle of how to survive and prosper in a wine world made increasingly competitive by good value, fruit-driven New World wines. In the vineyard, more attention has been paid to bringing in healthy, ripe grapes at lower yields, exploiting old vines and seeking out the best terroirs. The recipe for fruitier wine styles continues in the winery with winemakers cutting down on vessel size, oak levels and ageing times and where oak is used, upping the French oak component at the expense of coarser American oak.

Just as with Bordeaux, it’s easy to get tripped up by indifferent, cheap wines but at the same time there are surprises to be found in the foothills of Rioja like the spicily juicy, strawberryish 2008 Baron de las Viñas Rioja Reserva, £10, Sainsbury’s, the polished, modern 2012 Perez Burton Rioja, £11, Marks & Spencer and spicy, rich 2008 Bodegas Muriel, Reserva, £7.49 - £12.99, Corkers, Laithwaites. In more traditional, coconutty oak and gamey style, there’s a 2008 Asda Extra Special Marques del Norte Rioja Reserva, £6, along with the supermarket’s impressive 2004 Asda Extra Special El Mesón Rioja Gran Reserva, £12.98, and, also with that mature, gamey edge the 2007 Tesco Finest Viña Mara Rioja Gran Reserva, £11.49.

If you’re prepared to pay a little more, it’s in the £15 - £30 range that Rioja excels through vineyard-focused wineries such as Finca Allende, Roda, Remelluri, Ramirez de Ganuza, Artadi and Palacios Remondo and those that straddle the modern / classic divide such as Muga, La Rioja Alta, Luis Cañas, Marqués de Riscal, Martinez Bujanda, Beronia, Marqués de Murrieta and CVNE. Among current favourites at this level, I would single out the delightfully smoky, cherryish 2009 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva, £17.50, The French Wine People, La Rioja Alta’s succulently, smooth, stylish, mulberryish and gamey 2005 Viña Arana Reserva, £17 - £21.95, Wine Society, Cambridge Wine, Berry Bros., and both CVNE’s delicious 2008 Rioja Reserva Imperial, £15, Asda and complex, leather and damson-infused 2007 Rioja Gran Reserva, £28.95 -£29.99, Eton Vintners, Waitrose.

Something for The WeekendSomething for The Weekend

Night In

2013 Côtes du Lubéron Blanc

A distinctive dry white Rhône blend of vermentino, ugni blanc and grenache blanc from the mountainous Lubéron, whose citrusy freshness of aroma and appetisingly cream-textured ripe peach flavours are etched with a refreshing zest and zing. £8, Marks & Spencer.

Dinner Party

2012 Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel, California

From San Joaquin County, whose warmth makes powerful zinfandel like this opulently sweet, spicy cherry and plum pudding red to partner equally casseroles and mature cheddar. £9.50 - £11.99, Wine Society,, Asda, Majestic (buy 2 = £8.99).

Splash Out

2012 Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Pinot Noir, Marlborough

Wonderfully fragrant Pinot Noir in red Burgundy mould whose delicious depth of loganberry fruitiness is polished by a delicate touch of toasty oak bringing succulent complexity to an accomplished Kiwi red. £18.99 - £19.49, Cheers, Ocado, Amazon.

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