Discover a different style of Rioja wine. Round & About’s wine columnist Giles Luckett recommends 8 Riojas that offer a new perspective on this classic region…
I was sharing a bottle of Rioja with a friend of mine a few days ago, and he asked, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of Rioja?’ I made to reply, ‘Oh no, I love Chilean wines’ (a sommelier once asked him which Rioja he’d like, and he said ‘A Chilean one’), but he gave me pause for thought. I do drink a lot of Rioja, and I never get tired of it. Why? Because there’s an amazing diversity of styles and flavours on offer. You could drink nothing but Rioja for a week and twice on Sundays without repeating the experience.
So, for all you Rioja wine lovers – Chilean and the more commonly seen Spanish ones, sorry, Ed! – here are eight expressions of this majestic wine that I would urge you to try.
I’ve mentioned my love of white Rioja before. Once something best avoided, it’s now one of the best value white wines you can find, with the top wines – Contino Blanco (Noble Grape £23.99) or Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva (£115 Berry Bros & Rudd) – fit to rank with the world’s finest whites.
My current favourite is the Muga Blanco (Majestic £12.99). This is a modern-style white Rioja in that it’s fermented in steel and then sees only three months of oak ageing. The result is a fresh, tangy wine that offers barrel loads of peach, spiced pears, grape and grapefruit flavours with just a hint of cream.
Rioja isn’t famous for its sparkling wines, which is a shame as some of the best Spanish sparkling wines I’ve ever had have been from here. Take the Azabache Brut Metodo Tradicional Rioja, Fincas de Azabache (Corks £22.95). There are only 8,500 bottles of this beauty made each year, and it’s a once-tried, never-forgotten experience. Produced from white Tempranillo (who knew? I didn’t) in the traditional method, this is a wine that combines vibrancy with complexity. The nose is fruit-driven, with all manner of yellow berries jostling for your attention, while in the mouth, citrus mingles with yeast against a backdrop of baked apples. This is a great aperitif or works equally well with smoked fish.
Rosé Rioja, or rosado to give its proper title, is almost always great fun but rarely serious. A big exception to this rule is the Alegra de Beronia (Majestic £11.99). It’s worth buying just for the bottle, which is just as elegant and refined as the wine inside. Blushing amber pink, this Garnache-Tempranillo blend offers a rose and cheery nose, while the soft, generous palate combines strawberries and red cherries with notes of peach and nectarine. Gentle as a summer breeze, try this on its own or with fresh seafood or lightly cured pork.
Rioja is big on value for money, and if you’re looking for a lighter style with more personality than the Groucho Club on a Saturday night, look to the Cune Ciranza (Sainsbury’s £10). I was introduced to this when I was at Harrods’ wine department, and it blew my young palate away. More years than I care (or can) remember, it’s still a firm favourite. Mid-red, it’s bouquet is of crushed black and red berries with a hint of vanilla and smoke. Fruity and forward on the palate, it has all the classic Rioja elements of berry fruits, spices, orange zest, and cream but is presented in an easy-going, rounded, gentle style.
Another wine that shows Rioja’s eminent affordability is the Wine Society’s Rioja (£8.50). This is a very traditional style of Rioja, with plenty of spicy American oak, plenty or extraction, and a goodly quantity of stewed black fruits, given a lift by highlights of Seville oranges and cranberries. Smooth as silk and rich as Bezos, this is another great wine to keep to hand, and at £8.50, it’s worth joining the Society to get it.
Up to now, the wines I’ve recommended have been produced from classic blends, such as Tempranillo and Garnacha or Viura and Malvasia. My next recommendation is both a varietal, made from a single-grape type, and made from one of the less well-known Rioja varieties. It’s the Beronia Graciano (Vinissimus £20). I warn you now, this is not for the faint of heart; this is a Rioja for those looking for power and intensity. Red black, the nose is a dark, brooding affair with stewed black fruits, earthy spices and woodsmoke. The palate is weighty, concentrated, and broad. Prunes, blackberries, herbs, boysenberries, vanilla, charcoal, and a lift of lavender make for a fascinating mouthful. This is a wine that’s capable of long ageing but is sensational now with roasted meats, strong hard cheeses, and pâté.
My next wine is a Riojan legend, the Imperial Reserva 2018 (Waitrose £26.99). Imperial is a wine that blends tradition with modernity and offers one of the great Rioja wine experiences. A blend of Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo, aged in a combination of American and French oak, freshness and depth combine here in a wonderfully stylish way. The nose brims with zesty red and black berries, which are pinned back by smoke, cream and violets. At first sip, it comes across as clean, delicate, light even, but the blackcurrant and bramble fruit’s piercing intensity is soon backed up by notes of roasted meat, minerals, dried cherries, sandalwood, orange zest and green herbs. A fine wine by anyone’s definition, this too will develop over decades.
I’ll finish with a flourish, with the Coscojares Vindedo Singular Rioja, Fincas de Azabache (Corks and Cru £47.50), which shows how Rioja’s Garnacha (France’s Grenache) can play the starring role. Made from a tiny parcel of vines on a 1.9-hectare vineyard, all of which were planted before 1955 at high altitude, the results is a wonderfully subtle, complex wine that oozes class and complexity. Mid-red, it offers a combination of red cherries, dried strawberries, and damsons, with intriguing touches of aged balsamic vinegar, pepper, caramel, and raspberries. Ideal with everything from belly pork to goats’ cheese, it will develop beautifully over the coming decade.
Well, that’s it for now. I do hope you’ll try some of these fantastic wines so you can enjoy the many faces of Rioja.
Next time out, Chile. No, really, it will be Chile!