Rioja producers have finally realised they have an age-old problem with oak, writes Christine Austin

If there is one Spanish wine that everyone has heard of it is Rioja. Loved for its soft, round, warming flavours, raspberry fruit, maybe a touch of oak and supple tannins, it goes with almost any kind of food from a pizza to roast lamb. It also comes in a vast range of prices, depending on its quality levels and the length of time it has been aged.

And at last that aging process is being seen as something of a problem.

The quality ladder for Rioja depends on the time a wine has spent in oak. So the whole range of wines, from Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva must spend increasing amounts of time languishing in barrel, then some more time in bottle before it can earn its category.

For some wines quality and time in oak go hand in hand, but the fact that a wine has spent longer in oak doesn’t actually give it more quality. The quality starts right at the beginning, from the quality of the grapes in the vineyard. Now the best producers are starting back at the beginning of the process, selecting their best vineyards and ageing their wines for the period they need to be aged, not just to jump through the hoops of the legislation.

 

It means that, gradually, over time, Rioja will move forward to provide a wider range of wines, not just within the usual quality categories but single vineyard wines with perhaps mention of soils and areas. It gives producers more flexibility to explore their best sites, and produce better quality.

This will all take time, but the revolution is starting and this marks an important phase in one of the UK’s favourite wines. While the Rioja producers get to grips with their legislation, here are some of their best wines to try.

Muga

This is one of the most traditional Rioja producers, family run and without a glint of stainless steel in their cellars. They use so much oak that they maintain their own cooperage on site, but the flavour of these wines is not dominated by wood. They have a richness of style, packed with flavour and elegance. Muga Reserva 2013 (Majestic £18.99/£14.23 on a mix six deal) is a good place to start for its ripe dark-berry fruit and sweet spice. Trade up to Muga Reserva Seleccíon Especial 2011 (Martinez £25.99) which is produced only in exceptional years from vines grown on higher terraces above the Ebro river. It takes time to come round, but the 2011 is drinking well now, although if you lose it for another 5 years it will be even better.

The Muga family

Marqués de Murrieta

One of the longest-established producers of Rioja, Marqués de Murrieta owns 300 hectares of vineyard and produce wines only with their own fruit. Their white Rioja, Capellanía is one of the few that retains the essence of old-style white Rioja with creamy honeysuckle notes shot through with lemon and the smell of old school desks. Made from grapes grown on old vines at 600 metres altitude this combines concentration and freshness. It is a fabulous wine to team with gazpacho, Serrano ham and cheese. (2012 Capellanía The Wine Society, £18).

The Murrieta reds are traditional in style with a clear progression of quality up the scale. Marqués de Murrieta Reserva 2013 (Roberts and Speight £14.99) has almost 10% Graciano blended with Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Garnacha. This addition lifts the aromatic and the fruit delightfully.

To be really impressive, head to Bon Coeur for a magnum of the 2010 vintage (£37.98) which is silky smooth and drinking absolutely perfectly now.

Castillo Ygay is their flagship single vineyard wine, aged more than 10 years but even here the style is becoming fresher and more complex. With silky power, layers of plums, liquorice and still with a lift of acidity on the palate this is a remarkable wine. The 2007 vintage is expensive at £69.99 but it will shine at any dinner party.

Lopez de Heredia

Walking into the cellars at Lopez de Heredia is like an Aladdin’s cave for wine lovers. Old wooden barrels, thick cobwebs and stacks of venerable wines stretch into the distance and round corners, yet when the corks are pulled on those bottles the flavours of the wines are not old and fusty. They have a combination of fruit and savoury richness, with a delicacy of style.

Based in a railway siding in Haro, in a distinctive red-roofed building, Lopez de Heredia is the most traditional of Rioja bodegas. Now mainly run by two sisters, María José and Mercedes they make benchmark wines that express the complexity and richness of the region.

Viña Gravonia Crianza Rioja (Harrogate Wine Co. £19.99) is their old-style white Rioja, made from Viura grapes grown on gravel soils, and aged four years in cask. Deep-flavoured with complex notes of quince, lemon, coconut and baking spices this is a classic that will accompany tapas and baked fish perfectly.

Among the reds head to Rioja Reserva 2004, Viña Tondonia (Field and Fawcett £28.65). This has an aged colour, amber at the edges, with aromas of forest floors, and savoury, herbal flavours, backed by the silkiest of tannins and glorious length.

 

The best of the supermarkets

Good Rioja doesn’t have to break the bank and so it is well worth checking out some of the supermarket brands for everyday drinking.

 

Morrisons The Best Rioja Reserva 2010 £6.50

An absolute bargain with lively, juicy red fruit flavours without too much oak intruding across the palate.

Tesco Viña del Cura Rioja Crianza 2014 £6.50

Another great supermarket deal that could start you on your journey through the wines of Rioja. Creamy, strawberry and raspberry fruit, with enough oak to give the right taste but not enough to drown out the fruit.

Marqués de Valido Reserva Rioja 2012, Co-op, £8.99

Made from 100% Tempranillo grapes, this is full of dark raspberry fruit, edged with oak and ending with a clear fresh finish.

Baron de ley Gran Reserva 2010, Morrisons £12

A chunky, cheerful style of Rioja, with enough flavour to cope, not only with a leg of lamb, but also a rib of beef.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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