Rioja has long been a favourite of wine quaffers and connoisseur alike - and with good reason writes Christine Austin

Now that leaves are falling off the trees and there is a definite chill in the air it is time to move to the Rioja end of the wine rack.  Loved for its soft, round, warming flavours, raspberry fruit, maybe a touch of oak and supple tannins, Rioja goes with almost any kind of food from a pizza to roast lamb. It also comes in a vast range of prices from great value to Sunday best, depending on its quality level.

Rioja owes its fame to its location in north-eastern Spain. Tucked behind the mountainous Sierra de Cantabria it is sheltered from the buffeting Atlantic weather but even so, this is not a warm region. Winter can be biting cold and the high altitude makes ripening long and slow. Tempranillo is the main grape here, with Garnacha adding some weight and flavour and other grapes like Graciano and Mazuelo adding nuances of flavour.

 

Bizarrely it was a disaster in Bordeaux that propelled Rioja to fame. When a vineyard pest rampaged across Europe in the 19thcentury, merchants looked over the border into Spain to find wine. They even sent their winemakers to improve the quality of the wines, helping Rioja become the premier region of Spain. Even when Bordeaux started production again and despite the pest eventually affecting Rioja, it maintained its position, selling wine across Europe and it developed a careful grading system which relied on the wine spending long periods in oak.  The terms Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva became beacons on labels, explaining quality and price in simple terms.

But as with any long-established system, things needed to change and many producers are now ageing their wines for less time in oak, to allow more fruit to shine through.  They are also paying more attention to the terroir of their  vineyards and this is being recognised by new words that will eventually find their way onto labels.  Single-vineyard wines are now permitted, and the name of a village may also appear on the label, subject to certain rules.  All this means that there is more focus on location and soil, rather than on the oak that the wine has been aged in.  It means that in a very subtle way, Rioja is changing the way we look at wines from the region.

It gives producers more flexibility to explore their best sites and produce better quality. For a region where wines are aged for years, these changes will take time to feed through to the bottles on the shelves, 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 new legislation, here are a dozen of their best wines to try.

Ursa Maior Rioja Tempranillo 2017, Spar £6.50

An unoaked Rioja with bags of juicy raspberry and cherry fruit. Perfect for a mid-week supper.

The Best Rioja Reserva 2013, Morrisons £6.75

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

Torres Ibéricos Tempranillo Crianza 2015, Waitrose  £10.99

A fresh, juicy style of Rioja, with very subtle oak and a supple, silky style.

Exquisite Collection Marqués de Carrión Rioja Reserva 2014, Aldi £7.99

Newly arrived on the Aldi shelves this gives black cherry, tobacco and spice flavours and silky, fine-grained tannins on the finish.

Gran Norte Rioja Reserva 2011, Booths £13

A serious style of Reserva with classic strawberry, vanilla and spice notes on the nose with dark cherry fruit, backed by a streak of chocolate.  Supple, elegant tannins make this a dinner-party wine.

Campo Aldea Rioja Graciano Reserva 2013, Marks and Spencer £13

Graciano is usually a bit-part player in a Rioja blend, but here it shines out with vibrant, lively spiced blackberry fruit and has a streak of freshness that partners so well with food.

Muga Rioja Reserva 2013, Majestic £18.99 or £16.99 on mix six

Muga 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. This is full of ripe dark-berry fruit and sweet spice and is wonderful alongside roast lamb.

Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Reserva 2014, Field and Fawcett £17.95

Marqués de Murrieta owns 300 hectares of vineyard and produce wines only with their own fruit in a modern, fruit-driven style. This wine has almost 10% Graciano blended with Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Garnacha which adds ripe fruit aromas and a freshness to the palate.

Viña Arana 2009, Rioja Reserva, La Rioja Alta, Waitrose £20.49

Genuine, old style Rioja yet with just enough fruit to offset the classic silky, coconut-edged, leather and smoke flavours.  You need big-flavoured food on the plate, a fire in the grate and a cold winter’s night to really appreciate this wine.

Muga Seleccción Especial Reserva, 2012, The Wine Society £22

A step up from Muga’s regular Reserva, this comes from the best vineyards and is aged for 3 years in oak.  It has tremendous depth of flavour and gorgeous integration.

Contino Rioja Reserva 2012, Field and Fawcett £22.85

Unusually for Rioja, this is a single-estate wine, owned by the CVNE company.  Winemaker Jesús Madrazo has just retired so now is the time to snap up his wines before they disappear.  This 2012 vintage has elegant black cherry and plum fruit, supported but definitely not dominated by oak, it is a perfect expression of autumn drinking.

Sainsbury also has this excellent 2012 vintage of this wine, at £25 while Marks and Spencer has the 2014 vintage (also £25) which I found it just a shade more youthful with fabulous fruit intensity.

Now retired but the excellent wines of Jésus Madrano are still on the shelves

La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva 2004, The Wine Society £44

A step back in time to classic, large cask-aged Rioja with layers of fruit, oak, tobacco and silk.  904 is the stuff of legends.  Everyone needs to have tasted it at least once in their lifetime.

 

 

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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