Drinking Rioja used to be like wearing an old cardigan. Not necessarily exciting but always comfortable. Many wine lovers, myself included, got into the subject through the mellow charms of this north Spanish wine. Rioja offered another way between the simple pleasures of cheaper Australian wines and the more austere offerings from France and Italy. It was accessible and fruity but also mature and sophisticated.


Compared with, say, Bordeaux, Rioja was consumer friendly with distinctive brand names, attractive packaging, and an easy to understand hierarchy: crianza, the youngest wines, followed by reserva and gran reserva at the top. The Spanish, unlike the French, did the ageing for you. The region was (and largely still is) dominated by large companies who usually blended across Rioja’s three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental (Baja), Rioja Alavesa, ensuring a consistent product. The wines were a blend of grapes too: mainly tempranillo and garnacha (grenache) with others playing a supporting role such as graciano, mazuelo (carignan) and even some white varieties. The resulting wines were usually pale red from ageing in American oak which brought flavours of coconut, tobacco and walnuts. These old school wines are still made and, at their best, they are some of the finest wines in the world; at worst they are dull, formulaic and taste largely of wood.

Things changed in the ‘90s, when some producers began to ape modern Bordeaux. Pale grenache was out, dark-coloured heavily-extracted tempranillo was in; out went the old American barrels, in came new French barriques. The resulting wines laden with concentrated flavours of blackcurrant, spice and firm tannins needed time in bottle to soften but the wines were usually released much younger than in the past. After suitable ageing, the best of these modern wines could be very good indeed, if not that distinctive, but the not so good ones were aggressive and not a lot of fun to drink.

Now, there’s a third style which we'll call new wave. These are often wines from a single sub-region, even a single vineyard. The oak is in the background and the emphasis is on freshness rather than power; think crunchy fruit and herbal notes. These are joyful irresistible wines and, best of all, this emphasis on freshness has spread across the whole region. There are fewer tired fruitless old fashioned wines, or over-muscular bruisers.

Rioja has cast off the old cardigan, it’s now exciting and unpredictable. Avoid the very bottom end, discount reservas and gran reservas are always a disappointment, and Rioja offers some of the highest quality to pound ratio of any wine you can buy. Here are ten that won’t disappoint.

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Best rioja wines at a glance

  • Best Gran Reserva: La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Arana Gran Reserva 2014, £35.61
  • Best Garnacha: Ramon Bilbao Garnacha Límite Sur 2020, £21
  • Best big brand: Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Crianza 2019, £9.99 when you mix six
  • Best supermarket own label: Marques Del Norte Rioja Reserva 2019, £9
  • Best budget rioja: Baron Amarillo Rioja Crianza NV, £5.99
  • Best new wave wine: Bideona Rioja Mayela 2021, £12
  • Best traditional Rioja: The Society’s Rioja Crianza Bodegas Palacio 2019, £8.50
  • Best with roast lamb: Beronia Rioja Reserva 2019, £15.99
  • Best with tapas: Muriel Vendimia Seleccionada Tempranillo 2018, £7.50
  • Best single vineyard wine: Bodegas Mateos La Mateo Colecciòn de Familia Vendimia, Rioja 2020/21, £30

Best rioja wines to buy in 2024

La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Arana Gran Reserva 2014

Available from Lay & Wheeler (£35.61)

A bottle of La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Arana Gran Reserva 2014

Best Gran Reserva

Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s hard to think of any other wine offering this much pleasure for the money. It smells incredible, highly aromatic with rosemary, cedar, tobacco, and leafy forest floor notes. The taste is ripe and full featuring strawberries on the palate, baking spices, mellow, soft tannins, and a creamy texture. Sheer Rioja heaven!

Available from:
Lay & Wheeler (£35.61)

Ramon Bilbao Garnacha Límite Sur 2020

Available from Great Wine Co. (£21)

A bottle of Ramon Bilbao Garnacha Límite Sur 2020

Best Garnacha

Unusually this wine is made from 100% Garnacha (Grenache) a grape that is undergoing a renaissance in the region. It’s fragrant and supple on the palate with sweet red berry fruit, spicy liquorice and a mineral rocky edge. Think Pinot Noir but with extra alcohol and you’re in the right place.

Available from:
Great Wine Co. (£21)

Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Crianza 2019

Available from Majestic (£9.99 when you mix six)

A bottle of Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Crianza 2019

Best big brand

Floral with sweet ripe fruit, quite firm tannins and a nice spiciness to it, it's been a while since we've had this ubiquitous red and we are really impressed. It's a really elegant wine rather than being jammy or smothered in oak. It’s a great Sunday lunch sort of bottle.

Available from:
Majestic (£9.99 when you mix six)

Marques Del Norte Rioja Reserva 2019

Available from ASDA (£9)

A bottle of Marques Del Norte Rioja Reserva 2019

Best supermarket own label

Take a smell and you can immediately tell where this is from. With its coconut and strawberry, it’s unmistakable Rioja. There is no shortage of oak here but with its richness and fruit, it carries it really well. You’re getting a lot of character for the money.

Available from:
ASDA (£9)

Baron Amarillo Rioja Crianza NV

Available from Aldi (£5.99)

A bottle of Baron Amarillo Rioja Crianza NV

Best budget rioja

It’s very hard to argue with this for under £6. There’s a reserva for a little more but we much prefer this because it’s more perfumed and fruitier: think red berry fruit with a refreshing acidity plus some leather, tobacco and even a little walnut on the finish.

Available from:
Aldi (£5.99)

Bideona Rioja Mayela 2021

Available from Hic (£12)

A bottle of Bideona Rioja Mayela 2021

Best new wave wine

Take one look at the label and you know you’re getting something a little different. This is made from especially chosen parcels of old vine fruit. The smell is herbal with strong red cherries and then take a sip and it’s crunchy, herbal and explosively fresh. This is Rioja that will appeal to lovers of Syrah.

Available from:
Hic (£12)

The Society’s Rioja Crianza Bodegas Palacio 2019

Available from The Wine Society (£8.50)

The Society’s Rioja Crianza Bodegas Palacio 2019

Best traditional Rioja

While we love all the exciting things happening in the region, sometimes we can’t get enough of the traditional wines, aged long in American oak. This own label wine produced by Bodegas Cosme Palacio is 100% Tempranillo and offers layers of coconut, vanilla and tobacco. And the price is absurd.

Available from:
The Wine Society (£8.50)

Beronia Rioja Reserva 2019

Available from Sainsburys (£14), Waitrose (£15.99), Master of Malt (£17), Majestic Wine (£18.99)

A bottle of Beronia Rioja Reserva 2019

Best with roast lamb

You’ll understand why lamb and Rioja is such a classic combination when you take a sip of this. With its deep colour and spicy oak, this is a modern style Rioja but, unlike some, it's not overblown. The all important freshness is here and time in the bottle has mellowed it beautifully.

Available from:

Muriel Vendimia Seleccionada Tempranillo 2018

Available from Co-op (£7.50)

A bottle of Muriel Vendimia Seleccionada Tempranillo 2018

Best with tapas

Gastronomic Rioja at an amazing price. You can see how young it is from the purple red colour and then the aroma is all about violets and wild herbs, with raspberry fruit and then spicy leather and some chocolate. This would be brilliant with all kinds of meaty snacks. You could even serve it a little chilled.

Available from:
Co-op (£7.50)

Bodegas Mateos La Mateo Colecciòn de Familia Vendimia, Rioja 2020/21

Available from Oxford Wine Company (£30)

A bottle of Bodegas Mateos La Mateo Colecciòn de Familia Vendimia, Rioja 2020/21

Best single vineyard wine

After years where blending across regions was common, some producers in Rioja have begun to bottle single vineyard wines as they do in Burgundy or Barolo. And from tasting this, we can see why. This wine combines huge power and concentration with grace and deliciousness. It’s one that needs time to open up so decant and serve it with suitably meaty food.

Available from:
Oxford Wine Company (£30)

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