Drinking rioja used to be like wearing a 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 based on oak ageing: crianza, the youngest aged 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, Rioja Alavesa, ensuring a consistent product.
The wines were a blend of grapes too: mainly tempranillo and garnacha (grenache) with others playing a supporting roll 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 I 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.
Best rioja under £10
Muriel Vendimia Seleccionada Tempranillo 2018
New wave rioja at an amazing price. You can see how young it is from the purple red colour. The aroma is all about violets and wild herbs, with raspberry fruit and then spicy leather and some chocolate.
Conde de Valdemar Tempranillo
This is what’s known as ‘joven’ – young. It’s made in a light beaujolais style with no oak at all. It’s all about accenting the bright red fruit and bringing out the floral notes. The result is simple, juicy and great fun. This would be great chilled with a salade Niçoise.
Ramón Bilbao Seleccion Especial 2017
From a single vineyard in the Rioja Alta region. It’s so floral on the nose that it’s almost like cool climate syrah, a real knockout. In the mouth, it’s fresh with red fruit and flavours of rosemary and thyme. All this for under £10!
Lanzaga LZ 2018
A blend of tempranillo, graciano and garnacha, this one majors on perfume and freshness. It is made by one of Rioja’s legends Telmo Rodriguez, who makes some seriously pricey wines. This shows some of that class at a great price.
Best rioja under £20
Torre Demontalbo 2016
Made for Berry Bros by Bodegas Amezola de la More. There’s gorgeous red cherry fruit, very fragrant with a creamy texture and blimey, what a finish! Layers of tobacco and coconut. Another star.
Beronia Rioja Reserva 2015
With its deep colour and spicy oak, this is very much a modern style rioja but, unlike some, it’s not overblown. The all important freshness is here and time in bottle has mellowed it beautifully.
Marqués de Zearra Gran Reserva 2009
Gran reservas must be aged for at least five years, two years of that in barrel, but are usual aged much longer. Times has brought elegance and delicacy to this wine, think cooked strawberries and north African spices, with a classy tobacco-laden finish.
Best rioja under £40
CVNE Imperial Reserva 2015
This wine has tonnes of everything: dark fruit, cloves, tannin, vanilla and coconut. It’s dense and intense. If you can wait five years, it’ll probably be spectacular or if you’re drinking now, decant and serve with a nice bit of rare meat.
Viña Ardanza Reserva, La Rioja Alta 2010
Ardanza never disappoints but I think this might be the best one I have tried. With aromas of tobacco, coconut, cedar, aromatic almost minty notes, and autumn fruits, I could just smell this all day. It doesn’t disappoint in the mouth either. Buy all you can, it’s only going to get better.
Viña Tondonia 2006 Berry Bros
Made by one of the grand old names of rioja, Lopez de Heredia, whose techniques haven’t changed in 100 years. This is the apotheosis of old school rioja. It’s all here: stewed autumn fruit, cinnamon, walnuts and more tobacco than a Cuban cigar factory. One of the world’s great wines.
More on wine
The best drinks, taste tested
This review was last updated in May 2020. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you think? Do you have a favourite rioja? We’d love to hear from you below…