In the United Kingdom, Rioja lives a sort of double life as supermarket bargain wine and, much less conspicuously, as a top quality wine in its own right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a supermarket bargain – inexpensive bottles, often marketed with highly improbably ‘half price’ slogans, but nonetheless producing very drinkable wines. The secret of their success is the easy to appreciate, sweet, strawberry fruit of Tempranillo grapes. Rather misleadingly, even the cheap wines often come with an impressive tag, Reserva or even Gran Reserva, and all this for £5-£7. However, given Spain’s pretty reliable climate, these two categories of wine are made in most years and so primarily refer to ageing, a minimum of three and five years respectively. The large Rioja houses have plenty of wine and space and so can keep wines for these periods without too much difficulty. If you can buy a Reserva for £5 and a Gran Reserva for £7, you could you end up feeling that that Rioja is nothing very special. But that would be to miss out on some very special wines.
And it is hardly a surprise that there is a fine wine tradition in Northern Spain. Wine had been a part of everyday life on the Iberian peninsular since at least the Romans and maybe long before. What made the Spanish more ambitious was the scourge of phylloxera across the border in France in Bordeaux. As the vineyards which produced claret and white Bordeaux were destroyed in the 1880s and ‘90s, some merchants moved lock, stock (and probably not literally) barrel into the Rioja region. They had thirsty customers in the UK and elsewhere to supply and here was a solution not that far from home. So the original fine wine trade followed the Bordeaux pattern with the merchant at the centre of it and with the production of barrel-aged red wines which can improve in the bottle.
At a fine wine supper with Andover Wine Friends we had the chance to see what the top end of the Rioja market is about. After a pleasant and quite complex Cava from Sumarroca to get us in the mood, we started with a fine white Rioja. This is a classic in its own right and a wine that is massively underrated. Made from a blend of Viura (or Maccabeo) grapes and Malvasia, the best whites, like the reds, can benefit from being made and matured in oak and then kept for many years. Allende White Rioja, 2007 (£18) is a superb example. A eye-catching mid lemon colour in the glass it is fresh and complex on the nose – lemons, nuts, vanilla and more. The assertive palate leads with citrus again, more grapefruit at this point and then melon, with a great texture to boot. A wine of real character and substance which would go well with a whole range of food.
Five red Riojas followed. They neatly demonstrated the quality hierarchy:
- crianza (= ‘raising’ or ‘ageing’) – minimum of two years of ageing, one of which is in oak barrels
- reserva – minimum three years and one year respectively
- gran reserva – minimum five years and two years respectively
The theory is that the only the better or the best wines are selected for these latter categories and in this selection this was amply borne out.
Viña Amézola Crianza, Rioja, 2005, 13.5%, £12, is pale ruby in colour, offers a nose of leather, vanilla and coconut, super strawberry fruit and is of an intensity and quality quite unlike the supermarket brands. It has the subtlety of a good wine that is five years old but still has lively young fruit. It’s a traditional blend of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo (ie Carignan, high in acidity, tannin and colour) and 5% Graciano (a Riojan speciality, with a low yield but powerful in aroma, body and tannins). The latter two varieties are ideal blenders for the fruity but quite light Tempranillo, at least as it turns out in this relatively cool part of Spain.
La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana Reserva, Rioja, 2001, 13%, £16, was the most traditional of the wines. Made from 95% Tempranillo and 5% Mazuelo, it is aged for three years, ie for two years longer than required by law, in American oak which itself is on average three and a half years old. During this time it is racked off six times. All this time and exposure to air, leads to a wine which is pale ruby tending to garnet in colour, a smoky, slightly oxidised, nose which with time developed clove and red fruit notes. On the palate there is excellent strawberry and plum fruit with a woody accompaniment, quite a lot of wood tannins, good length. Excellent quality at the price.
CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva Rioja 2001, 13%, £21. CVNE, Riojan royalty, produce a number of lines, this one called Viña Real. The grape mix here is 5% Graciano to go with the Tempranillo and the maturation is in a mix of French and American oak, which tones down the exotic vanilla and coconut of the latter and aims for a silky finesse. The youthfulness of the three gran reservas in this tasting was remarkable, given that they are now in their tenth year. The nose here was not that pronounced but the flavours, with smoky red fruit, were beautifully knit together, a lingering finish if still with quite drying wood tannins.
Viña Amézola Gran Reserva Rioja 2001, 13.5%, £28. This is the older brother of the Crianza above, with the same three-way blend of grape varieties. But as a Gran Reserva it has spent 30 months in barrels, 60% of them American oak, 40% French. A pale brick colour, this wine has fine, perfumed aromas, delectable sweet strawberry and coconut flavour with good acidity. Simultaneously refined and bold.
Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial Rioja 2001, 14%, £34. The fruit is 7% Mazuelo and the rest Tempranillo, sourced from the single if huge Finca Ygay vineyard. Of the making of epithets there is no end, with ‘Especial’ here being tagged on to mere Gran Reserva. But here it is justified. The wine leads with an impressive bouquet of rich coconut. clove and leather aromas, with noticeably richer fruit, reminiscent of strawberry and mulberry, long and gorgeous on the palate, with a slightly drying finish.
These top quality Riojas are wines to cherish. They were full of interest, intensity and potential. None of the ten year olds tasted remotely near its peak and could have developed for years, even decades in the bottle. They have a winning combination of being simultaneously approachable, subtle and bold. They are in a different league to their supermarket cousins.