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.
If you haven’t made your way to the corner of Spain where grapes for Rioja are grown, you might have a vision of a warm sunny region, perhaps with the sea in the distance.
Rioja is not like that. Located in north-eastern Spain, it is tucked behind the mountainous Sierra de Cantabria, which shelters it from the buffeting Atlantic weather but even so it 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.
There is an additional grape variety that was almost extinct, Maturana Tinta which has been rescued, planted and is now adding its own shades of flavour to some wines.
When every region in Spain grows grapes and makes wine, it is strange that Rioja is known the world over. This fame started centuries ago when Bordeaux was largely destroyed by a vineyard pest known as phylloxera.
Bordeaux merchants looked for an alternative source of wine and they found Rioja. They even sent their winemakers to improve the quality of the wines, helping Rioja become the premier region of Spain. A grading system that relied on ageing the wine in oak casks was developed and we still see those names – Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva – on labels.
Now centuries later, there is a new breeze blowing through Rioja. Choice of vineyard, terroir, single vineyard names and now a tendency to use less oak to let the fruit shine through are all changes that have been approved.
Rioja is adapting, very gradually, to become a fresh face, despite its long history.
It will take time for all these subtle changes to feed through to the shelves, and even then you probably won’t notice beyond thinking that Rioja still hits all the right notes of flavour.
Here are a dozen of the best ones to find on the shelves right now...
The Best Marqués de los Ríos Rioja Reserva 2016, Morrisons down from £9 to £7 until November 23: Despite spending three years in American oak, this wine is not oak-heavy. There’s fresh, bright plum fruit and just a hint of vanilla rounding out the flavours.
CVNE Rioja Crianza 2018, Sainsbury down from £9 to £7.50 until November 23: A youthful style of Rioja full of cherry and red berry fruit, a hint of vanilla and cocoa on the finish. Consistently good and well worth tucking a few bottles into the wine rack.
Mazuelo 2019, Rioja, Spain, Marks and Spencer £8.50: Mazuelo is usually added to a Rioja blend in tiny quantities but here it is 100% which shows just how good this grape is. Ripe black cherry fruit with herbs in the background make this exceptional. Great value wine.
Palacio de Primavera Tinto 2019, Rioja, Waitrose £8.99: Just three months in American oak for this wine, which is why the fruit jumps out of the glass, all juicy blueberry and blackberry fruit with just a hint of chocolate. Great value.
Ramón Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2018, Tesco £9: New on the shelves at Tesco, this is a great addition to the range. Ripe, juicy, redcurrant and blackberry fruit, with silky tannins and a long, elegant finish.
Lomas del Marqués Rioja Reserva 2015, Classic No. 21, Marks and Spencer £9: Packed full of dark red fruits, layered with vanilla oak and finished with a dusting of spice. It is complex, rounded and long and really shows best if you open the bottle early, or maybe even decant it before serving, just to let the flavours fill out. Terrific value for a well-made wine.
Ramón Bilbao Selección Especial 2017, Rioja, Booths £10: A notch up from the regular wine and it shows in exuberant fruit, thyme and rosemary notes and a fresh, food-friendly finish.
Finca San Martin 2017, Rioja Crianza, Torre de Oña, Yorkshire Vintners £15: Based in Rioja Alavesa, and owned by La Rioja Alta, this is a gem of a producer. Despite the early frost some good wines were made with depth and concentration. Cherries and strawberry fruit, with vanilla, balsamic and spice notes on the finish.
Contino Rioja Reserva 2017, Field and Fawcett, £19.95: Contino is a 62-hectare estate, owned by the CVNE company but run as an independent entity. Contino wines always have a sheen of quality with cherry and plum fruit, oak and structure in perfect harmony.
Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2014, Hic! Ledston, £24.75: There are stones in the vineyard and so they put them on the label too, to show that this valley of stones, Valpiedra, is a tough place to grow grapes.
But the stones work around the clock, absorbing heat during the day and reflecting it back at night adding deeper flavours and ripeness to the wine. This wine has structure, with raspberry and blackberry fruit layered with cedar and a hint of crumpled leather. Serious stuff and worthy of the best roast lamb you can find.
Allende 2014, Rioja, Harvey Nichols £29: Miguel Angel de Gregorio started this company from scratch just 26 years ago, buying vineyards, building a winery and making a name for his exceptional wines.
High altitude vineyards, 100% Tempranillo grapes and predominantly French oak gives this wine a fresh style, allowing the blackberry, blueberry fruit to shine out, backed by tobacco and savoury character. Delicious and distinctive.
La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva 2011, Bon Coeur £55: This is the wine of legends, a step back in time to classic, large cask-aged Rioja with layers of fruit, oak, tobacco and silk.
Old school but still fabulous. Everyone needs to have tasted it at least once in their lifetime.