Sarah Jane Evans MW explains how styles have shifted as Rioja producers move away from the official classifications, and suggests the vintages, and wines, to look out for.
With a cellar of Rioja bottles to hand, one is never at a loss for something to drink, thanks to such a range of styles. If you are creating a cellar, then Rioja is an excellent place to start.
The difficulty is in the selection. Once upon a time, a formal system of crianzas, reservas and gran reservas prevailed. Effectively, gran reservas had a very long time in American oak, and reservas had less. Many were blends of grapes sourced from several parts of the DO. Moreover, they were bottle-aged in the winery so were more or less ready to drink when sold. Undoubtedly, a few of the gran reservas were tired wines, but the very best still have great vibrancy after 50 years.
Today, many producers ignore the rules. They prefer to focus on the expression of a single vineyard, and they choose the oak regime to suit the wine, not the regulation. The wines are released after 18-24 months in barrel, and will then benefit from a good rest in a quiet cellar. They are frequently called ‘modern’ as opposed to ‘traditional’, though this is a false division. Rioja is so much more diverse and original than the old categories suggest.
Given this diversity, the official vintage classification (‘Excelente, Muy Bueno, Bueno…’) is too broad to fit all producers and zones reliably. It has also been frankly too generous, especially to the poorer years.
This excellent vintage has the potential to stand alongside 2005. The vintage is also benefiting from Rioja’s decision to reduce yields – by 10% for reds, 5% for whites – in order to improve quality. The weather throughout was very favourable. Fruit set was a little later than usual, in June, but the cycle through to harvest was healthy and even. Marcos Eguren, whose eponymous family group owns six wineries in Rioja, says it shows the balance, structure and freshness for long ageing. This is a year when attention will begin to focus on Palacios Remondo, the property in the Rioja Baja that Alvaro Palacios returned to in 2000 to run. His interest in single vineyards and in reviving Garnacha’s status in Rioja are beginning to show results. Drink 2016-2025
2009 Muy Bueno
This year saw a throwback to the heat of summer 2003. Before that, there were heavy winter rains, and a very damaging hailstorm in Rioja Baja in May. After some brief rain in mid-September, the harvest was dry, sunny and disease-free. Yields were reduced and results are uneven, but many producers are satisfied with the results of the smaller, carefully selected harvest. The joint Vega Sicilia/Rothschild Rioja project Macán is launching this year with the 2009 vintage. Drink 2015-2022
2008 Muy Bueno
A cool year, with plenty of rain across Spain; the advantage is that it is one where Tempranillo can reveal its linear citrus freshness. The best producers are showing elegant, finely structured wines, though they will come to drinkability sooner. Also a noteworthy year for the (improving) reputation of Rioja whites as Finca Allende launched Martires, showing what the muchmaligned Viura can achieve. Drink 2014-2022
2007 Muy Bueno
The weather may not have been promising – a cold vintage and a late one. However, the benefit was long, slow ripening with a late (21 September) start for the ‘early’ (temprano) Tempranillo grape. The wines show lower alcohols and good freshness, certainly better than 2006. They might not have the depth and richness of some outstanding vintages, but they have a fine elegance. Look for balanced alcohols, not more than 14%. Jesús Madrazo ranks this vintage as third in quality at Contino after 2001 and 1996. Drink 2013-2020
2006 Muy Bueno
A warmer year than 2007. While there was good rainfall, the summer led to uneven ripening, and selection was needed in the vineyard. The result is that some wines are frankly just a little flabby. By contrast, the dancing freshness of the 2007s is much more promising. Drink 2013-2017
Eight years, 2005 has been revealed as a great vintage. No temperature extremes, just the right contrast between day and night temperatures throughout the season. Many of these wines are approachable now, but the best will continue for 10-20 years and more. It’s an interesting year when both the classical styles of Rioja, and the more ‘modern’ styles, show equally well. If you want to explore the characters of wines such as Calvario and Cirsion, this is a great year to do it, but they are babies, and really need another decade to show their best. Drink 2013-2025
A fantastic year, and in a different way from 2005. It’s fascinating to taste 2004 and 2005 from the same producer side by side. 2004 offers supple fruit and warmth, and has been overshadowed by 2005. In 2010, when the wines were still young, I remember a comparative tasting at Roda of 2004 and 2005, and Roda was describing 2004 as the ‘miraculous harvest’. It was hair-splitting to decide between them. Some will prefer the velvet roundness of 2004; others the fresh elegance of 2005. Invest in both. Drink 2013-2025
Remember this hot summer? The spring started well, but in August there was a heat spike going up to 40-50˚C in Rioja. With that came the inevitable risk of over-ripeness. If creating a collection, best to leave this out. Drink Drink 2013-2015
Remember the rain? It meant botrytis in the vineyards. This was what’s known as an Atlantic vintage, with the cold winds coming from the west rather than the warming influence of the Mediterranean, as was the case with 2003. The year started at -15˚C with low water reserves, which certainly harmed the Tempranillo, though the Garnacha was, as always, more tolerant. Producers making 100% Tempranillo wines were most at risk. Yields were reduced – in the village of San Asensio they were 60% lower than in 2001. Drink 2013-2014
A superb vintage. The climate was perfect across the year. Many are lovely to drink now, but top wines have easily 10-20 years and more ahead. Guillermo de Aranzábal of La Rioja Alta puts 2001 at the same level as 1964: ‘Outstanding for reservas and gran reservas.’ In this year, La Rioja Alta declared its Vina Ardanza a ‘Reserva Especial’, only the third time it had been so qualified. Viña Real, too, showed beautifully, probably at its best for this decade. Drink 2013-2025
The year started well, but the harvest was damaged by significant amounts of rain, which meant that it was down to the individual producer to select the best. Undoubtedly many did, particularly those who were building reputations in single-vineyard management, such as Benjamin Romeo, Artadi, Finca Allende and the Egurens. Definitely overshadowed by 2001. Drink 2013-2020
The three great vintages of the 1990s run back-toback: 1994 (Excelente), 1995 (Excelente) and 1996 (Muy Bueno). 1996 was also notable as the first year of Contino’s single-vineyard Viña del Olivo, which continues to improve with every vintage. Of 1995, Jesús Barquín et al in The Finest Wines of Rioja & Northwest Spain say it was a turning point in Rioja’s stylistic transition: ‘Probably the last of the classic CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva vintages, and Viña El Pison from Artadi got 99 points from Robert Parker, which put Artadi, Rioja and Spain in the spotlight.’ All drinking well now, the best will still give much pleasure to come. 1994 brought the arrival of names including Roda and Remírez de Ganuza, while traditional companies launched their own new-wave wines such as Muga and Muga Torre. Drink 2014-2020
Look for 1981 (Muy Bueno) and 1982 (Excelente). 1982 matched the excellence of Bordeaux, though in general Bordeaux and Rioja do not coincide in good vintages. Guillermo de Aranzábal says ‘1981, 1982 and 1985 still impress us at every tasting’, and there is no suggestion these wines are at the end of their curve yet. Drink 2013-2020
Written by Sarah Jane Evans MW