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  • Saturday 1 December 2001

Rioja is one of the few wines to be held back by producers until ready to drink, and enjoys enduring popularity. In time for Christmas, JANE MACQUITTY seeks out the best-value offerings among the wines on the high street.

Rioja is one of the few wines to be held back by producers until ready to drink, and enjoys enduring popularity. In time for Christmas, JANE MACQUITTY seeks out the best-value offerings among the wines on the high street.

If recession bites, as economists say it will after the New York catastrophe, poor man's claret, red Rioja, is what we will all be swigging at Christmas. Chances are you and yours have had it on your weekly wine shop throughout the year, with as year-end sales in 2001 are expected to double.For the first time ever, two red Riojas featured in the cheaper sections of The Times Top 100 Wines this summer. And I am expecting more of the same with the Winter 2001 Top 100 edition. Last year only one red Rioja made it into the Top 100 in the entire year and that was the l997 Cosme Palacio y Hermanos Rioja Tinto, widely available then for £6.99. At long last after a roller-coaster ride with quality and price going in opposite directions, red Rioja is delivering good value for money.

Wide appeal

According to Sara Brook, a wine buyer at Asda, plenty of consumers cannot get enough of it. 'Die-hard Rioja drinkers will pay anything from £3.50 to £10.99, and they won't drink anything else,' she says. Tesco's head wine buyer, Anne-Marie Bostock, agrees: 'The Rioja name has been around for years and is viewed as a classic wine area by British drinkers, in the same way that they view Chablis and Sancerre. Demand has always been there but now that prices are more realistic, coupled with strong promotional sales, drinkers are rediscovering Rioja.' Readers of my weekly column in The Times also regularly express their enthusiasm for the appealingly sweet vanilla oak and savoury, plummy fruit of oak-aged red Rioja.

No one will deny that Rioja is still one of the best-known wine regions in the world, offering at best classic, distinctive, oak-aged reds with a pale, meaty, spicy sweetness all of their own. Where else can you buy barrel-aged reds that are not sold until they are three to seven years old, often older still? In other words these aged Riojas have been cellared for you until they are ready to drink.Britain is Rioja's biggest export market, and imports of red Rioja this year could well be more than double those of 2000. But these buoyant figures don't reveal the full story. In 2000 exports of Rioja to the UK fell by almost a quarter, following growers demanding high prices for a mediocre vintage. It was no secret that fertiliser-inflated yields from many growers were excessive and in 2000 grape prices fell by two thirds. Finished wine prices followed suit with prices cut by half in 2000 and again in 2001. This was the era when feeble, washed-out, red Riojas dominated high streets and Times readers grumbled to me about finding anything decent to drink from Rioja any more.But what kind of quality awaits poor man's claret aficionados this festive season? Of the 50 or so widely distributed red Riojas I tasted for Decanter from all four red Rioja styles – joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva – mixed is the answer. So diverse is the quality of red Rioja currently on sale that novice drinkers would fail to notice that they all came from the same wine region.

Gran reserva

It is not just the ordinary quality of the l999 and 2000 Rioja vintage on sale that is stirring up the sediment, but plainly Rioja is showing all the signs of a split personality. The long-matured, sweet-as-a-nut red wines that it was once traditionally famous for are still being made. Anyone who hauls home the l989 Castillo de Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial Cosecha from Marqués de Murrieta for their festive feast will be rewarded with a pale garnet red wine with a glorious, big, rich, beefy scent and taste with all sorts of delicious savoury, spicy, chocolatey flavours on the finish. This is a very fine wine indeed, and very good value for money. With a more modern gran reserva twist is the l994 Montalvo Campo Viejo Gran Reserva, whose thrilling sandalwood perfume leads on to an intoxicatingly rich, warm, spicy palate, with lots of savoury herby spice to the fore. Either of the pair would go well with an alternative Christmas menu of a mature game bird-like pheasant, or a majestic baron of rosy-pink beef.Unfortunately, this often £20-plus price level is also home to some real disappointments. How unforgiveable in this modern wine era that the old Rioja criticisms of tired, stringy, dried-out, leathery reds with no fruit and malodorous flavours should still be sold. Having spent the last few summers on holiday in Spain, I know full well that the Spanish continue to be obsessed with oak and the length of time they keep their red wines, and whites, in barrel. But to export this peculiarly Spanish fetish and expect discerning British drinkers to lap them up is suicide. On the gran reserva level – and still given a gobsmacking statutory two years in oak and three years in bottle before release – are wines like the dire l991 Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva whose evil, edgy, acidic style closed on a vomity note that made my stomach heave. Others to avoid are the l995 Viña Alarde Gran Reserva from Berberana, which was thin, leathery and acidic, and the l994 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Gran Reserva, equally thin and leathery. At this price level, I do not hold out much hope for the new premium red Riojas from single-vineyard sites either. The two I tasted for Decanter, the l996 Marqués de Murrieta Ygay Pratum Lagareta Reserva (Lay & Wheeler) was dull, leathery and edgy while the l996 Torre Muga Rioja, in a seriously heavy-duty glass bottle that I could hardly pick up, was suitably rich and chunky in style, with complex leathery aromatics on the palate, but at £34.99 from Majestic it was outrageously expensive and needed much more finesse, flavour and elegance to justify its hefty price tag. Plainly it is a good move and sound viticultural sense to keep the grapes gathered from particularly special, superior Rioja spots, an important new Rioja trend, and vinify them separately with lots of tender loving care, often in fine new French oak barrels rather than the ubiquitous vanillary American oak. However, releasing these wines before they are producing good enough results just isn't sensible, nor is it good news for Rioja's image.

Reserva

The schizophrenic divide continues down the Rioja hierarchy into the reserva wines on the next rung down. Although these bottles spend less time in oak than gran reservas, they must still serve at least one year in barrel and two in bottle, or vice versa, before sale. Even big Rioja reserva names like the l994 and l995 La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza Reservas, the l997 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva, the l995 Muga Rioja Reserva Selecction Especial were generally thin, leathery, indifferent, dried-out wines. Just up to snuff in this section was the pleasingly meaty and floral l994 Marqués del Romeral Reserva and the l989 Berberana Reserva Rioja with its spicy, but dry coffee bean-scented style. The two reserva winners were the l995 Viña Herminia Reserva, Graciano whose vanillary scent led onto a fat, sweet, rich, chocolatey palate. And the l997 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva Ygay whose pale garnet red colour, sappily juicy scent and taste finished on a fine, fragrant, smoky, spicy note that was equally good value. Indeed, I would not recommend any of you to spend Christmas day with any other Rioja reservas.

Crianza & Joven

Re-emphasising this split personality in Rioja's wines are the crianza wines, again one step down in quality from the reservas, which are released in their third year, having spent at least one year in barrel. At least one year too long if you ask me, to judge from the numerous disappointing crianza-level Riojas I tasted. There was only one Dr Jekyll and a coach-load full of Mr Hydes here. The only one among this dull, leathery, hollow bunch that performed pleasingly at this tasting was the l998 Romeral Rioja Crianza from Bodegas Age whose ripe, juicy, tobacco-redolent scent and taste was impressive.The surprise stars of this tasting, given that the region prides itself on its aged oaky reds, were the young joven Riojas that are either unoaked or have three or four months in barrel. The joven section of my blind Rioja tasting for Decanter was heaving with good wines at keen prices. Take your pick from the light, plummy, appealing 1999 Berberana Tempranillo Rioja, the perfumed, juicy, savoury, damson plum-stashed 2000 Viña Arisabel Rioja, the light, floral, juicy cherry-packed 2000 Bodegas Age Rioja, the l999 1881 Siglo Rioja from Bodegas Age with its elegant, beefy, oaky style and, finally, the seductive smoky, gamey, spicy, almost chocolatey l998 Cosme Palacio y Hermanos Rioja.Opponents of young, fruit-driven, new-wave joven Riojas like these where wines made from the region's plummy Tempranillo grape are macerated for longer and bottled much earlier, claim that red Rioja is losing its identity. I disagree. For too long Rioja has been churning out leathery, old-fashioned reds that belong to an outdated traditionalist age. In this hi-tech winemaking era, there is no excuse for winemakers to turn out dull, dusty, and often faulty reds that have been aged for too long in old, musty barrels in hot cellars as many are obviously still doing. If a historic bodega like Marqués de Murrieta can produce a deeply traditional Rioja like the l989 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial Cosecha with its rich, beefy, chocolatey yet perky and fresh flavour, aged in oak for five years, then it should be possible for everyone else too.

The problem in Rioja is that too many of the wines that should take their place on the upper rungs of the Rioja hierarchy do not earn their place there. They have the credentials and the necessary age and grand title, but not the quality. Until the Riojanos wake up and realise they are in the third winemaking millennium, with hi-tech expertise and clean oak barrels at their command, Rioja fans will have to be highly selective, Christmas or not.

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