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Riojas: 36 great wines

Decanter asked a small team of expert tasters to find the best Riojas on sale in the UK at £5–20. Spanish wine expert VICTOR DE LA SERNA reports on the results.

A frosty winter’s morning in Rioja, and a small group gathers at a mountainside restaurant to taste more than 70 oak-aged red Riojas. The wines on show at this blind tasting set up by Decanter spoke volumes to me about the current state of winemaking in Rioja. The strengths and weaknesses of affordable Rioja – a limit of £5–20 per bottle in the UK had been set – were quickly apparent: most were competently made, drinkable wines with the cedary, tobacco-infused flavours associated with Tempranillo as grown in these cooler parts of Spain, but there was also a small minority of truly personal, original wines with a solid core of fruit and mouthfilling intensity.


In my notes, the words ‘probably from high-yield vineyards’ cropped up on several occasions. The relative sameness of many wines is related to an excessive tolerance over grape quality in the case of certain bodegas. Viticulture has to play a much larger role in the future progress of Riojas, and this will inevitably entail the need for wineries to directly control a much larger share of the vineyards whose fruit they use. Viticulture is the area’s next great frontier, after the rash of new plantings in sometimes less-than-ideal sites.

That said, the truly delightful wines on show clearly indicate the way top Riojas are moving these days, and prove that grape quality can be impeccable. The fact that some were more ‘traditional’ and some more ‘modern’ – that is, fruit driven and concentrated – did not, I think, weigh too heavily on the tasters’ decisions. It was rather a matter of a wine’s personality, its fruit, its balance and the overall elegance which remains a Rioja hallmark. No vintage seemed hugely superior to the others.

It is probably quite symbolic that the sole award went to a rather modern-styled but quite serious wine, Mirto 1999, from a very traditional bodega, Ramón Bilbao. A new winemaking team is really turning things around. The fact that neither this wine nor many of the 4-star or 3-star winners sported a Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva back label suggests that traditional ageing periods are playing an ever-smaller role in defining quality levels in Riojas. This trend is certain to accelerate over the coming years, and it is just as apparent in the upper price levels.

In the end the Riojas revolution isn’t about modernists swamping traditionalists: the two should co-exist as they do in every great wine region. The key is commitment to quality, to a reflection of the local terroir through non-invasive winemaking techniques with top-notch fruit. The rest – the types of oak and ageing methods, the preference for Tempranillo or the rebirth of the interest in blends – is just a part of an evolving Rioja landscape where greater diversity can only help re-ignite consumers’ interest.


Almost all the top-rated wines in the Decanter tasting sell for the maximum allowed price of £20 in the UK, or a little less. This no longer is a bargain price at all, of course. Price has become a decisive and controversial factor in Spanish wines, particularly the truly ambitious ones, over the past three or four years. This was apparent in the blind tasting of top-end Riojas conducted late last year by the team at elmundovino.com, the wine website operated by El Mundo, the Madrid-based daily newspaper.

The tasting covered 32 Riojas at the very top of the ranges that new and old bodegas produce nowadays. When the bottles had been uncovered, the two that had tied for first place turned out to be the two most expensive of the lot: Bodegas Roda’s Cirsion 2000 retails (in Spain) for Euro120, and Benjamín Romeo’s Contador 2000 for Euro165. (Romeo is the former Artadi winemaker, now on his own.) We’re almost in Bordeaux first-growth territory here, and it’s a bit shocking. The two wines are no doubt spectacular in their purity and concentration. Foreign critics would probably describe them as ‘international-style’ wines, but to the Spanish tasters the cedary, cherry-infused Tempranillo and the Rioja silkiness were both unmistakeable.

The six-member panel also awarded very high marks to seven more Riojas, of widely varying prices (one of them, Contino Reserva, retails for only h20 locally). They were: Artadi Grandes Añadas 2000; La Cueva del Contador 2000; Dalmau 1999 Marqués de Murrieta; Roda I 1999; and Aurus 1999 Finca Allende and Contino Reserva 1999 .

Best Riojas

Tasters: Jeremy Watson, author, The Wines and Landscapes of Spain; Victor de la Serna, deputy editor, El Mundo; Christelle Guibert, tastings co-ordinator, Decanter. The tasting was kindly hosted by the Echaurren hotel and restaurant in La Rioja (tel: +34 941 34 40 47).

Decanter award ***** Bodegas Ramón Bilbao, Mirto 1999 Wonderfully rich, balanced aromas but still very closed. Fabulous monthful with a rich fullness all around. Great length. 5–10 years. £20; A&A

Highly recommended **** Bodegas Abeica, Longrande, Gran Reserva 1994 Full, round aromas of spicy tobacco and soft fruits. Rich, full fruits balanced with tannins. 5–10 years. £19.99; Win

Bodegas Bagordi 2001 Good aromatic structure on the nose with a mineral note. Tannic but good fresh fruit waiting to come round. 2–5 years. £6; BGr

Bodegas Bilbainas, La Vicalanda, Reserva 1998 Cherries in brandy aromas, traditional nose. Ripeness and smoothness, vibrant fruit with good concentration, classic style. Up to 5 years. £12.99; Cdu

Bodegas Luis Cañas, Reserva de la Familia, Reserva 1996 Expressive nose with quince jelly added to plum and fine leather, modern. Powerful tannins with serious fruit concentration. Quite tannic on the finish. Up to 5 years. £18; All, Lai

Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres, Gran Reserva 1994 Complex, rich and intense with notes of cocoa and blackberry with hint of cherries in brandy. Great balance and harmony with fruit and pain grillé, long. Drink now. £14.99–16.99; BBR, Clr, DWI, Ell, For, H&B, Her, Mer, Odd

Bodegas Muga, Muga Selección Especial, Reserva 1996 Deep rich aromas just beginning to open, presence of oak. Lovely rounded flavours of oak and fruit. 2–5 years. £16; C&D

Bodegas Muriel, Gran Reserva 1994 Classic aromas of a fine Gran Reserva. Lovely balance in the mounth. Great richness and great potential, a food wine. 2–5 years. £16; D&D, Lai, Vnx

Bodegas Navarrsotillo, Magister Bibendi Selección Especial 2001 Interesting aromas of wild flowers, strawberry jam and charcoal. Good fruit and tannins in the mouth, some structure, entirely different but Grenache comes through well. 2–5 years. £18–19; Bes

Bodegas Primicia, Juan Ramón Madrid, Reserva 1998 Tobacco and chocolate character with hidden depth of forest fruits. Not fruit driven yet, this has a modern style with good length. 5–10 years. £17; Lai

Bodegas Roda, Roda II 1999 Wonderfully aromatic with rose petals, lychees, cherries in brandy – a whole palette of complex aromas! Wondefurl winemaking, delicate yet substantial, strawberries and cream, very personal. Drink now. £15.99; Vit

Remelluri, Reserva 1999 Good depth on the nose with fruit and oak, complex and well balanced. Excellent structure, lots of ripe fuit, fine but young tannins, long finish. 2–5 years. £10; Hau

Sierra Cantabria, Colleción Privada 2000 All plums, blackcurrants and new oak but truly Tempranillo in character. Extremely smooth with perfectly ripe tannins, this is not traditional but a good reflection of grape/terroir. 2–10 years. £17.50; OBr, Sec, See

Recommended ***

Bodegas Alavesas, Solar de Samaniego, Reserva 1996 Aromas of tobacco, coffee, spices and strawberries, very attractive. Smooth palate and quite traditional, this wine shows promise. Up to 5 years. £10.82; C&B

Bodegas Alicia Rojas, Finca Alicia Rojas, Crianza 1999 Expansive, plummy, good Tempranillo fruit. Substantial fruit, good balance, lively tannins that still need a little time. 2–5 years. £7.99; PWC

Bodegas Barón de Ley, Reserva 1998 American tobacco and some coffee, lots of oak but quite pleasing. Strawberry fruit well matched by oak, balanced with a lovely long length. Up to 5 years. £6.99; Lai, Stk

Bodegas Domecq, Marqués de Arienzo Reserva Especial, Reserva 1995 Classic aromas of strawberry and oak tannins. Surprisingly, nice fruit, oak and length, almost ready to drink. Up to 5 years. £14.95; ADo

Bodegas Murúa, Veguín de Murúa Reserva Especial, Reserva 1995 Overwhelmingly oaky but elegant, this has well-balanced aromas. Complex and powerful, decent flavours with a good length. Up to 5 years. £19.25; L&W

Bodegas Navajas, Crianza 2000 Good firm nose of fruit with some oak. Firm tannins with good ripeness, charcoal and plum characters with a fine balance. Long finish. 2–5 years. £8.99; Mor

Bodegas Palacios Remondo, Propriedad Herencia Remondo 2000 A classic modern style with good fruit and delicate oak tannins. Great mouthfeel with flavours of forest fruits and French oak. 2–5 years. £14 (1999–2000 on sale in spring); M&V

Bodegas Sáenz de Santamaría, Rondán, Reserva 1996 More classic style of aromas and flavours with good length and fine potential. 2–10 years. £18; IbW

CVNE, Viña Real, Reserva 1998 Lots of ripe fruit on the nose with some toasty oak. Decent tannic structure with ripe berry fruit, good length. Drink now. £16.95; Frx

Dominio de Susar, Enartis 1999 Spicy cinnamon, strawberries and blackcurrants and light tobacco aromas. Lovely round fullness of forest fruits and rich oak tannins, very good depth. 5–10 years. £14.99; UWi

El Coto de Rioja, Coto Real, Reserva 1998 Soft forest fruits on the nose and toasted oak. Quite a nice balance and structure with some lovely characters. 2–10 years. £12; CCl

Finca Allende 1999 Quite open aromas and well balanced. Good fruit and oak tannins, dense, concentrated with a lot of blackcurrants. Very promising. 2–5 years. £11.50; M&V

Finca Valpiedra, Reserva 1997 Very toasty with some ripe fruit, not very expressive. Nicely rounded with some ripe fruit, mouthfilling, good structure. Drink now. £15.99; BWC

Marqués de Murrieta, Reserva 1999 Still very closed, firm aromas that need time, traditional style. Solid flavours of fruits are presently dominated by oak. A good wine. 2–5 years. £10.99-11.99; MMD

Marqués de Riscal, Reserva 1999 Good balance of fruit with notes of redcurrant. Nice fruit that will increasingly balance out, good minerality with firm tannins. 2–5 years. £9.99; LPr

Señorio de San Vicente 1999 Deep aromas of forest fruits and oak tannins with hint of tobacco. Great length and depth, rich flavours, great potential. 5–10 years. £20; J&B, OBr, Sec, See

Torre de Oña, Barón de Oña, Reserva 1997 Quite closed on the nose. Medium bodied and smooth with some elegant fruit. Well structured with a long finish. Drink now. £11.95; L&S

Viña Ijalba, Dionisio Ruiz Ijalba 2001 Firm tobacco and forest fruits. Rich and full on the palate, unctuous but very un-Rioja like; more like modern Bordeaux. 2–5 years. £12.99; AdB, Bac, VRo, WoC

Viña Villabuena, Viña Izadi 1999 Lovely promise with good rounded aromas of fruit and oak. Rich and ripe on the palate with some firm tannins, should develop well. 2–5 years. £6.99; Alb

Viñedos & Bodegas de la Marquesa, Valserrano Finca Monteviejo 2000 A lot of cooked prunes, strawberries and fine leather too. Excellent balance, medium bodied, intense fruit but in an elegant supple way. Drink now. £20; Hsn

Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, Perseus 2001 Jammy fruit, a bit overripe, and some typical quince jelly in the mix, too. Good texture on the palate with ripe tannins and high acidity, both well integrated. Medium length, this is one to drink now. £5; BGr

Written by Victor de la Serna

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