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Ultimate Rioja Tasting – Decanter’s six top picks

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The Ultimate Rioja Trade & Press Tasting offered a snapshot of the region’s best wines. Selected by an industry panel that includes MWs, sommeliers, buyers, consultants and wine writers, it was a chance to taste both the variety and quality that can be found in this iconic Spanish region. The 48 wines chosen spanned reds, whites and rosados, taking in the classic age-statement categories – Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva – as well as the new Viñedos Singulares category and new-wave styles under the ‘Generico’ umbrella.

Julie Sheppard, Decanter Regional Editor – Spain explains why she singled out the six wines below, among the 48 featured at the event:

‘Selecting just six wines from this range was a challenge! But my first choice, Bodegas Lozano 2019, was an easy pick. This characterful white, made from 100% Viura, is a gastronomic, savoury and sherried style; a perfect demonstration of the diversity on offer in white Rioja today.

Turning to Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva categories, wines from 2014, 2015 and 2016 caught my attention – not all of them easy vintages for the growers, as 2014 was affected by rainfall during harvest, while 2015 was a warm year that saw cooler sub-regions performing best.

Benefitting from an officially rated ‘Very Good’ vintage in 2016, the Bodegas Aradón Crianza is a pure, fresh, mineral style, offering plenty of drinking pleasure. With more age, Bodegas Lan Culmen Reserva 2015 is a layered and harmonious Rioja, its intensity of velvety fruit balanced by savoury notes. And La Rioja Alta’s Viña Arana 2014 has all the hallmarks of a classic Gran Reserva.

Finally, two accomplished ‘genericos’ signalled the innovation to be found in this increasingly interesting category. Marqués de Vargas Selección Privada 2016 is marked by deep velvety black fruit and judicious oak use. While the elegant Bodegas Pujanza Cisma 2015, a 100% Tempranillo from a single vineyard, is simply one of the best Riojas I’ve tasted so far this year.’

Decanter reached out to the producers to discover more about the wines and estates. A chance to hear directly from each of them about the values that guide their work and what makes Rioja such an exciting region . They also gave us an overview of the specific wines and vintages highlighted by Sheppard.


The wines:

Bodegas Lozano 2019

RRP £28 (seeking distribution in the UK)
100% Viura from eight selected plots of old vines planted between 1908 and 1945 in Samaniego and Laguardia on the clay-calcareous soils typical of Rioja Alavesa. The wine was fermented and aged for five months, on the fine lees, in new French oak barrels. Bottled in March 2020 it then spent one year in the cellar prior to release. 2019 was the “the ideal harvest”, with excellent sanitary and vegetative conditions in the vineyards, loose well-aerated bunches, adequate berry size and no weather events of note. Everything a winemaker could wish for. Alc 13%

Tell us about the origin and history of the estate.
Although the Lozano family have been viticulturists since 1853, the history of the estate is very recent. In 2015 they decided to look for new emblematic vineyards where they could make great wine, and in 2018 the family acquired a property in Leza, in the heart of Rioja Alavesa.

How has it evolved over the years? What are the main principles guiding your production and style?
Having old, fantastic vineyards to work with it’s certainly easier to make great wines. Very old vines, many of which are centennial, are the stars of our wines. We make them by respecting the truth of the vineyards and their terroir and maintaining a sense of origin through simple and non-interventionist processes.

In your opinion, what makes Rioja unique and special?
The climate, the soils and, above all, the close connection between the people and the land. The enormous knowledge that farmers and winemakers have of this area, of its specificities, make this region, and Rioja Alavesa in particular, quite unique. The region is home to a large number of old vineyards that have been kept by the same families through generations.


Bodegas Aradón Calzadas de Aradón 2016

RRP £12 (seeking distribution in the UK)
A blend of 80% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha and 10% Graciano from a 50-year-old vineyard, part of our Parcelas de Aradón range. It was aged in a combination of French and American oak for 14 months and a further 14 months in bottle prior to release. 2016 was a good vintage, with a wet winter and dry spring and summer. Temperatures were slightly milder than normal and therefore ripening was slow and progressive with a very good balance of fruit. Alc 14.5%

Tell us about the origin and history of the estate.
Bodegas Arandón brings together 60 families of third generation winegrowers from a village of wine tradition, where only vines, almonds and olive trees grow. Our vineyards are located in a magical place, where the Roman villa of Ariati/Aradón (“Aritati”: meaning land of plains) was located a thousand years ago – this root to history is the winery’s most valuable heritage. We respect and care for the vineyard and the surrounding environment with natural treatments and minimal impact techniques. Our responsibility is to offer wines that care for people and feel good.
Bodegas Aradón is the result of teamwork – many people who believe in the same principles, give their best and live wine every day.
We like to experiment; we experiment with concrete vessels and barrels. We value the rarity of old forgotten varieties, micro-parcel wines, limited editions and other singular things.

How has it evolved over the years? What are the main principles guiding your production and style?
Our main goal at Bodegas Aradón is to cultivate enjoyment. We make wine for people who savour uniqueness and originality, know what they want, dream of the unknown and enjoy without regrets. With wine lovers in mind we have created contemporary wines, close to the heart.

In your opinion, what makes Rioja unique and special?
Rioja has managed to remain at the forefront of wine innovation with an ample diversity of distinct, characterful wines. This diversity is key to the region’s success in international markets, where it stands among the elite of historic European designations of origin. In fact, among quality wine regions, the Rioja brand is one of the five most widely-recognised the world over.


Bodegas LAN Culmen 2015

RRP £72.99 Vin Neuf
Culmen is our greatest exponent, a Rioja Reserva only produced in exceptional vintages. The Tempranillo and Graciano grapes come from a selection of low-yielding 40 to 60-year-old vines in Pago “El Rincón”, the best plot on our Viña Lanciano estate in Rioja Alta. The grapes were hand-harvested and hand-sorted before fermentation in stainless-steel tanks. Malolactic fermentation took place in new French oak casks and the wine then underwent a period of 25 months ageing in wood, followed by 22 months in bottle before release.
The 2015 vintage began with a rainy winter, which replenished water reserves in the soil to sustain the vines during the dry growing cycle that followed. Milder temperatures with cool nights arrived in the second half of August, which provided perfect conditions for the grapes to go through the final stages of ripening, with perfect polyphenolic ripeness at harvest. Alc 13.5%

Tell us about the origin and history of the estate.
Since 1972, Bodegas LAN has been closely linked to the land from which it was born. The name LAN represents the initials of the three provinces that make up the D.O.Ca. Rioja: Logroño (now La Rioja), Álava and Navarra.
The philosophy of Bodegas LAN has been, from its inception, based upon the respect for the natural balance of the vineyard. Viña Lanciano is our stunning, 72-hectare estate on the banks of the Ebro River. The poor stony soils are the natural result of rises and falls in the level of the river over the years. These soils, a privileged location with a special microclimate and sustainable viticultural practices shape the unique wines coming from this estate.

How has it evolved over the years? What are the main principles guiding your production and style?
The basic principle that we always stand by is that winemaking starts in the vineyard. The other basic principle is that the wines have to be a faithful reflection of their origin. To achieve this, we follow a specific ageing process for each wine, tailor-made for each grape variety and terroir, so the wines fully express their sense of place.
With that in mind, we have always researched and been innovative in our use of oak, from different origins and toast levels. We use traditional French and American oak, but we also pioneered the use of hybrid oak casks (American oak staves and French oak heads), and, more recently, the use of Spanish oak.

In your opinion, what makes Rioja unique and special?
Every region has something special and enriching, but Rioja is one of the most diverse on the planet. It is a staggeringly beautiful place with incredibly diverse terroirs and a huge range of interesting native grape varieties producing an eclectic range of wine styles. Combine these factors with a fascinating history, a constant and stringent focus on quality and a dynamic generation of young winemakers and you get the most exciting wine region in the world!


La Rioja Alta Viña Arana 2014

RRP £35.08 The Wine Society
Viña Arana has always demonstrated its own, particular style and extraordinary ageing potential. This is a vibrant blend of Tempranillo (95%) and Graciano from 40-year-old vines planted in estate-owned vineyards in Rodezno and Fuenmayor. The 2014 vintage began with very favourable weather, pointing to a top-quality vintage. But adverse weather prior to harvest forced us to carry out intensive work in the vineyard, before and during harvest, to make sure the grapes ripened properly and only the best bunches were used. Alc 14.5%

Tell us about the origin and history of the estate.
Quality, elegance, innovation, feeling, and evolution. These are the pillars upon which five families who shared a passion for wine founded the ‘Sociedad Vinícola de La Rioja Alta’ in 1890. Their descendants remain as major shareholders and directly involved in the winery’s management with 5th generation Guillermo de Aranzabal Agudo as Chairman and 6th generation Guillermo de Aranzabal Bittner as Deputy General Director.

How has it evolved over the years? What are the main principles guiding your production and style?
Over more than 131 harvests, the permanent quest for excellence has driven our house by combining winemaking tradition with unswerving commitment to R+D and innovation. Today we lead a family of wineries – Torre de Oña (Rioja Alavesa), Áster (Ribera del Duero) and Lagar de Cervera (Rías Baixas) – and our own vineyard remains one of the key factors in producing high quality Rioja wine from only the best harvests.

In your opinion, what makes Rioja unique and special?
We think that Rioja is the best Spanish wine growing area for the production of great quality red wines. Rioja’s terroir (climate, soils, etc) brings the finesse, elegance and complexity of classic wines with great ageing potential which are internationally recognised for these attributes. For us, great wines always come from terroirs that have evolved along with a way of understanding viticulture and a unique cultural typicity.


Grupo Vinícola Marqués de Vargas Selección Privada 2016

RRP £56 (seeking distribution in the UK)
Marqués de Vargas Selección Privada is a limited edition, produced in the best vintages only, with grapes from our oldest plots,  La Victoria, La Garnacha and Manolo, all qualified as Viñedo Singular. Selección Privada was initially made exclusively for private consumption, and it is the most expressive and suggestive Marqués de Vargas. It conveys the terroir and varietal expression, as well as character of the 2016 vintage – a long, balanced growing season with fruit of high polyphenol content. We use various sizes of new French oak for the 25 months ageing in wood, which enhances the refined character of the terroir without obscuring the complexity of the fruit. Alc 14.55%

Tell us about the origin and history of the estate.
Marqués de Vargas is a historical family project, synonymous with a lineage of four generations passionately devoted to producing some of Rioja’s finest wines. Our history goes back to 1840 when Don Felipe de la Mata, VIII Marqués de Vargas, decided to plant the first vineyards at the Hacienda Pradolagar estate.

How has it evolved over the years? What are the main principles guiding your production and style?
The family legacy was carried on by Don Felipe’s sons, Pelayo and Francisco, IX Marqués de Vargas, both of whom shared his enthusiasm for the Pradolagar vineyards. Today Marqués de Vargas produces wines in DOCa Rioja, DO Ribera del Duero and DO Rías Baixas. The three wineries share the same philosophy: the passion for producing unique estate wines, each with their own character, expressive of their origins and characteristics of their DOs and terroirs.

In your opinion, what makes Rioja unique and special?
We believe Rioja is unique and special because of the diversity of its natural features and the vast array of wine styles which result both from natural and human factors. Rioja is all about commitment, remaining loyal to terroir and to the idea that it is the vine that defines the wine.
The region is implementing precision viticulture to optimise vineyard performance – an essential approach to produce honest wines that express the region’s unique singularities. Rioja is made of unique human and wine landscapes, which are hallmarks of its identity.


Bodegas y Viñedos Pujanza Pujanza Cisma 2015

RRP £121 Gourmet Hunters
Pujanza Cisma is a sip of history. This is a complex, elegant Tempranillo from a hundred-year-old vineyard, La Valcabada, nestled in a small valley. The 2015 vintage was the earliest vintage in Pujanza, with La Valcabada being one of the first to be harvested, in the third week of September. This explains the high concentration of fruity aromas. In general, the fruit in this wine is more ripe than in the rest of the Pujanza labels, due to the vineyard’s much more Mediterranean character. The result was a long, balanced wine, with all the acidity and complexity that will allow it to age in bottle. Alc 14.5%

Tell us about the origin and history of the estate.
Carlos San Pedro is the fifth generation of a family of growers. He was born and raised among the vines, barrels, and fermentation aromas of his ancestors’ winery, located below the family home.
At the age of 25 he decided to set up his own bodega, thus beginning a project determined to recover the fundamental roots of Rioja, with particular attention to terroir, and the particular features of each vintage. An attempt to return to fresher and more subtle wines, with good backbone. Pujanza wines are only made using Tempranillo and Viura, the indigenous varieties which represent their origin to perfection. In their passage through the bodega, the important thing is for the wine not to lose the link with the vineyard from which it came.

How has it evolved over the years? What are the main principles guiding your production and style?
Expressing the essence of our history and our land through our personal vision – this has been our goal during these past 24 years. We have tried to maintain a balance between the preservation of tradition and our own way of understanding wines. The search for finesse and precision is what guides us. Our philosophy remains the same as at the beginning, but our wines are finer and more precise, much more elegant. 24 years of experience have allied us to each of our plots better and understanding the evolution of the wines. This is the path we want to follow.

In your opinion, what makes Rioja unique and special?
Rioja is the land of a thousand wines, with an incredible diversity of soils, microclimates and landscapes. We also find this richness in the vision and know-how of thousands of winegrowers who work their land with passion, and in the different interpretations that each winery makes of the local grapes. What makes Rioja one of the great wine regions in the world is history and respect for tradition, but also the desire to move forward and do new things. It is a region with so many options that it is impossible to get bored in it. Even if we worked with just one grape variety, we would still be the land of a thousand wines!


See all the wines selected by our Ultimate Rioja expert Panel

Discover more about DOCa Rioja here

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