Stefan Rees, Manager of Majestic Shrewsbury, takes you on a quick tour of the most famous of Spain’s many, varied and interesting wine regions…
Rioja’s vineyards cluster around the upper valleys of the river Ebro in north-eastern Spain (one of whose tributaries, the Rio Oja, is behind the name). In the lee of the Cantabrian Mountains, the region enjoys protection from ferocious winds whipped up along the Basque coast. These same winds also lead to sufficient rainfall to ensure Rioja producers rarely suffer the extremes of climate seen in central and southern regions.
It’s a region famous for its reds, but Rioja does produce a reasonable amount of white wine, primarily from the Viura grape (known as Macabeo in the rest of Spain). This vibrant varietal makes aromatic wines; the Marqués de Cáceres 2009 Rioja Blanco being a brilliant example. A bright, enticing nose of apples and pears follows on to a lively palate offering soft minerality and a light floral background to the intense fruit flavours.
If you had to use just one word to sum up Rioja reds, it would be ‘oak’. Oak is the region’s hallmark of renown, adding structure and characteristic vanilla sweetness. Yet there are also some young wines that put the berry fruit of the region’s grapes to the fore, like Ramon Bilbao’s ‘Single Vineyard’. A soft, fruity Tempranillo–Garnacha blend, showing ripe cherry and blackberry flavours on the palate.
Just over 50% of the region’s wines fall into a three-tiered system based on barrel maturation. The first is Crianza, for wines aged for at least 12 months in oak barricas and not sold before their third year. Berberana’s 2007 Crianza offers excellent value from one of the oldest producers in Rioja. Its ripe, juicy cherries, layers of sweet vanilla and balancing soft tannins cry out for hearty winter casseroles and stews.
The Marqués de Cáceres Crianza is another classy offering, with a complex burst of red fruits leading to a silky mouthfeel and cinnamon finish.
Next up is Reserva, which must have combined bottle and oak ageing of 36 months, including at least 12 in oak barricas. At this level there’s an extra depth of flavour, as illustrated perfectly by the excellent Viña Pomal 2005 Reserva. Made from 100% Tempranillo, it displays an extravagant nose of wild strawberries and blackberries. Velvety tannins give structure and body to a wine that will go brilliantly with any leftover meats on Boxing Day.
Finally, Gran Reserva wines must spend at least two years in oak and not leave the bodega for six years after the vintage. This can lead to the extraordinary complexity on display in Berberana’s 2002 Gran Reserva. A warm nose of winter spices and dried fruit leads to a harmonious palate of red berries, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla, all rounded off by the persistent finish.
Indeed, with its sweet spice and dried fruit aromas, aged Rioja like Bodegas Muriel’s soft, multi-layered 1999 Gran Reserva almost smells of Christmas. Cherries and raspberries intertwine with raisins, vanilla and tobacco notes. The never-ending finish is a stunning showcase for a wine that’s guaranteed to wow over the festive period.
It does, however, get even more special, in the shape of Viña Muriel’s 1982 Gran Reserva. It has a pale ruby colour with caramel hints, and a nose – dried figs married to herb and spice notes – that’s a delight in itself. The palate just explodes with dried fruit, Christmas spice, sweet vanilla undertones and an elegant finish. Awesome stuff.
Rioja Blanco 2009, Marqués de Cáceres
£7.99 or £6.49* when you buy 2 bottles
Rioja ‘Single Vineyard’ 2007/08, Ramon Bilbao
£8.99 or £6.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Rioja Crianza 2007, Berberana
£7.99 or £5.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Rioja Crianza 2006/07, Marqués de Cáceres
£10.99 or £7.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Rioja Reserva 2005, Viña Pomal
£12.99 or £8.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Rioja Gran Reserva 2002, Berberana
£13.99 or £7.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Rioja Gran Reserva 1999, Bodegas Muriel
£13.99 or £9.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Rioja Gran Reserva 1982, Viña Muriel
£24.00 or £18.00* when you buy 2 bottles
The more the merrier
If you’ve a large (or just thirsty) group to cater for this Christmas, a magnificent magnum could be just the thing. Try Marqués de la Concordia’s 2005 Crianza – a rich, warming wine perfect with festive roast meats.
Rioja Crianza 2004, Marqués de la Concordia, Magnum
£18.99 or £13.99* when you buy 2 bottles
*Prices are valid from 02 November 2010 to 31 January 2011.