Rioja is one of the five great wine regions of the world, its wines celebrated both for their great longevity and for their extraordinary value. Only here do the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva carry the weight of law: To qualify as the former, a wine must be aged in oak for a minimum of one year and spend two years in bottle before release, while the latter ages in oak for at least two years and in bottle for three. (Crianza requires a year both in oak and in bottle.) So the wines come pre-aged — and for prices that make Bordeaux or Tuscany seem exorbitant.
Today, winemakers such as Juan Carlos de Lacalle of Artadi and Telmo Rodriguez of Remelluri are arguing passionately that Rioja’s terroirs are as complex as Burgundy’s and that its wines should therefore be classified by village cru rather than length of time in barrel. But it will take a generation for such revolutionary change to occur in Spain; meanwhile, there is a panoply of styles to be savored, from the French oak-aged lusciousness of Roda’s Sela to the seamless classicism of La Rioja Alta’s 904. For complexity, longevity and value, not to mention sheer enjoyment, no red-wine region in the world can compete with Rioja. Olé!
CVNE Viña Real Reserva 2005
A delicious wine from CVNE, one of the old aristocratic bodegas of Rioja. Very sweet red fruit on the nose — first strawberry, then raspberry and ripe cherry, with hints of balsamic and molasses. Dense, ripe juicy tannins; lovely, lengthy notes of earth and dry bark. Around $40.
Artadi Viñas de Gain 2011
Juan-Carlos de Lacalle of Artadi is among Rioja’s radicals, his mission to highlight the region’s great microterroirs. This wine has superb bright fruit, a hint of leather on the palate, along with sour damson plum and briar, textured tannins, and a fine juicy finish. About $26.
Ysios Reserva 2008
Ysios is one of Rioja’s most arresting bodegas, its wavelike façade designed by the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava to echo the peaks of the sierra in the distance. Equally impressive is this dense, restrained yet powerful modern Rioja, showing scrumptious blackberry fruit, minerality, smooth tannins and mouthwatering acidity. “We look for concentration, softness and energy,” winemaker Roberto Vicente says. Quite. About $26.
Marqués de Murrieta Capellania Reserva Blanco, 2010
Rioja’s whites have a reputation for oakiness, but winemakers such as Murrieta’s Maria Vargas march to a different beat. This 100% Viura (the grape known as Macabeo in France) is full-bodied, certainly, but it’s balanced by dancing acidity, the aromas of roast almonds and white fruit, and a delicate, creamy finish. Delicious. About $20.
Remelluri La Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri Blanco, 2007
Is this offering from Remelluri the best white wine in Spain? Telmo Rodriguez’s field blend of Viura, Albariño and half a dozen other varieties makes the blood sing in your veins. White flowers on the nose precede a rounded palate with stone fruits such as peach, exotic spice and honey, pierced through with bracing acidity and fine mineral length. Balanced, luscious, triumphant. Around $25.
Ramón Bilbao Viñedos Altura 2011
Riojanos can be snobbish about Garnacha, considering Tempranillo the only true noble grape of the region. Ignore them. The 50% Garnacha in this blend from Ramón Bilbao allows it a perfumed freshness, with lifted raspberry on the nose and juicy blackcurrant on the palate as well as a textured, tannic finish. Mouthwatering. About $20.
Marqués de Cáceres Excellens Reserva 2009
Though established in the 1970s, Caceres is known as one of the most conservative of the great estates. That image may change somewhat with Excellens, a new range from small, high-altitude vineyards; the Reserva’s expressive, cool spearmint nose with salted caramel leads to a palate with fresh blackcurrant and sour plum. Ultramodern, international style with soft tannins enlivened by tart acidity. Good. Around $16.
Marqués de Riscal Barón de Chirel 2010
Established in 1858, Riscal is one of Rioja’s oldest bodegas, but with its titanium-clad hotel it rivals Ysios for modernist cool. Wines like this one, however, are classic. Lovely briar and licorice nose with a salty, river-mud stink, plus white pepper and fresh linen. Superb bursts of juice on the palate are balanced by lovely acidity, notes of snapped nettle stalk and polished tannins. Dense and compelling. About $50.
Contino Reserva 2009
A single-vineyard wine from the CVNE stable, made by the brilliant Jesús Madrazo. Very fine, deep briar and black-cherry aromas open to ripe soft tannins and mouthwatering acidity; the pitch-perfect palate of blackcurrant and blueberry hints at sweeter red berry fruit. Sharp, juicy balsamic finish. Long and opulent, it would be perfect with rack of spring lamb. About $35.
Ontañón Vetiver Rioja Blanco 2013
Another fine, dry, mineral white Rioja in the modern style, courtesy of Ontañón. Very pure with sharp, bright acidity, a hint of florality on the nose and a textured pear-skin palate. Defined, structured, brisk and intense — a food wine. About $12.
Luis Cañas Gran Reserva 2001
Bright, smooth, leathery nose, with some smoke and sun-warmed wood. Powerful sour plum and spice notes on the palate, along with intense linear tannins. There’s nothing big or brash about this wine from Luis Cañas — it’s got a superbly fresh, zesty length, yet it’s very austere and elegant. Excellent. Hard to get hold of but worth searching out as an example of just how well Rioja can age. About $40.
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004
Pinot-like lightness of hue; earth, compost and potpourri on the nose. Ripe blueberry-fruit palate with hints of leather; round, soft tannins. Very restrained with subtle length — a fine and delicate classic brought to you by La Rioja Alta. About $50.
Gómez Cruzado Reserva 2008
Voted champion in the United Kingdom’s 2013 Wines from Spain awards, Gómez Cruzado’s fine Rioja has an oak-sweet nose with vanilla and white pepper; ripe black fruit; and a powerful, dry length. Very fine. About $25.
Finca Allende Rioja Tinto 2007
A modern style from Finca Allende, aged in French oak. Autumnal briar and hedgerow nose with hints of herb, followed by a midpalate loaded with fine dark fruit; smoke; leather; and rich, old cigar box. Luscious, elegant, complex. About $26.
Bodegas Roda Sela 2011
Established in 1987, Roda produces, from its stunning winery in Haro, some of Rioja’s most compelling reds. Don’t miss the magnificent Cirsion, but start with the entry-level Sela, with its voluptuous nose of violet-scented black fruit, velvety tannins and palate of dark cherry and plum. Modern Rioja at its best. About $33.
More from Zester Daily:
» Rioja on the cusp
» A Spanish spring value
» Spain’s Montrasell wine seduces under a French alias
» Trouble with Grenache
Main photo: The barrel cellar at Marqués de Cáceres. Credit: Copyright 2015 Marqués de Cáceres