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Don't Sleep on La Rioja Wines

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

Finding new wines amid a sea of international labels can be a daunting task. While we would like to try the wines of Georgia and Croatia, there just isn’t enough time when we’re sipping our way through new releases from the West Coast, Italy and France. Not enough time or maybe not enough liver.

It is with such remorse that we regret ignoring La Rioja far too long. This region of Spain had a spot in our cellars for many years, but our interests have wandered to emerging locations in Spain – such as Priorat and Mencia -- and other parts of the world. But mention Spain, and most people still think first of Rioja.

Tempranillo is the dominant player here and is sometimes referred to as a “noble grape” similar to the grape hierarchy of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley and the Left Bank of Bordeaux. In Rioja this early ripening, native variety produces boldly flavored red wines and contributes to some of the longest lasting wines in the world. Other red grape varieties include mazuelo, garnacha tinta and graciano. Although white Rioja wines are difficult to find, we have been recently drawn to those made from viura grapes. Malvasia and garnacha blanca are the other two common white grape varieties.

There has been considerable effort in marketing and in production to draw more attention and better quality to the wines of this region. Since 2017, for instance, producers have been allowed to designate on its labels the municipalities where the grapes are grown, much like we see in Burgundy.

The municipalities are spread around three recognized regions: Rioja Alta, known for its old-world style of wine, Rioja Alavesa, known for its full-body wines and low yields, and the vast Rioja Oriental, known for its high-alcohol wines and Mediterranean climate.

Rioja has attempted to rank its wines in quality by the amount of time a wine spends in oak casks and bottle. Crianza spends at least one year in oak and a few months in bottle before it is released. Reserva ages for three years with at least one year in oak. Gran Reserva uses the best grapes and only in exceptional vintages. It is aged in oak for at least two years and then in bottle for another three years before being sold. A fraction of the wines produced in Rioja are classified Gran Reserva, but they remain the best and are still reasonably priced.

Rioja producers like American oak, which seems to react well with the bolder tempranillo grape variety and adds vanilla and coconut to the flavor profile. American oak is also much cheaper than French oak and that helps to contain the cost. We find a lot of good tempranillo on the market for well under $20.

The attraction we see is the fruit-forward character of these juicy and alluring wines. However, they are more ageable than one would assume. For instance, we recently tasted a 1994 Urbina Gran Reserva that was holding its own as well as a 2004 Allende Rioja that we had tucked away years ago. It was outstanding and current release cost $25. For those stocking their cellars, it’s a reasonable investment for a wine that can last 15 years or more.

Look for labels like LAN, Muga, Beronia, Allende and Muriel and Bujanda. And here are a few that should be relatively easy to find:

  • LAN Reserva 2015 ($25). A little mazuelo is blended with tempranillo in this full-body gem from vineyards in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. It spends 18 months in oak – French and American – and 20 months in bottle. Classic red cherry and blackberry notes with a floral nose and velvet texture with hints of vanilla and spice. LAN’s simple crianza is a great value at $15.

  • CVNE Rioja Cune Reserva 2015 ($29). We’ve seen this wine for a whole lot less in Costco. For a reserva, it’s a good deal if you can find it for under $20. Ripe plum and black cherry flavors. The blend is 85 percent tempranillo with the rest being made up of garnacha, graciano and mazuelo.

  • Marques de Riscal Reserva 2015 ($20). Using grapes from Rioja Alavese, this enduring label has been in our households for decades. Its regular crianza sells for less than $15 and is delicious. The reserve just shows more depth and character. Fresh and elegant with cherry flavors and good complexity.

  • Bodegas Palacio Glorioso Reserva Rioja 2015 ($15). Made entirely from tempranillo, this wine represents an outstanding value from Rioja. Bright plum and cherry fruit notes, medium tannins, and a very long finish. A great starter wine for those wishing to explore tempranillo and Rioja.

  • Montebueno Cuvee KPF Rioja 2018 ($10). A nice introduction to Rioja and the tempranillo grape. Fairly simple with ripe and dried cherry notes and soft tannins. A good wine for the price.

  • Vina Bujanda Tempranillo Rioja 2018 ($12). More expressive than the Montebueno with cherry and plum notes along with elements of cedar and tobacco. Quite a bit of complexity for the price.

  • Cune Crianza Rioja 2016 ($16). Black cherry with licorice and sandalwood elements. This needs at least 30 minutes to open.

  • Montana Rioja Reserva 2014 ($20). As a reserva, you expect more body and this wine delivers. More of an old-style of Rioja with more pronounced oak notes and candied cherry and plum flavors. Very long finish.

Wine picks

  • Chateau la Sauvageonne Terrasses du Larzac Grand Vin 2017 ($40). We loved this extravagant blend from the Languedoc-Roussillon area of southern France. Grenache, mouvedre and carignan add to the syrah foundation of this complex and spicy wine with dark berries notes.

  • Knotty Vines Chardonnay California 2018 ($15). Nice apple and tropical fruit notes with almost no discernable oak influences. Very refreshing.

  • Wentworth Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Nash Mill Vineyard 2018 ($66). This is a very good Anderson Valley pinot noir featuring bright cherry, cranberry and rhubarb notes. Very nice, elegant mouthfeel with a lingering finish.

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