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Rioja Masters 2015: the results

With reds, whites and rosés of endlessly varying – even contrasting – styles, Rioja’s diversity renders it ever more difficult to define. Yet as our Masters competition revealed, some classic Riojan characteristics still sing out, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

Tempting though they are, generalisations are dangerous. And today, there are few wine regions where sweeping stylistic statements have become less applicable than Rioja. Although best known for the sweet coconut flavours that can come from extended periods in new American oak, along with the fading, leather-scented examples among the range-topping Gran Reservas, the Rioja of today comprises pretty much everything from bright, light Beaujolais-esque reds to concentrated blockbusters, at times more reminiscent of the Barossa than anything from Iberia.

As for the whites, despite a reputation for an oxidative approach, these can take on a Chablis-like quality when fruit is picked early, and handled reductively, and even the rosés are starting to appear paler, with a hue found more commonly outside Spain, above all Provence, even if Rioja is known for its darker pinks.

Such diversity was clearly apparent in this year’s Rioja Masters, where even wines from the same producers showed a wide variation in character. While the tasters looked for quality first, and were fully aware of the broad stylistic capabilities possible in this large wine region – whether that was a result of grape, source, or winemaking – they did remain mindful that this was a tasting of Rioja, rewarding most enthusiastically those examples that were both excellent and identifiably from this famous Spanish DOC.

What were they looking for? ‘Chocolate’, ‘vanilla’, ‘softness’ and most importantly, ‘racy acidity’ were descriptors most commonly cited by our experienced judging panel when asked about red Rioja’s hallmarks. And, they believed, even among the so-called ‘modern style’ of Rioja – used to denote more deeply-coloured, concentrated reds – the wines were still, for the most part, clearly, classically Spanish. Indeed, the influence of new winemaking approaches was declared beneficial for a region famous for its old-fashioned style.

“I enjoyed the tension between the two types of Rioja, the old and the new, although we didn’t taste the ultra-traditional,” commented Hugo Rose MW, a tasting panel chairman. “But as a group we had a preference towards the classic style, because of its food orientation, but we recognised the quality of the richer, and often more expensive wines.”

Agreeing, another judge, Alex Canneti, commented, “It was interesting to taste the modern versus the classic – for example, comparing Bodegas Baigorri with La Rioja Alta was exciting.” An overt oak character was certainly expected, and for some, necessary, although all the judges were looking for the integration of barrel-sourced flavours, whether these came from French or American trees.

As for the results, the whites, for one judge at least, were a “revelation”. Following the tasting, this niche area of Rioja – it represents just 10% of the region’s production – was declared an area of marked change. “The whites were astonishing, because they were really good, really drinkable,” commented Canneti, praising the bright, fruity nature of the wines, in contrast to a historic approach, where strong barrel-sourced flavours dominated, along with a heaviness that can come from oxidative handling.

That’s not to say that the strongest performers were devoid of oak, and the best whites married ripe stone fruit with a toasty barrique character. Marqués de Murrieta proved itself particularly capable at striking a pleasing balance with its Capellania, although Bodegas Baigorri was similarly excellent.

A standout performance

Once again in 2015, there was one company that stood out from this year’s winners: Rioja Alavesa group Araex, which scooped no fewer than 25 medals, including three Golds and the top accolade of Master for its Baigorri Garnacha. This was an even stronger performance than witnessed in last year’s competition, when Araex gained 19 medals, along with the same number of Golds, and, like this year, a single Master, which was also earned by the Baigorri brand. The result marked a vindication of managing director Javier Ruiz de Galarreta’s decision in 1993 to bring together nine small or medium-sized wineries from the region into a single group. Indeed, from 1993 to 2014, Araex has exported more than €260 million worth of wine from Rioja Alavesa, with one in five bottles produced in the sub-region now sourced from this single company, which controls more than 4,000 hectares. Araex Rioja Alavesa brands currently include Luis Cañas, Lar de Paula, Castillo Labastida, Baigorri, Altos R, Amaren, Heredad de Baroja and Montebuena.

Indeed, as in previous tastings, Rioja showed its best when the oak was present. The Joven category, where youthful fruit was served up without the additional flavour and structure that comes from ageing in barriques, seemed to have less appeal, although there were exceptions: Lagunilla, for example, showed the quality potential of the Tempranillo grape without the influence of wood, as did La Bascula, which married Rioja’s flagship variety with Garnacha for its Joven.

Moving up a quality ladder, it was not until we reached Crianza that the first Golds were awarded, which went to Bodegas Riojanas for its Monte Real Crianza de Familia as well as Bodegas Baigorri for its pure Garnacha, which, because it was deemed the best wine of the flight, was upgraded to the ultimate accolade of Master. But for the best results by category, one had to look to the Reservas, where no fewer than five golds were awarded.

“This year the Reservas were spectacular,” commented Rose, with a winery like La Rioja Alta exciting palates for its combination of oak and fruit, along with palate-cleansing dry tannins and bright acidity – the sort of wine that has, over the decades, made Rioja famous.

This producer was also one of the few to gain a gold in the Gran Reserva category, the region’s top tier. Interestingly, looking back over the day’s tasting, Rose observed, “There were some Gran Reservas that were made to a price, and you could tell, and the standout wines were mostly among the Reservas.

“The price was not always a determinate of quality – we gave some higher scores to lower priced wines – and at the top end it was possible that some were trying too hard.”

Having said that, it was at the top, and traditional end of the spectrum where real greatness was observed, with some of the highest scores of the day going to aged Rioja – Gran Reservas that were 15 years and older. In particular, Faustino I Gran Reserva 1994 showed why both this producer and the region as a whole is so sought after for mature wines.

Despite being 21 years old, the wine was still fruity and lively, and continued to evolve during the course of the day, before being enjoyed to its full after the tasting was over, when the judges paired the wine with suckling pig courtesy of Hispania, our host for this year’s Rioja Masters.

Interestingly, this year, we did see good things among those entries declared Vinos de Autor. Sometimes criticised for failing to resemble Rioja, this category is notable for falling outside the region’s traditional classifications, allowing winemakers to experiment to the full.

While the tasters acknowledged that a wine such as Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta was a very different proposition to the likes of Faustino Gran Reserva, the former was no less delicious, and in the world of ambitious reds, undoubtedly a fine wine.

So, after a day’s tasting, Rioja proved home to a diverse source of wine styles. Nevertheless, common characteristics were present, above all the imprint of oak barrels and high-acid fruit. Yes generalisations are dangerous to draw, but as one judge commented, “There is still typicity in Rioja.”

Click through for a round up of all the medals awarded.

The judges

Roberto Della Pietra head sommelier, French Bubbles

Alex Canneti director off-trade, Berkmann Wine Cellars

Agustin Trapero head sommelier, Launceston Place

Lucy Shaw managing editor, the drinks business

Hugo Rose MW, director, Vinsignia

Patrick Schmitt MW editor-in-chief, the drinks business

José González Godoy head sommelier, Ametsa, Halkin Hotel

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition conceived and managed by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, fortified wines and grape varieties from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Rioja and comprised around 200 entries, which were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top Riojas were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those wines that were deemed by the judges to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Rioja Master. The wines were tasted on a single day at Hispania in London. This report features medal winners only.

Rioja Masters categories

Rioja Joven – Young wines which typically have spent no time in oak, or just a few months maximum in barrel before release. Most Bianco and Rosado Rioja falls into the Joven category.
Crianza – These are Riojas which have been aged for at least two years with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Reserva – This category is for Riojas which have been aged for at least three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Gran Reserva – These are Riojas which have been aged for at least five years with a minimum of 24 months in oak.
Vinos de Autor – These are winemaker’s ‘icon’ style wines, otherwise dubbed ‘new wave wines’ from Rioja, which carry no age statement but generally spend at least a year in barrique, frequently made from new French oak.
Rioja 15 years and older – We also included a category of old Rioja to group together older expressions for which the region is well-known. These were typically Gran Reservas.

White Rioja

Company Wine Vintage Results
Under £10
Felix Solis Avantis Pagos del Rey – Castillo de Albai Viura 2014 Bronze
Baron de Ley Baron de Ley White 2014 Bronze
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Blanco Fermentado en Barrica 2014 Silver
Gomez Cruzado Gomez Cruzado Blanco 2014 Bronze
Rioja Vega Tempranillo Blanco 2014 Bronze
Araex Rioja Alavesa Lar de Paula Blanco Fermentado en Barrica 2013 Bronze
Marqués de Murrieta Capellania 2010 Silver
Gran Reserva
Viñedos Bodegas de la Marquesa Valserrano –White Gran Reserva 2008 Silver

Rosado Rioja

Company Wine Vintage Results
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Tempranillo Rosado 2014 Bronze

Red Rioja

Company Wine Vintage Results
Under £10
United Wineries International  Federico Paternina – Lagunilla Tempranillo  2014  Silver
La Bascula Wines  The Charge Tempranillo and Garnacha  2013  Silver
Félix Solís Avantis  Pagos del Rey – Castillo de Albai Tempranillo  2014  Bronze
Bodegas Alamaraz  Finca de Oro  2014  Bronze
Lidi UK  Cepa Lebrel Rioja Joven  2014  Bronze
 Bodegas Casa Primicia  Carravacas de Primicia Tinto  2014  Bronze
 Frederic Robinson  Bodegas Forcada – Vendimia Seleccionada  2012  Bronze
 Rioja Vega  Rioja Vega Tempranillo  2014  Bronze
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Bodegas Montebuena Oak Aged  2013  Silver

Red Rioja cont.

Company Wine Vintage Results
Under £10
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Baigorri Garnacha  2011  Master
 Bodegas Faustino  Faustino Crianza  2011  Silver
 Viñedos de Aldeanu  Azabache Crianza Vendimia Seleccionada  2013  Silver
 Bodegas Marqués de Teran  Marqués de Terán Crianza  2010  Silver
 Bodegas Vinedos de Aldeanueva  Gran Colina Crianza  2013  Silver
 Frederic Robinson  Bodegas Forcada Rioja Crianza  2010  Silver
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Baigorri Crianza  2011  Silver
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Luis Cañas Crianza  2012  Silver
 Bodegas Muriel  Truly Irresistible Viña Gala  2012  Bronze
 Miguel Torres  Altos Ibericos Crianza  2013  Bronze
 Marqués de Cáceres  Marqués de Cáceres Crianza  2012  Bronze
 Félix Solís Avantis  Pagos del Rey – Castillo de Albai Crianza  2013  Bronze
 Frederic Robinson  Bodegas Forcada Rioja Crianza  2012  Bronze
 El Coto de Rioja  El Coto Crianza  2012  Bronze
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Lar de Paula Crianza  2012  Bronze
 Bodegas Riojanas  Puerta Vieja Crianza Selection  2012  Bronze
 Viñedos de Aldeanueva  Fincas de Azabache Crianza Garnacha  2012  Bronze
 Rioja Vega  Rioja Vega Crianza  2012  Bronze
 Boutinot  Ontanon Rioja Crianza  2012  Bronze
 Bodegas Riojanas  Monte Real Crianza de Familia  2012  Gold
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Luis Cañas Reserva  2010  Gold
 Viña Bujanda  Viña Bujanda Crianza  2012  Silver
 Marqués de Cáceres  Marqués de Cáceres Excellens Cuvée Especial  2012  Silver
 Bodegas Corral  Altos De Corral  2010  Silver
 Rioja Vega  Rioja Vega Edicion Limitada  2012  Bronze
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Rolland Galarreta Rioja  2011  Bronze
 Bodegas Muriel  Muriel Crianza   2012  Bronze
 Hacienda Marqués de la Concordia  Marqués de la Concordia Crianza   2012  Bronze
 Gomez Cruzado  Crianza   2012  Bronze
 Francisco Garcia Ramirez  Paco Garcia Crianza   2013  Bronze
 Federico Paternina  Banda Azul Crianza   2013  Bronze
 J Garcia Carrion  Marqués de Carrion Crianza   2011  Bronze
 Finca Valpierdra  Cantos de Valpiedra  2012  Silver
 Viñedos de Aldeanueva Finca de Azabache – Culto 2012 Bronze
Under £10
 Bodegas Muriel  Baron Amarillo Rioja Reserva  2010  Silver
 Lidi UK  Cepa Lebrel Rioja Reserva  2009  Silver
 Félix Solís Avantis  Castillo de Albai Reserva  2011  Silver
 Bodegas Muriel  Viña Eguia Reserva  2011  Silver
 Frederic Robinson  Bodegas Forcada Rioja Reserva  2010  Bronze
 Asda  Extra Special Marqués Del Norte Rioja Reserva  2011  Bronze
 Baron de Ley  Reserva  2011  Gold
 El Coto de Rioja  Coto de Imaz Reserva  2011  Silver
 González Byass UK  Beronia Reserva  2011  Silver
 Codorníu  Viña Pomal Reserva  2010  Silver
 J Garcia Carrion  Pata Negra Reserva  2010  Silver
 Bodegas Faustino  Faustino V Reseva  2009  Silver
 Bodegas Casa Primicia  Carravacas de Primicia Reserva  2010  Silver
 Rioja Vega  Rioja Vega Reseva  2010  Silver
 Bodegas Corral  Don Jacobo Reserva  2009  Silver
 Federico Paternina  Banda Rioja Reserva  2011  Bronze
 Pernod Ricard  Campo Viejo Reserva  2010  Bronze
 Bodegas Muriel  Reserva  2010  Bronze
 El Coto de Rioja  Coto de Imaz Reserva  2010  Bronze
 Torre de Ona  Torre de Ona Reserva  2010  Gold
 Marqués de Murrieta  Marqués de Murrieta Reserva  2010  Silver
 J Garcia Carrion  Reserva  2009  Silver
 Remirez de Ganuza  Fincas de Ganuza  2008  Bronze
 Gomez Cruzado  Gomez Cruzado Reserva  2009  Bronze
 La Rioja Alta  Viña Ardanza Reserva  2007  Gold
 Bodegas Valenciso  Reserva  2008  Silver
 Bodegas Riojanas  Gran Albina Reserva  2009  Silver
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Baigorri Reserva  2008  Silver
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Baigorri de Garage  2010  Silver
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Clos Montebuena Reserva  2009  Bronze
 Finca Valpierdra  Finca Valpiedra Reserva  2009  Bronze
 Grupo Vinicola Marqués de Vargas  Reserva Privada  2010  Bronze
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Lar de Paula Reserva  2009  Bronze
 Rioja Vega  Rioja Vega 130 Aniversario  2006  Bronze
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Amaren Tempranillo Reserva 2008  2008  Gold
Gran Reserva
Under £10
 Asda Extra Special El Meson Gran Reserva Rioja 2005 Silver
Bodegas Muriel Gran Colina Rioja Gran Reserva 2007 Silver
Cellar Trends Faustino I Gran Reseva 2001 Silver
 Codorníu  Viña Pomal Gran Reserva  2006  Gold
 Federico Paternina  Lagunilla Gran Reserva  2007  Silver
 Bodegas Riojanas  Viña Albina Gran Reserva  2007  Silver
 Bodegas Riojanas  Monte Real Gran Reserva  2007  Silver
 Pernod Ricard  Campo Viejo Gran Reserva  2009  Bronze
 La Rioja Alta  Gran Reserva 904  2005  Gold
 Rioja Vega  Rioja Vega Gran Reserva  2009  Silver
 Marqués de Murrieta  Marqués de Murrieta Grand Reserva  2009  Silver
 Viñedos y Bodegas De La Marquesa  Valserrano Gran Reserva  2008  Silver
 El Coto de Rioja  Coto de Imaz Gran Reserva  2005  Silver
Over £50
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Hiru 3 Racimos  2007  Silver
 Gomez Cruzado  Gomez Cruzado Gran Reserva Magnum  2007  Silver

Red Rioja cont..

Company Wine Vintage Results
Gran Reserva 15 years +
Bodegas Faustino Faustino I Gran Reseva 1994 Master
El Coto de Rioja Coto de Imaz Gran Reserva 1995 Gold
Viños de Autor
Under £10
Frederic Robinson Alma de Forcada Rioja Garnacha Cepas Viejas 2012 Silver
Bodegas Muriel JME Tempranillo 2011 Gold
 El Coto de Rioja  Coto Real  2011  Silver
 Miguel Torres  Altos Ibericos Parcelas de Graciano  2011  Bronze
 Araex Rioja Alavesa  Altos R Pigeage  2010  Gold
 Bodegas Muriel  Conde de los Andes  2013  Silver
 Rioja Vega  Rioja Vega 9 Barricas  2011  Silver
 Gomez Cruzado  Honorable  2011  Silver
 Bodegas Muriel  Marqués de Elciego Edicion Limitada  2010  Bronze
Over £50
 Codorníu  Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta  2010  Gold
 El Coto de Rioja  Coto Real  2010  Bronze

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