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Rioja Masters 2016: results and analysis

While it remains one of Spain’s most popular wines, Rioja is in a state of flux stylistically. But at this year’s Rioja Masters competition, the quality of the offering shone bright. By Patrick Schmitt MW.

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition conceived and managed by the drinks business and is 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 100 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.

In the world of mid-priced reds, few regions have as much appeal as Rioja. While its competitor European regional brands Bordeaux and Chianti seem to have slipped to the lower shelves of Britain’s retailers, Rioja is still proudly displayed at eye level, or better still for moving volumes, at the end of the aisle, on a compelling offer.

The Spanish region’s allure has not only endured, it has magnified. Indeed, such is the region’s attraction, it dominates the Iberian wine offer, much to the frustration of other Spanish red wine DOs, desperate for recognition. It’s a situation neatly summed up by Jonathan Pedley MW. Speaking over a coffee before chairing the judges at this year’s Rioja Masters competition, Pedley expressed his particular interest in the region because it has become so commercially important, particularly for Crown Cellars, the Carlsberg UK wine business that he consults for – and has done for more than 17 years. “When I started in the trade, Bordeaux outsold Rioja by 20 times in pubs and bars, but now it’s the other way round,” he said.

“So getting the Rioja offer right is vital,” he added.

But what has made Rioja so popular? That was something the tasting set out to understand, while, of course, drawing attention to the region’s top-performing producers.

After a day’s sampling, it was clear what makes Rioja attractive, but, still, as with all wine-producing places, far from perfect.

To focus on the positives first, the base level of quality in Rioja is high. In this year’s Masters we had very few wines that didn’t achieve a medal. Not only that, but the sub-£10 category featured a slew of Silvers and a Gold, proving that Rioja can deliver juicy and balanced results at the cheaper end of the spectrum – something that perhaps those competitor regions mentioned above struggle to achieve at this level. Indeed, Rioja’s quality-to-price ratio between £5-£15 is hardly matched in the world of red wines.

And what about style? To generalise, the tasting also showed what Rioja-lovers already know: Rioja manages to achieve a rare and charming combination of juicy red fruit, spice, sweet oak-derived flavours, and freshness. Furthermore, producers tend to release wines ready to drink, having allowed them to soften and develop complexity in the cellar before sending them to the market.

Rioja Masters categories

Joven – Young wines that typically have spent no time in oak, or just a few months maximum in barrel before release. Most Blanco and Rosado Rioja falls into the Joven category.
Crianza – These are Riojas that have been aged for at least two years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Reserva – This category is for Riojas that have been aged for at least three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Gran Reserva – These are Riojas that 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.

Hard to pigeonhole

Then there’s the diversity available. Now, this can be a complicating element for people with a preconceived idea of Rioja, and that’s because, today, this wine region has become increasingly difficult to pigeonhole in terms of taste. Even the idea of old- and new-wave Rioja is hard to apply brand by brand, with some producers embracing both styles – ie, offering the more oxidative, spicy, leathery, long-aged type alongside a concentrated, highly-extracted, youthful version.

But what this does mean is that there’s now a Rioja for everyone – from the light and berry-scented jovens to the equivalent of Chianti’s Super Tuscans with the rule-breaking Vinos de Autor, which tend to be powerful and youthful reds that bear almost no resemblance to so-called ‘classic’ Riojas.

Essentially, the region is in a state of flux, and while some might bemoan a lack of typicity from certain cellars, it is important to remind oneself that Rioja is a place trying to adapt to the tastes of a broad range of consumers, some of whom are entirely new to wine. In fact, Rioja’s urge to try different styles using the same basic ingredients highlights the commercially-minded nature of the area, and probably also explains why the region’s appeal has endured.

Where is Rioja headed?

Nevertheless, it’s not all a bed of sweet-smelling roses, and this urge to move on can leave one wondering where Rioja is headed. “The Rioja style is changing dramatically,” says José González Godoy, restaurant manager and sommelier at Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, before stating: “What we do not know yet is where is it going?” Continuing, he observes: “I felt that the American wood and long ageing, with a slightly oxidative style, has disappeared; and even some ‘classics’ were not that classic.”

Having identified more concentration and extraction in the wines, he then wondered whether the idea of a typical Rioja should be revised. “Is Rioja losing its identity, or rather, finding a new one?” he asked, suggesting that it’s up to us to catch up, rather than for producers to turn back the clock.

Finally, while many of the Riojas tasted seem to be new and trendier in terms of taste, there are still those wines that appear as though they were from a different era, and the effect isn’t always endearing. As Pedley notes: “All the innovation seems to have been in the younger categories and poor old gran reserva is seen as an embarrassing relic from the past.” He then adds, mournfully: “This is a shame as the classic mature, mellow and complex gran reserva style is a unique, internationally-recognised and treasured part of the Rioja family.”

In essence, the gran reserva category, which should serve as a flagship for the region, has become home to some of the region’s greatest disappointments – mainly because expectations are so high at this level. The letdown comes when the wine, after many months in barrel, emerges tired and tannic. Thankfully, as the results showed, there are still producers who, with sensitivity and experience, manage to produce great results using extended oak ageing, and in doing so, deliver something both wonderful and inimitable.

Summing up on the day’s sampling, Sarah Janes Evans MW enthuses: “The tasting confirmed my view that Rioja can undoubtedly provide really pleasurable wines. The blend of the grape varieties with the climate and the soils – and those millions of oak casks across the DOCa – can make for lovely wines.”

However, she raised a new concern, one that doesn’t involve stylistic evolution and diversity, but low pricing. “With wines of this quality, it’s a pity to see that Rioja is still selling itself cheap. I don’t expect to find Burgundy at bargain-basement prices, or Barolo or Rhône, so why Rioja? In arguably Spain’s most prestigious region – apart from Jerez – we should expect pricing that supports the growers and allows them to invest.”

In other words, Rioja has the right image and quality, but it must price those positive traits to ensure that it can sustain them.

Standout performers

Once again, Rioja Alavesa group Araex performed exceptionally well in the tasting, scooping no fewer than four Golds in this year’s completion, one more than it achieved in 2015. These were awarded to the group’s Baigorri and Luis Cañas wineries and its Rolland Galarreta brand.
The company also, once more, gained the top accolade of Master, for its Amaren Tempranillo Reserva 2008. The result vindicated managing director Javier Ruiz de Galarreta’s 1993 decision to bring together nine small or medium-sized wineries from the region into one group.
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 sourced from this single company, which controls more than 4,000 hectares.
Araex Rioja Alavesa brands include Luis Cañas, Lar de Paula, Castillo Labastida, Baigorri, Altos R Amaren, Heredad de Baroja and Montebuena.
Other than Araex, Codorníu was another strong performer, with its Viña Pomal Rioja gaining an impressive three gold medals, picking these up for its reserva, gran reserva, and its outstanding Vino de Autor, which is called Alto de la Caseta, named because it uses 100% Tempranillo grapes grown at high altitudes.

Judges comments

José González Godoy
“The Rioja style is changing dramatically. What we do not know yet is where is it going. I felt the American wood and long ageing, with slightly oxidative style has disappeared. Even some ’classics’ were not that classic this time. Most of the wineries are trying to do a different style compared to what Rioja used to be. More concentration, more extraction, and I think they are going towards a lack of identity, or maybe they are looking for a new identity. At the end of the day, every winery is trying to do its best, or what they think is best for them.
It would be a shame to lose the classic style, but it will be interesting to find out where these new wines bring us in terms of style. It’s good to see that something is happening. Whether we like or not, after almost two centuries of history, something must change, otherwise Rioja will end up like Bordeaux; the trust in Bordeaux is dropping, so from my point of view it is good to see that Rioja is moving. I just hope Rioja will never lose its identity.
I was surprised to see Marqués de Cáceres, Faustino and Viña Albina on the top, but I was not surprised to see again that Luis Cañas and Ameren were at the top too – these guys know what they are doing.”
Sarah Jane Evans MW
“The tasting confirmed my view that Rioja can undoubtedly provide really pleasurable wines. The blend of the grape varieties with the climate and the soils – and those millions of oak casks across the DOCa – can make for lovely wines. With wines of this quality it’s a pity to see that Rioja is still selling itself short. I don’t expect to find Burgundy at bargain-basement prices, or Barolo or Rhône – so why Rioja? In arguably Spain’s most prestigious region – apart from Jerez – we should expect pricing that supports the grower and allows them to invest. Producers across Spain cannot survive in the low price environment.
I was looking forward to the tasting and, in general, the wines lived up to my hopes. I was sorry not to find more Masters on this occasion, as they definitely exist. Recently, I have been finding gran reservas disappointing, and the tasting did nothing to convince me otherwise.
There’s plenty of discussion about whether the quality ageing categories of crianza, reserva and gran reserva have any value as indicators of quality. This tasting showed that the categories are uneven – more time in oak or bottle does not mean better. There were some excellent crianzas, reservas and wines that only declare a vintage. White Rioja is something really to look out for, the best can be very good.”
Agustin Trapero
“Overall, the quality was good this year, and there was a high level of consistency throughout the tasting. I was also happy to see that Rioja still keeps its classic stamp on it, and gives good value for money with its old-vintage wines.
For the past few years, Rioja has been facing a bit of pressure from international markets to produce reservas and gran reservas that are fuller, riper and broader with less rancio character that can also be consumed earlier, and we saw some of that.
I liked more or less everything, really, but especially those with a more ‘true’ and ‘classic’ Rioja style. And I liked the wines where the oak was well integrated without being highly marked or over oaked.
Rioja is one of the best regions in the world for really understanding how to blend the wine and oak gently, as
well as how to combine the oak into the wine. Rioja is the master for that.
I missed tasting white and rosé reservas or gran reserva wines, which are amazing, but sometimes, sadly, are wines that are grossly underestimated by our own trade.
As for surprises, the only ones were the Vinos de Autor wines. I think there is a freedom philosophy that needs to be handled wisely, which nowadays is too broadly used, making this category a bit meaningless. It could be beneficial for Rioja wines to be in different marketplaces, but they need to refine and find themselves with this style.”
Jonathan Pedley MW
“My overall impression of Rioja from this year’s tasting was positive. There were only a couple of faulty or unacceptable wines in the whole line-up. Pretty much everything else picked up at least a Bronze.
I have been worried for a while that the gran reserva category has become rather forgotten about and unloved. All the innovation seems to have been in the younger categories and poor old gran reserva is seen as an embarrassing relic from the distant past. This is a shame as the classic mature, mellow and complex gran reserva style is a unique, internationally recognised and treasured part of the Rioja family.
In general, most of the wines had attractive red-fruit aromas and showed careful use of oak, while lively acidity gave the mid-bodied palates balance and verve.
One or two wines were a bit hot and pruney – suggesting over-ripeness. It is also worth saying that a couple of the wines were ‘ambitiously priced’.
Going back to the first point, I was surprised to find that across a region as large and diverse as Rioja, the overall standard was as good as it was.”

The judges (clockwise, from bottom left)

  • Sarah Jane Evans MW, journalist & broadcaster, Spanish wines expert
  • Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business
  • Agustín Trapero, head sommelier, Avenue Restaurant, D&D London
  • Jonathan Pedley MW, wine consultant, Crown Cellars
  • José González Godoy, head sommelier, Ametsa, Halkin Hotel
  • Clément Robert MS, group head sommelier and buyer, 28-50 Wine Workshop & Kitchen
  • Alex Canneti, director, off-trade, Berkmann Wine Cellars

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Click through for a full roundup of medal-winning wines…

The results

White Joven
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Viñedos de Aldeanueva Fincas de Azabache Tempranillo Blanco 2015 Bronze
Joven
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Bodegas Altanza Raza Vendimia Seleccionada 2015 Silver
Bodegas Altanza Capitoso 2015 Bronze
White
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
£10-£15
Araex Rioja Alavesa Lar de Paula Blanco Fermentado en Barrica 2015 Bronze
£15-£20
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Blanco Fermentado en Barrica 2015 Silver
Crianza
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Bodegas Classica El Pacto Crianza 2014 Gold
Bodegas Marqués de Terán Marqués de Terán Crianza 2012 Silver
Marqués de Cáceres Marqués de Cáceres Crianza 2013 Silver
Bodegas Classica Hacienda López de Haro Tempranillo 2014 Silver
Bodegas Félix Salís Avantis Castillo de Albai Crianza 2014 Bronze
Bodegas Palacio Glorioso Crianza 2014 Bronze
Marqués de Cáceres Excellens Cuvée Especial 2013 Bronze
Araex Rioja Alavesa Montebuena Crianza 2012 Bronze
Bodegas Forcada Bodegas Forcada Vendima Seleccionada 2014 Bronze
Bodegas Labastida Solagüen Crianza 2014 Bronze
Bodegas Forcada Bodegas Forcada Rioja Crianza 2012 Bronze
£10-£15
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Crianza 2014 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Altos de La Guardia Crianza 2013 Silver
Viñedos de Aldeanueva Fincas de Azabache Crianza Garnacha 2014 Silver
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Edición Limitada 2013 Silver
Bodegas Palacio Cosme Palacio Crianza 2013 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Lar de Paula Crianza 2012 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Crianza de Familia 2014 Bronze
Bodegas Altanza Rioja Crianza 2013 Bronze
Miguel Torres Altos Ibéricos Crianza 2014 Bronze
Araex Rioja Alavesa Luis Cañas Crianza 2013 Bronze
£15-£20
Araex Rioja Alavesa Rolland Galarreta Rioja 2012 Gold
Bodegas Isidro Milagro 5 Oros Crianza 2013 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Crianza 2013 Bronze
£20-£30
Bodegas Loa SPES 2012 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Garnacha 2012 Bronze
£30-£50
Bodegas Palacio Cosme Palacio 1894 Tinto 2012 Silver
Over £50
Bodegas Loa LOA 2011 Gold
Reserva
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Bodegas Muriel Baron Amarillo Rioja Reserva 2011 Silver
Bodegas Forcada Bodegas Forcada Rioja Reserva 2010 Silver
Bodegas Félix Solís Avantis Castillo de Albai Reserva 2013 Silver
Lidl Exquisite Collection Rioja 2005 Silver
Muriel Wines Viña Eguía Reserva 2012 Bronze
£10-£15
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Reserva Selección 2011 Master
Codorníu Viña Pomal Reserva 2012 Gold
Araex Rioja Alavesa Luis Cañas Reserva 2011 Gold
Araex Rioja Alavesa Altos de La Guardia Reserva 2011 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Reserva de Familia 2011 Silver
Pernod Ricard Winemakers Spain Campo Viejo Reserva 2011 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Clos Montebuena Reserva 2011 Silver
Bodegas Palacio Glorioso Reserva 2012 Silver
Muriel Wines Muriel Reserva 2011 Bronze
Bodegas Faustino Faustino V Reserva 2010 Bronze
Marqués de Cáceres Marqués de Cáceres Reserva 2011 Bronze
£20-£30
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Reserva 2008 Silver
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega 130 Aniversario 2006 Silver
Marqués de Vargas Marqués de Vargas Reserva 2011 Bronze
Bodegas Palacio Cosme Palacio Reserva 2012 Bronze
Pernod Ricard Winemakers Spain Ysios Reserva 2011 Bronze
£30-£50
Araex Rioja Alavesa Amaren Tempranillo Reserva 2008 Master
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri de Garage 2011 Gold
Gran Reserva
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
£15-£20
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Gran Reserva 2008 Silver
Bodegas LAN LAN Gran Reserva 2008 Silver
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Gran Reserva 2009 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva 2008 Silver
Bodegas Faustino Faustino I Gran Reserva 2004 Silver
Pernod Ricard Winemakers Spain Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 2010 Bronze
£20-£30
Codorníu Viña Pomal Gran Reserva 2010 Gold
Over £50
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva 1998 Gold
Araex Rioja Alavesa Hiru 3 Racimos 2009 Gold
Mature Rioja 15 years and more
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Marqués de Cáceres Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva 1986 Gold
Vinos de Autor
Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Bodegas Forcada Alma de Forcada Rioja Garnacha Cepas Viejas 2012 Silver
Finca Dos Cientos Finca Dos Cientos 2014 Silver
Bodegas Basagoiti Fuera del Rebaño 2014 Silver
£15-£20
Viñedos de Aldeanueva Culto 2014 Silver
£20-£30
Muriel Wines Conde de los Andes tinto 2013 Gold
Araex Rioja Alavesa Altos R Pigeage 2012 Silver
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega 9 Babricas 2011 Silver
£30-£50
Bodegas LAN LAN A MANO 2012 Gold
Bodegas Paco García Beautiful Things de Paco García 2012 Silver
Over £50
Codorníu Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2012 Gold

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