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The best wines from the 2018 Rioja Masters

Our latest Rioja Masters competition boasted the highest proportion of Master-winning wines in our tasting series, but that’s hardly a surprise when the liquid, at every price point, is so enjoyable to drink, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

wines in Spain

Despite all the excitement surrounding the emerging wine regions in Spain among the press and sommeliers, the country’s powerhouse is Rioja. A door-opener with global awareness, without Rioja, Spain’s vinous reputation would be far less notorious and much less distinctive. When consumer research on wine regions is conducted, Rioja regularly appears as one of the most-recognised terms that abound in the world of drinks – even if it is widely mispronounced.

But it wasn’t just these outstanding examples that convinced the judges that Rioja is making lovely wines. It was the high number of Golds too – those wines with 93 points or more – with 28 gaining this medal, almost one fifth of the samples. Importantly, such impressive scores weren’t reserved just for the most expensive wines in the competiton, but awarded across the price spectrum. Some of the best-value wines in the world are coming out of Rioja.Many theories could be proposed for this, from the scale of the area, the strength of its brands, and long history of viticulture in the region, but, most importantly, Rioja’s success is connected to its style, quality, and value for money. I know this because the blind-tasting I chaired last month proved that this flagship Spanish wine region is making delicious, balanced wines at all levels. The competition had the highest proportion of Master-winning wines of any tasting we’ve conducted – and that includes all the noble grapes and top-end appellations like Champagne. Bearing in mind that the accolade of Master is reserved only for the very best of their type, and usually wines achieving a score of more than 95 points from all the judges, this is some feat. Out of around 150 wines entered into the competition, we awarded nine Masters.

BRIGHT FINISH

Then there’s the style. Rioja has a mixed reputation with wine professionals – for some it is renowned for its consistency, others think of its diversity – but there is something appealing that runs through all the wines, whether they are made in a lighter or more concentrated fashion, and that’s freshness. While that’s no surprise in the whites and rosés, it’s the bright finish in Rioja’s reds that’s a hallmark for this region. There’s often something Italianate about Rioja, as the region shares the former country’s orange-zest freshness in its reds, and sometimes a sour cherry note too, as well as its dry finish from fine-grained dense tannins.

The Riojas we tasted also displayed drinking pleasure thanks to an overriding restraint – these were, for the most part, neither wines with raisined fruit nor roasted oak. Alcohol levels also seem in check too. And, as one judge, Jonathan Pedley MW, pointed out, unlike some areas of Spain, Rioja seems to have avoided the temptation of going “over the top”, and, thankfully, doesn’t appear to be picking grapes too ripe, or extracting too much tannin in the winemaking process. Even where the Riojas were made in a more concentrated style, “in all cases there was still an overall harmony”, said Pedley.

judges

So what about the highlights? Beginning with the whites, those who know Rioja well may have heard about the quality potential of Tempranillo Blanco, mainly because it delivers enticing floral aromatics (and therefore more character than the much more widely planted Viura). But it’s also exciting for its novelty value, and the fact that Tempranillo – in its red form – is the flagship grape of the region, meaning that its sister variety, the white version of the same grape, should be the emblematic blanco. But I, for one, wasn’t sure it could make a lovely and complex balanced white as a monovarietal offering.

Having blind-tasted Rioja Vega’s Tempranillo Blanco Colección, however, I now know it can. This gently aromatic, slightly peachy wine, packed with citrus and cream – the latter from a touch of barrel ageing – is an exciting find in the world of Spanish whites, and was awarded a Gold from all the judges. It also provided much-needed refreshment after the day’s tasting was over, thanks to its breadth and brightness. The same grape also performed well when handled more inertly, with the sub-£10 Fincas de Azabeche Tempranillo Blanco showing more pineapple and floral characters, without the oak influence.

Moving into the reds, once again Rioja Vega showed its ability to craft something of quality, without charging a huge sum. Its sub-£10 joven Garnacha-Graciano was one of the few Golds at this price level. At the opposite end of the price spectrum, but still within the joven category, the judges were wowed by a wine from Bodegas Faustino. Falling into this youthful category because the wine – a blend of Tempranillo and Graciano – spends just 10 months in French oak, it is a creamy, juicy, raspberry and cherryflavoured red with lots of depth and structure, and, we later found out, the result of a tie-up between the famous producer and the celebrated Michellinstarred Basque chef, Eneko Atxa. The price? Around £55.

BEST VALUE

judge

Once we shifted into the Crianza category – where wines must spend a minimum of one year in oak – we awarded our first Master. And, at less than £15, this wine, from relatively new winery Altos de Rioja, must be one of the best-value reds on the market today, whatever the country or region. Sourced from 40-yearold Tempranillo vines, it is concentrated, ripe and creamy, but also dry and balanced, and is a wonderfully harmonious red in a relatively rich style by Rioja standards.

Among the Reservas, there were plenty of delicious reds to choose from, particularly between £20 and £30 – definitely a sweet spot in the region. It was the Luis Cañas Reserva that turned out to be the outstanding wine of the category, proving the quality of top Tempranillo from Rioja Alavesa, particularly when it’s allied to extended ageing in new French and American oak.

At higher prices in the age-based classification, there were some truly great reds, particularly the reserva from Amaren, but also, running this wine close, the delicious Gaudium from Marqués de Cáceres and Ysios from Pernod Ricard Spain.

(L-r): Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Simon Field MW, Matthieu Longère MS, Jonathan Pedley MW, Alex Canneti, José González Godoy
The judges (l-r): Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Simon Field MW, Matthieu Longère MS, Jonathan Pedley MW, Alex Canneti, José González Godoy

HIGH-QUALITY WINE

As for the Gran Reservas, although we had fewer to try, it was thrilling to see so much complex and high-quality wine in a category that’s become, sadly, rather unfashionable. After all, this Rioja classification offers, in the words of Pedley, “a unique, high-quality, mature selling point in a world dominated by tough, raw, young red wines”. Testament to its appeal among wine professionals, we gave almost every sample a Gold medal or higher. The very old examples, including one from 1995, also proved the remarkable longevity of Rioja, a wine that, when handled a certain way, can outlive the great fine wines of France.

judge

Our final category concerned the rather loose concept of Vinos de Autor, which, if one were to draw a comparison, represents the equivalent of Super Tuscans in Chianti – representations of Rioja that break the rules of the traditional classifications. Roughly translating as ‘winemakers’ signature’ wines, they tend to have more concentration and depth than the gran reservas, and often higher prices too – mainly because they are made in small quantities from specific sites. Indeed, some of these wines will become viñedos singulares in the future – taking on the new terroir-driven classification introduced by the DOCa Rioja last year. My favourite expression in this category, Pomal’s Alto de la Caseta, will now fall into this new quality designation, hailing as it does from a plot of old vine Tempranillo high above the Ebro river in Rioja Alta. A special mention must go to Finca Dos Cientos – a delicious, juicy Gold-winner costing just £9.99, as well as finely crafted wines from Valserrano, Rioja Vega and Cosme Palacio.

Summing up the category, Pedley said: “One can criticise the anarchic, egotistical, consumer-bewildering world of Vino de Autor, but the wines delivered big time.”

Such expressions add to the diversity of Rioja, providing something novel to excite wine lovers who think they know the region, as well as enticing a new generation to the area.

But even in the traditional classifications there is a welcome absence of homogeneity. Thankfully, as our tasting showed, despite the broad range of styles the wines were harmonious. This is an important if under-rated trait of wines at a time when so much emphasis is placed on flavour, rather than structure. It is this harmony that makes Rioja so popular. Quite simply, Rioja is Spain’s most successful wine region because it makes wines that are so easy to drink.

White Rioja (under £10)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Fincas de Azabache Fincas de Azabache Tempranillo Blanco 2017 Silver
Pernod Ricard Campo Viejo Viura / Tempranillo Blanco 2017 Bronze
Araex Rioja Alavesa Lar de Paula Blanco Fermentado en Barrica 2017 Bronze

White Rioja (£10-£15)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Rioja Vega Tempranillo Blanco Colección 2017 Gold

Joven (under £10)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Garnacha / Graciano 2017 Gold
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega 2017 Bronze
Pernod Ricard Campo Viejo Garnacha 2017 Bronze
Bodegas Solar Viejo Solar Viejo Tempranillo 2017 Bronze
Pernod Ricard Campo Viejo Tempranillo 2016 Bronze
Bodegas Almaraz Finca de Oro Tempranillo 2017 Bronze
Long Wines Finca Monica Tempranillo 2017 Bronze
Bodegas Patrocinio Zinio Garnacha 2016 Bronze

Joven (£10-£15)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas Marqués de Butrago The Charge Tempranillo / Garnacha 2016 Silver
Grupo Bodegas Palacio 1894 Cosme Palacio Vendima Seleccionada 2016 Bronze

Joven (£50+)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas Faustino Faustino & Eneko 2015 Gold

Crianza (under £10)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Long Wines Finca Monica Crianza 2015 Gold
Bodegas Solar Viejo Solar Viejo Crianza 2015 Silver
Grupo Bodegas Palacio 1894 Glorioso Crianza 2015 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Crianza 2016 Bronze
Fincas de Azabache Azabache Crianza Vendimia Seleccionada 2015 Bronze
Viña Olabarri Crianza 2015 Bronze

Crianza (£10-£15)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Araex Rioja Alavesa Altos de R Crianza 2015 Master
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Crianza 2015 Gold
Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres Excellens Cuvée Special 2015 Gold
Fincas de Azabache Crianza Garnacha 2015 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Crianza 2015 Bronze
Bodegas Solar Viejo Monologo Crianza 2015 Bronze
Araex Rioja Alavesa Lar de Paula Terrazas 2015 Bronze

Crianza (£15-£20)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas Corral Altos de Corral Crianza 2015 Gold
Fincas de Azabache Culto 2015 Silver
Bodegas Solar Viejo Orube Crianza 2015 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Tempranillo / Garnacha 2014 Bronze

Crianza (£20-£30)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Garnacha 2014 Gold
Araex Rioja Alavesa Montebuena Crianza 2014 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Rolland Galarreta Rioja 2015 Silver
Bodegas Campillo Campillo Crianza 2015 Bronze

Reserva (under £10)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Pernod Ricard Campo Viejo Reserva 2014 Silver

Reserva (£10-£15)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas Solar Viejo Solar Viejo Reserva 2013 Silver
Viña Olabarri Reserva 2014 Silver
Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal Reserva 2014 Silver
Bodegas Faustino Faustino V Tinto Reserva 2013 Silver
Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres Reserva 2014 Silver
Bodegas Carlos Series Vega del Rayo Rioja Reserva 2012 Bronze
Finca Valpiedra Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2011 Bronze

Reserva (£15-£20)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Araex Rioja Alavesa Baigorri Reserva 2010 Gold
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Reserva Vendimia Seleccionada 2014 Silver
Marques de Vargas Reserva 2014 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Luis Cañas Reserva 2013 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Reserve de Familia 2014 Silver
Bodegas Patrocinio Sancho Garcés Reserva 2014 Silver
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Reserva 2013 Bronze
Burgo Viejo Licenciado Reserva 2014 Bronze

Reserva (£20-£30)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Araex Rioja Alavesa Luis Cañas Reserva Selección Familia 2012 Master
Araex Rioja Alavesa Altos R Reserva 2014 Gold
Bodegas Corral Altos de Corral Single Estate Reserva 2010 Gold
Araex Rioja Alavesa Manuel Quintano Selección Particular 2013 Gold
Bodegas Campillo Campillo Reserva Selecta 2012 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Gran Albina Reserva 2014 Silver
Araex Rioja Alavesa Lar de Paula Reserva 2012 Silver
Viña Olabarri Vendimia Selecta 2005 Silver

Reserva (£30-£50)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Araex Rioja Alavesa Amaren Tempranillo Reserva 2010 Master
Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres Gaudium 2014 Gold
Pernod Ricard Ysios Reserva 2012 Gold
Bodegas Faustino Faustino Icon 2014 Silver

Gran Reserva (under £10)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Grupo Bodegas Palacio 1894 Glorioso Reserva 2014 Silver

Gran Reserva (£15-£20)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Viña Olabarri Gran Reserva 2010 Gold
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva 2011 Gold
Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva 2011 Gold
Pernod Ricard Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 2012 Gold
Grupo Bodegas Palacio 1894 Glorioso Gran Reserva 2012 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Grand Reserva 2011 Silver

Gran Reserva (£20-£30)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas Bilbainas Gran Reserva 2011 Gold
Bodegas Faustino Faustino Gran Reserva 2008 Gold
Bodegas Corral Don Jacobo Gran Reserva 2005 Gold

Gran Reserva (£30-£50)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas Campillo Campillo Gran Reserva 2009 Gold

Gran Reserva (£50+)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Grupo Bodegas Palacio 1894 Glorioso Gran Reserva 1978 Master
Bodegas Faustino Gran Faustino 1955 Master

Vinos de Autor (under £10)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
10 International Finca Dos Cientos 2016 Gold

Vinos de Autor (£10-£15)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Tempranillo Colección 2016 Silver

Vinos de Autor £15-£20

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Vine Roots Vine Roots Garnacha 2015 Silver

Vinos de Autor (£20-£30)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres Generación MC 2016 Gold
Araex Rioja Alavesa Altos R Pigeage 2015 Gold
Bodegas de La Marquesa El Ribazo 2014 Gold
Bodegas Solar Viejo Orube Alta Expression 2016 Silver

Vinos de Autor (£30-£50)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Bodegas de La Marquesa Valserrano Finca Monteviejo 2014 Master
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega 135 Aniversario 2011 Master
Bodegas Carlos Moro Rioja Prestigio CM 2015 Gold
Pernod Ricard Ysios Los Prados 2015 Silver

Vinos de Autor (£50+)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Grupo Bodegas Palacio 1894 Cosme Palacio 1894 (Limited Edition) 2014 Master
Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2015 Master
Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares Graciano 2015 Gold

Organic (£10-£15)

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Viña Olabarri Ecological Wine 2015 Bronze

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business, and is an extension of its successful Masters series for grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as regions such as Prosecco and Champagne.

The competition is exclusively for Rioja, and the entries were judged 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 expressions that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Rioja Master. This report features only the medal-winners in the competition.

Now in its seventh year, the competition recognises and rewards the finest Riojas on the world stage. The blind tasting was split into six categories:

  • Joven
  • Crianza
  • Reserva
  • Gran Reserva
  • Vinos de autor
  • Rioja 15 years and older

For further information please contact any of the team at the drinks business on +44(0)207 803 2420 or email Sophie Raichura at sophie@thedrinksbusiness.com

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