This piece was meant to be a Christmas parade of great Rioja wines, but as I started writing it I thought it would be unfair not to offer some affordable alternatives for modest budgets. In most cases I suggest other wines from the same producer which usually follow the same philosophy, but you will also find wines from other wineries sharing a similar style. Obviously, they don’t match the singularity of a unique vineyard or the painstaking care involved in their winemaking, but these mid-range alternatives are also excellent choices to celebrate Christmas.
The most talked-about release in Rioja this year —after having aged in oak barrels for 22 years, this white tastes astonishingly young. Winemaker María Vargas explains the miracle: “Viura is a very peculiar grape; when it sees wood it can produce a multiplying effect of complexity”. She compares whites with extended aging times to extreme sports and places them “at the very limit of what oenology is capable of”. Aging started in new oak barrels which were progressively replaced by used barrels. A steady reduction in the number of rackings followed (barrels were eventually refilled with the contents of other barrels) until the wine was transferred to cement vats where it remained for six years before being bottled in 2014.
Previous vintages of Castillo de Ygay white date from 1970 and 1978; there was a limited early release of the 1986 vintage with barely 100 bottles in the market. Gold colour. Preserved lemon, orange peel and spicy aromas (clove, white pepper) are followed by an opulent, almost magical palate bursting with acidity creating great definition, length and purity. Polished texture with a lovely creamy note on the finish. Amazing to find such vigour in a wine of this age. A great wine with an accordingly high price tag (€490 at Ideavinos or via Wine Searcher) which has broken the ceiling for white wines in Spain.
The most obvious alternative is Murrieta’s other white. With the return of the legendary white Ygay, Capellanía Reserva 2011 (€19.5 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) has slightly changed its style and all oxidative notes have almost disappeared. White fruit, smoke and butter aromas precede a serious palate with bright acidity. I would even suggest an older vintage for your Christmas dinner to get the extra complexity that bottle ageing provides. I find the 2009 (€20.65 Vinoselección or via Wine Searcher) pretty interesting.
Sadly, this wine is likely to be out of the reach for most wine lovers. Álvaro Palacios, who took control of the family winery in Rioja a few years ago, has again released a super premium wine, repeating the strategy which worked so well for him in Priorat and Bierzo. This may well be his most daring, though: this wine comes from Rioja Baja, traditionally seen as a minor subarea in the appellation, even if Garnacha can really shine here, especially at high altitude as is the case with Palacios’ vines in Mount Yerga. The Valmira vineyard is located at 629m above sea level. It comprises three hectares of bush vines planted in 1985 on soils where calcium carbonate compounds are found just 20cm from the surface. This is probably the most stimulating wine I tasted this year with lots of evocative, subtle aromas (pomegranate, thyme). It boasts a fresh herbal dimension with many citrus nuances on the palate; it is extremely savoury (I thought of umami) and persistent and the style is aerial and elegant. All the allocations were sold en primeur at around €275 and were delivered in November, but finally wine lovers will have to wait until February (probably with minor changes on the label design published above). Despite the delay, I couldn't resist including this wonderful wine in our Christmas selection.
A more affordable choice is Propiedad 2011 (€23.75 at Decántalo), Palacios Remondo’s former top-of-the-range wine until Valmira came into the scene. The blend has changed and is now a single-varietal Garnacha sharing the aerial style which Álvaro has become so fond of over the past years. It will be a perfect match for wine lovers planning a relatively light Christmas dinner.
Another interesting Garnacha from Rioja is Pancrudo 2014 (€32 at Vinissimus), made by Gómez Cruzado. Grapes are sourced from the village of Badarán in the Alto Najerilla Valley and the wine is light and perfumed (red berries, rosemary). In terms of value, Barón de Ley Garnacha 2012 (€10,25 at Vinósofos) stands out. It comes from their own vineyards in Ausejo (Navarra). Lovely sweet fruit (cherries) and fresh minty character.
This is the epitome of a terroir-driving red. It comes from a small plot with less than two hectares which was recovered following the area’s winegrowing tradition, which preceded the large wine estate model introduced in the late 1800s. To make this wine Telmo Rodríguez has used ancient winegrowing traditions and mixed grape varieties, as in the old days. The wine is made in one of the oldest bodegas in Ollauri which has remained virtually unchanged. Very few bottles were made in the 2013 vintage, which is virtually sold over. It can still be found in Spain for €180 at Ideavinos compared with the standard price of €150 (see other options via Wine Searcher). Subtle and perfumed, the wine is a burst of fresh, herbal notes on the palate; great finish with huge persistence.
The same producer made the fabulous Altos de Lanzaga 2012 (€68.90 at Lavinia; other options via Wine Searcher). This is an excellent vintage for Cía de Vinos, I particularly like it; it feels firm compared to Las Beatas but it has expression, balance and finesse. LZ 2015 (€7.5 at Ideavinos or via Wine Searcher) is the entry-level option: young and easy-going, it is pure fruit and cherry.
This is a real favourite of mine among Rioja’s powerful, structured styles. Grapes are never ripen in excess and the blend includes a fair amount of varieties beyond Tempranillo (around 15% Mazuelo and 10% Graciano in this vintage priced at €57.95 at Gourmet Hunters or via Wine Searcher) which provide freshness and complexity. Ripe black fruit and ink aromas are followed by mineral notes on the background. Despite the high levels of concentration, tannins are perfectly wrapped-up and acidity allows to drink beyond the first glass. It should pair well with powerful, meaty dishes.
Muga has excellent wines in the 2011 vintage. Selección Especial Reserva 2011 (€24.5 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), a blend of Tempranillo with 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo and 2% Graciano, is a seamless deep red with a well-defined palate. A safe bet for your Christmas’ table.
Fans of complex blends from Rioja should try Vivanco 4 Varietales 2012 (€30.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) with 70% Tempranillo, 15% Graciano, 10% Garnacha and 5% Mazuelo. It is really lively and energetic with lots of fresh herbal notes that go beyond Tempranillo’s fruit profile. If you want to try an unusual Tempranillo-free Rioja, go for Ganko 2014 (€23,03 at Vinósofos or via Wine Searcher), made by French winemaker Olivier Rivière from grapes grown in Cárdenas in the Alto Najerilla Valley. One of the most unusual blends I’ve tasted in Rioja this year, this wine started life as a single-varietal Garnacha with a little amount of Mazuelo but Rivière has fine-tuned the blend to have equal amounts of Garnacha and Mazuelo. It has gained a great deal of freshness, juiciness and length.
2016 has been a wonderful year for this producer who settled in Haro’s Railway Station district in the late 19th century. Their two Gran Reserva wines have attracted great international attention, to the point that the winery run out of stock intended for 2016 and announced a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t market additional bottles for Christmas. It is becoming increasingly difficult but some bottles of both wines can still be found in the market. Taking into account that those wines with a greater ability to age are destined to the Gran Reserva 890 2004 (€93.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), I think it’s a pity to uncork this wine, specially when the Gran Reserva 904 2005 (€31.95 at Decántalo or via Wine Searcher) is so approachable and enjoyable. After being aged in barrels for four years, the wine is capable of surprising you with new aromas (black pepper, clove, vanilla, kirsch, orange zest…) and it has the juiciness and supple tannins we all expect from a Gran Reserva.
Another choice within Rioja’s traditionally aged reds is Viña Tondonia Reserva 2004 (€20.90 at Enterwine or via Wine Searcher). Even if it is labeled as Reserva, this wine has spent six years in oak barrels. As many wine lovers know, the López de Heredia family is a fierce advocate of classic Rioja and is one of the few wineries that offers reds with restrained alcohol levels, moderate structure, high acidity and complexity in line with aging times.
One more tip for wine lovers willing to drink Rioja with their Christmas dinner: Keep in mind the excellent 2010 vintage; more recent vintages do not offer such outstanding quality on this vast region. There are still many 2010 wines available and we’ll see more Reserva being released in the coming months and eventually Gran Reserva. An example I have particularly enjoyed is Contino Reserva 2010 (€ 21.50 in Enterwine or via Wine Searcher). With a production of 195,956 bottles, it is widely available and offers great value. It has more structure than classic or aerial, modern reds but this wine is a great example of elegance and perfectly polished tannins.