We recommend 10 great buys from Rioja that caught our attention during our last trip to the region earlier this month as well as a couple of liquid finds tasted at the recent Rioja’n’Roll wine and live music fest in Madrid, a fun event organized by this group of young producers.
Some of the wines may not be an obvious choice when we think of Rioja, either because they may be relatively new or unknown or because they struggle to shine. Others may seem too classic or even old fashioned, or they lie behind commercial, widely available brands that are seldom given a chance. They all have one thing in common: these 10 wines are great buys within their styles and/or categories with prices ranging from €7 to €24.
Luis Alberto Lecea describes his wine as “a pure carbonic maceration red”. A former president of Rioja’s Regulatory Board, he has decided to craft his wines in the old caves of San Asensio’s bodega district in Rioja Alta. In a return to traditional winemaking, Lecea has turned the winery’s treading grapes into a successful tourist activity. To make Corazón de Lago (literally “heart of the lake or press”), both the must that has drained on the press before treading grapes and the press wine are discarded. The liquid that goes into the bottle is just the juice of the whole feet-trodden berries that have undergone intracellular fermentation. The core of the wine (hence the name corazón, which means heart) is more concentrated and has more alcohol (14.5% vol.) than a wine without such selection. Fruit (strawberries) and texture define Corazón de Lago; it is a lively wine and with more structure than other carbonic maceration reds, usually intended to be drunk during the year following the harvest.
A single vineyard wine for €9? Yes, this is possible in Rioja. Cantos de Valpiedra is Finca Valpiedra’s second wine, a breathtaking estate owned by the Martínez-Bujanda family where vines stretch across three well-defined terraces set against a meander of the river Ebro. Grapes for Cantos are sourced from stony soils which, according to winemaker Lauren Rosillo, produce fine, light reds against the clay-dominant soils destined to Finca Valpiedra, the estate’s more structured, top-of-the-range red.
Cantos de Valpiedra is sold as a Crianza in Spain but it can be found with the generic back label in other countries. It is a 100% Tempranillo except on vintages like 2013 when Finca Valpiedra was not produced and all the red grapes in the estate (including Graciano and Maturana) were destined to Cantos. The rain during the 2014 harvest meant it was a challenging vintage in Rioja, but as grapes ripened early in Valpiedra, most of the grapes had been picked in advance of the rains. A delicious, fruit-driven red with lots of spicy fruit, fresh minty aromas and bright acidity. It is widely available with 150,000 bottles produced.
Sandra Bravo is part the Rioja’n’Roll group of producers and one of its youngest members. About to launch some premium wines, there’s no doubt that she has made a name for herself with two modest red and white wines retailing below €10 in Spain. Grapes for her 100% Viura white are sourced from cold, high-altitude vineyards in Labastida and Rivas de Tereso, two villages on the foothills of the Toloño mountains. Grapes are picked early and while some work is done with lees, her goal is to obtain a clean, straightforward expression with plenty of citrus notes and bright acidity. This wine, that defines the purity of Rioja’s predominant white grape variety, has an eye-catching label which is both modern and refined.
According to the winery’s website, Ramírez de la Piscina is “an ancient aristocratic family name linked to medieval tradition which comes from the Romanesque church of Santa María de la Piscina.” The church was named after the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (“piscina” means pool in Spanish). Ramírez de la Piscina’s range follows the traditional aging categories but there is a second Crianza called Selección made from 25+-year-old vines found in the Sonsierra area (the winery is located in San Vicente). What stands out in this 100% Tempranillo is the extra care taken to make the wine, including malolactic fermentation in barrels followed by 15 months in French and American oak barrels. This outstanding 2014 Crianza is fresh and balanced with well integrated oak and plenty of high-quality, expressive fruit on a broad palate. I just love the fact that the fruit is always one step ahead.
A six-bottle case can be purchased at the winery’s website for €62.95.
As a young guy, terroir-obsessed producer Telmo Rodríguez always lamented that Remelluri, the beautiful family property on the foothills of Sierra Cantabria, sourced around 40% of its grapes from purveyors. Thus, Rodríguez made the white Remelluri with grapes exclusively sourced from the estate.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that when he took control of the winery in the late 2000s, his main concern was to faithfully encapsulate the energy of the Remelluri estate in the wines.
Under the brand Lindes (boundaries, in Spanish) he brought together all the grapes sourced from Remelluri’s traditional purveyors. The wine, launched in 2009, was later split into two reds, Lindes de Labastida and Lindes de San Vicente, to reflect the different styles of each of these two neighbouring villages: fresh reds marked by high altitude in Labastida and full-bodied reds with structure in San Vicente where grapes are usually picked one week earlier. These profiles are particularly evident in the cold 2013 vintage. Lindes de Labastida feels herbal (rosemary) and light with marked tannins whereas Lindes de San Vicente displays ripe fruit without losing freshness or tension and tannins are better wrapped-up. These are two great options to take to a tasting of Rioja village wines with friends. Between 50,000 and 60,000 bottles are produced of each wine.
Find Lindes de Remelluri Viñedos de San Vicente de la Srra. 2013 from €11.60 at Decántalo or via Wine Searcher. Find Lindes de Remelluri Viñedos de Labastida 2013 from €11.65 at Enterwine or via Wine Searcher.
Part of the Rioja’n’Roll group, Alegre & Valgañón is the partnership between Óscar Alegre, who worked as export manager for Álvaro Palacios, and winemaker Eva Valgañón. What sets them apart is the location of their vineyards in the northwestern end of the appellation, on the foothills of the Obaranes mountains. The area has traditionally been a source of grapes for extended aging Rioja wines —in fact, Fonzaleche, where their winery stands, is the last village of La Rioja before entering Spain’s northern plateau.
The style of their wines shows some classic connections –Óscar, who runs a business trading with old vintages, has a vast knowledge of historic Riojas. The Alegre & Valgañón red is a blend of Tempranillo with around 20% Garnacha sourced from the Najerilla Valley or Tudelilla in Rioja Baja, as it used to be standard in the region in the old days.
Lovely strawberry and candied aromas with sweet but lively fruit on the palate and a deliciously long finish make it a really pleasant wine. The labels feature fun slogans like “Pour it with love” or “Fresh, sunny wine” in the case of their interesting albeit limited-production white.
Around €12 in Spain. Currently available in Barcelona, Murcia, Asturias and Gipuzkoa.
The wine growing tradition of the Amurrio Barroeta family is in safe hands thanks to this project that sources grapes from around 40Ha of vineyards in Labastida (Rioja Alavesa). El Nómada is their premium bottling, a really affordable wine which sees malolactic fermentation in barrels plus around 15 months of aging. According to the producer, after the difficult 2013 vintage, things went back to normal in 2014 —although it rained during the harvest, the final result was positive. I loved the wild, herbal aromas underlying the fine, ripe fruit notes (blackberries, plums) and its consistent, fruit-driven palate with extra depth and persistence. Tannins are still firm meaning that this is a red wine with some life ahead. 15,000 bottles produced. A really smart buy.
This classic Viura sold in a Rhine bottle has just 12% alcohol. It is made like in the old times: grapes are destemmed and macerated for about three days followed by a tête de cuvée with skins for up to an extra three days. The wine is aged in second-use barrels for 24 months. The result is a delicate wine reminiscent of some Riesling wines with petrol notes on the nose similar as well as preserve citrus fruit flavours and floral nuances. A light-bodied white, the oak flavours are very subtle for a Reserva; in fact, the wine is rather mineral with petrol notes appearing again on the finish. An unusual and surprising white which shows that exploring Rioja’s old styles is a great way to broaden the spectrum of flavours. Very few bottles were made (around 1,200) but the winery is working to bring back this historic brand sourcing very old Viura grapes grown at high altitude in villages across Rioja like Tudelilla, Labastida or Rivas de Tereso.
We recommend a Crianza and a Reserva from the 2006 vintage, but the most interesting part is the effect of the magnum bottle in terms of complexity and value. At €16 for the Crianza and €24 for the Reserva, these wines are a steal for classic Rioja lovers. Despite being established in the 1990s, this producer prefers extended aging times, American oak barrels and rackings every six months. Managed by Pedro Peciña, a former vineyard manager at La Rioja Alta, all grapes are sourced from the Sonsierra area on the left bank of Ebro river. Both wines are Tempranillo with just 5% of Graciano and Garnacha. The Crianza (leather, spices, kirsch and plumcake aromas followed by a juicy, fine, spicy palate) is aged for 24 months, whereas the firm Reserva spends 36 months in barrels and displays a complex nose (nutty, leathery, spicy aromas) with bright acidity, fine tannins and a long finish.
This well-known, widely available brand started a small revolution in Rioja in the early 1970s with the introduction of French oak and a more fruit-driven style for the wines. Cristina Forner is a great advocate of the Reserva and Gran Reserva categories and tries to maintain high standards in both (they didn’t produce any of these wines in the 2013 vintage, for instance) despite the fact that the financial crisis in Spain, she says, has devalued both categories. Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva 2010 is probably the best buy in the winery’s current portfolio.
Sourced from old vines grown in the Cenicero area plus some vineyards in Lanciego and Elciego in Rioja Alavesa, most of the grapes that don’t make their way into the top brands Gaudium and MC are destined here. Considering the very high quality of the 2010 vintage —with still many Reserva wines on the shelves and a few Gran Reserva due to be released in the next few years— this is a wine to look out for. I love its complex nose (hazelnut, dark chocolate, black fruit, spices) and the successful combination of power and finesse. A really consistent and balanced red to be laid down.