It was in the 1990s when the winds of change reached Rioja. Back then, producers at the forefront of modernity like Artadi, the Eguren family or Miguel Ángel de Gregorio, decided to forego the traditional aging categories —Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva— and sell their wines under the generic back label used for young wines. Most of these wines exhibiting the green back label were whites, single-varietals other than Tempranillo and Viura, and terroir-driven wines from specific areas, be it valleys, mountains, villages or vineyards.
The fact that the Regulatory Board seems to have stalled its much-awaited recognition of village and single-vineyard wines should not prevent wine lovers from enjoying terroir-driven Rioja. This guide aims to help you decide next time your buy a wine from Rioja: we list key producers and wines for each category, but you can also check our Wineries' section where we have reviewed over 50 Rioja producers.
Where should you look to drink pleasant, affordable Rioja wines?
Cosechero wines. This is the name traditionally used for carbonic maceration styles, which are fairly traditional in the Alavesa part —whole bunch fermentation reds made by local winegrowers in their small bodegas and sold on the vicinity are Rioja’s own version of Beaujolais. Renowned producers like Artadi, Luis Cañas or Sierra Cantabria started as cosecheros. Remírez de Ganuza tried to upgrade their image painstakingly selecting the tip of the clusters —which have less structure than the shoulders of the bunch— for his Erre Punto. Some other carbonic maceration favourites are those made by Abel Mendoza, Artuke, Ostatu or Luberri. Rioja is much more than oak.
Crianza. The first step in Rioja’s aging categories often corresponds with an entry-level wine. It is the style a wine professional usually relies on to judge a producer’s ability to get the best out of his/her grapes while still offering good value. Crianzas are versatile, medium-bodied wines where fruit is present; depending on the style of each producer, the amount of oak will vary. Aside from underpriced, volume-focused brands, a reliable Crianza in Spain can cost from €6 (Glorioso, Beronia) to €7.5 (Viña Real) or €9-9.5 (Luis Cañas, Valserrano, Finca La Emperatriz, Izadi). Obviously, there are always exceptions: at around €15, Muga and Cosme Palacio can clearly compete with higher-profile wines: La Rioja Alta’s Viña Alberdi and Tondonia’s Viña Cubillo (both around €12 in Spain) could actually be sold as Reservas because they go through extended aging times.
Innovative styles. Usually made by dynamic producers managing small personal projects, this category offers less availability. Their originality lies either on the grapes used in the blend or the style of winemaking. Two examples include Ramón Bilbao Viñedos de Altura and Gómez Cruzado Vendimia Seleccionada, which blend Tempranillo and Garnacha in equal parts —both are fresh, aromatic reds that cost around €12. Meanwhile, Rioja’n’Roll producers Olivier Rivière (Rayos Uva, €9) and Tom Puyaubert (Bozeto de Exopto, €7) both blend in relatively high amounts of Graciano and Garnacha with Tempranillo.
Just released, La Bicicleta Voladora (€7) is Germán Blanco’s new wine in Rioja, aside from his other projects in Ribera del Duero and León. Tempranillo grapes are sourced from the Navarra part of the DO and the wine is matured in cement, amphorae and Flextank containers. Another example in this category is Sandra Bravo, the young woman behind Sierra de Toloño, who uses amphorae in some of her wines, although I think we are more likely to see a return to concrete –after all, cement tanks have always been in Rioja. The Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez has been using concrete for some time to age its Corriente (literally “Average”) as well as foudres and barrels, in the style of 18th century reds, for what this producer views as its humble, everyday wine.
Entry-level wines from top producers. Although some may overlap with the previous categories, most of them are genéricos (see chart below) that have spent some time in barrels, buy rarely reach the mandatory 12 months of a Crianza. Some wines on this list are Sierra Cantabria Selección (€6.5) by the Eguren family, LZ (€8) by Cía. de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, Artadi Tempranillo (€9), Pujanza’s Hado (€11), Cantos de Valpiedra (€9) or the slightly higher priced Sela (€14) by Roda. A different strategy was pursued by Miguel Ángel de Gregorio at Finca Allende. He set up an independent winery focused on value for money and its range starts with the fruit-driven Finca Nueva Vendimia (€6) with just three months of oak-aging.
Although a majority of wines in Rioja are made in the style brought by French négociants in the 19th century –that is, blending wines from different areas in the appellation, which is usually compared to Champagne–, similarities are also found with Burgundy. Think of the relatively small size of most parcels and the significant number of producers making wine from their own vineyards, particularly in Rioja Alavesa, where the cosechero tradition was deeply rooted.
The best indicator to establish the winemaking tradition of a village in Rioja is to check if there is a bodega district. In fact, wine styles were associated to the name of the villages they came from with Briones, Ábalos, San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Haro, Labastida or Laguardia showing strong personalities. In a way –and despite the fact that quality was diluted–, cooperatives have preserved a certain village wine character. That’s why Rioja’s largest producers usually have agreements with them to source a particular wine style for their blends.
In terms of historic producers, most of them (perhaps with the exception of Murrieta and its Ygay estate) followed the négociant model. Terroir-driven wines made a timid comeback in the 1970s with Remelluri and Contino but it was not until the early 1990s that a significant number of producers decided to start making their wines in the vineyard rather than the cellar. Eventually, they found inspiration in Burgundy and started their ranges with a regional or a village wine while setting aside their best and most distinctive plots to craft single-vineyard wines. Artadi Viña El Pisón, Calvario, La Nieta or Finca El Bosque were some of the pioneers. It is also worth noting the recent changes in some traditional producers. The largest vineyard owner in Haro, Bodegas Bilbaínas, now sources most of its wines from specific plots and vineyards.
This Burgundian influence has spread beyond the well-known areas in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa making it is possible to find wines from areas which were seldom made separately. Obviously, there are plenty of possibilities ahead in an appellation which stretches 100 kilometres along the river Ebro. Here are some recommendations of terroir-driven Rioja wines.
OFF-THE-RADAR AREAS TO DISCOVER
Western Rioja: Hacienda El Ternero, Alegre y Valgañón, Castillo de Sajazarra, Castillo de Cuzcurrita, Finca La Emperatriz.
Alto Najerilla: Juan Carlos Sancha, Olivier Rivière (Ganko), Gómez Cruzado (Pancrudo).
Iregua valley and Moncalvillo mountains: Gregorio Martínez, Finca de los Arandinos, Ojuel.
Yerga mountains: Palacios Remondo, Arizcuren.
ESTATE WINES: Remelluri, Contino, Finca Valpiedra, Finca La Emperatriz, Marqués de Vargas, Marqués de Murrieta, Torre de Oña, Lan’s premium wines sourced from Viña Lanciano estate.
Alfaro: Palacios Remondo
Baños de Ebro: Artuke
Briones: Finca Allende
Elvillar: Bodegas Bhilar
Laguardia: Artadi, Pujanza, Viñedos de Páganos
Lanciego: Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez-Lanzaga, Tentenublo
San Vicente de la Sonsierra: Abel Mendoza, Contador, Viñedos de Sierra Cantabria, San Vicente, Pedro Balda
AGING CATEGORIES VS. GENÉRICOS
Many Rioja producers who have felt constrained in terms of the time a wine should be aged in barrels in order to fit the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva categories have preferred to opt for the back labels used for young wines. These wines are known as “Genéricos”. Prices may be higher than Reservas or Gran Reservas and their bottles don’t always provide information for the consumer to understand the style and philosophy behind the wine. In most cases, you need to have some knowledge about the producers and the brands.
If Crianzas tend to be an entry-point to Rioja, the Reserva category is more of a mixed bag and includes both cheap supermarket plonk and premium wines. Not surprisingly, an importer of Spanish wine based in the UK told SWL recently that one of the main challenges for Rioja is all the cheap Reserva and Gran Reserva wines made with grapes which are unsuitable for extended aging; they seriously damage both categories.
There was a time when Genéricos willing to reflect terroir were synonymous with modernity, but nowadays, except for producers with strong traditional convictions, the lines seem a bit more blurred. Even if blending grapes from different areas is the usual practice for Reservas –the idea defended by producers like Roda is to select the best grapes wherever they are– there are also examples of single-vineyard Reserva wines (Contino, Remelluri, Finca Valpiedra, Viña Lanciano ...).
It is interesting to take note of which category producers choose for their top wine: Reserva (Valenciso, Finca Valpiedra), Gran Reserva (Tondonia, La Rioja Alta), a single-vineyard Grand Cru-style wine (Artadi, Finca Allende, the Eguren family, Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, Artuke, Tentenublo, Pujanza…) or a mix of both as it is the case with Muga or Cvne.
At a time when the search for difference is a highly coveted mantra in the world of wine, Rioja’s most traditional category has been significantly strengthened. This would have not been possible without the tenacity of a group of producers to preserve the style of the wines, notably López de Heredia and some of its neighbours in Haro’s Barrio de la Estación like La Rioja Alta, Cvne or Muga with Prado Enea; Murrieta is also in this group thanks to the resurgence of Castillo Ygay, which has made a great comeback as the winery’s indisputable top wine. Marqués de Murrieta Gran Reserva has also been revived, in line with the Gran Reserva of another legendary producer like Marqués de Riscal.
Some of these premium Gran Reserva wines –and notably Tondonia– are aged well beyond the category’s requirements (60 months, 24 of which must be in oak barrels and 24 in bottle —this last requisite was approved in January 2017). The result is a combination of supple, ready-to-drink, aged reds that are unique to Rioja. The fact that “modern producers” like Contador, El Puntido or Remírez de Ganuza have added Gran Reserva reds to their range proves the success of the category.
Beyond single-varietal Tempranillo (red) or Viura (white), there is an exciting new trend to explore other grape varieties grown in the appellation. Contino led the way with its Graciano, followed by Murrieta, which released a 100% Mazuelo to mark its 150th anniversary.
Today Garnacha is probably the hottest trend with many interesting examples found in different areas across the DO. More interesting still is the fact that producers are learning a great deal about the real potential of these less widely planted grapes (Maturana for instance is now part of the blend of Barón de Ley Reserva and it has replaced Cabernet Sauvignon in Finca Valpiedra) while some areas in Rioja are gaining recognition thanks to their association with a particular variety. This is the case of Garnacha, which is thriving in the Alto Najerilla valley in the southwestern end of the DO, as well as in high altitude areas like Tudelilla and the Yerga mountain in Rioja Baja. Respected producer Álvaro Palacios has released a single-vineyard, premium Garnacha called Quiñón de Valmira, which is fetching €275 en primeur.
After working as a winemaker at Ijalba, a winery pioneering minor varieties in Rioja, Juan Carlos Sancha set up on his own and made the only single-vineyard Monastel in Rioja. While Dinastía Vivanco, Bodegas Bilbaínas and Barón de Ley (featuring more affordable prices than those usually paid for these wines) have created single-varietal ranges, the majority of producers have added at least one single-varietal wine to their portfolios. The trend also works for whites with an increasing interest for Tempranillo Blanco, even if there is not a clear definition of style. Abel Mendoza’s range, which includes white varietals of Viura, Torrontés, Garnacha Blanca, Malvasía and Tempranillo Blanco, is really unique.
Despite the recent and sad approval by the DO of single-varietal Chardonnay, Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc wines and the increasing presence of these grapes in mass-market whites that must compete against Rueda Verdejo (Sauvignon Blanc is heavily present in El Coto Mayor White 2015), there have never been so many exciting white wines in Rioja.
Fortunately, many producers have abandoned those dull barrel-fermented whites. In the end, only the best have survived, like Conde de Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria, which pioneered the category and offers great value developing nicely with time). For its part, Ramón Bilbao stopped producing white wine in Rioja and moved to Rueda, and Remírez de Ganuza upgraded its white Erre Punto to a more serious Reserva which now bears the producer’s name.
Apart from the single-varietal whites mentioned above, most of the excitement comes from Viura, specially old vines grown at high altitude on the right soils and with the right exposure (Viura was traditionally planted on the higher parts of the vineyards, locally called cabezadas). The use of other grapes in the blend, mainly Malvasía, Garnacha Blanca and to a lesser extent Torrontés, can bring style variations, but the key factor that has turned these whites into one of Rioja’s most exciting categories is probably the producer’s vision.
Gran Reserva whites, until very recently were championed exclusively by López de Heredia, have new followers. The leading one is Castillo Ygay, whose 1986 vintage, released last year, feels incredibly young.
Some of our favorite whites are, in no particular order, Remelluri, Valenciso, Valserrano, Pujanza (Añadas Frías), Finca Allende (Finca Allende and the much more expensive single-vineyard Mártires), Palacios Remondo (Plácet), Contador (Predicador and Qué Bonito Cacareaba), Luis Alegre (Finca La Reñana), Olivier Rivière (Jequitibá), Bodegas Bhilar (Thousand Mils, Terca), Basilio Izquierdo (B de Basilio), Exopto (Horizonte de Exopto) and Vinícola Real (200 Monges).
Also interesting is the Sherry connection found in Cvne’s Monopole Clásico —which recovers the old tradition of blending in some Manzanilla from Hidalgo— and in Olivier Rivière’s Mirando al Sur, which is aged in Sherry casks. A great deal of creativity is found in Rioja whites.