I’ve always associated the red wines of Rioja with Easter. They go so well with the meal that many of us – all over Europe – eat on Easter Sunday. Something about the character of good old-fashioned rioja – its harmony of coconut and vanilla oakiness, deep savouriness, melt-in-the-mouth tannins and layered mellowness – seems ideal for the softness of slow-roasted lamb (it’s also pretty good with another Easter favourite, roast pork).
When I say “old-fashioned rioja”, I’m referring to a specific type of red wine from the northern Spanish region (and white, although that’s another story). These are wines that have been made in a quintessentially traditional way, with official stylistic categories named according to the minimum period of ageing permitted before they’re allowed out into the world: from crianza (at least 24 months ageing with a minimum of a year in barrel) to reserva (three years ageing, one year in barrel) up to the granddaddy of them all, gran reserva (five years ageing, two years in barrel).
What makes the best of these wines – particularly the reservas and gran reservas – so different is that they provide an instant introduction to the pleasure of older wine to those of us who don’t have either a cellar or the patience to age wines ourselves. Have a look at the vintages in your local supermarket and you’ll see how unusual it is to find anything much more than two or three years old. And yet the latest vintage of most own-label gran reserva is 2013.
The gran reservas made by Barón de Ley for the likes of Tesco Finest and Morrisons The Best are reliably superb value, too: even in slightly iffy vintages they tend to be models of that soft-and-savoury old rioja thing for a price just north of £10. Higher up the scale, the stately grand wines of such masters of the old ways as López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta and Marqués de Murrietta are, when set alongside their peers in France and Italy, among the best value fine wines in the world.
Long-aged wines are just one part of Rioja’s increasingly diverse red wine output. After years in which the local wine industry’s governing body, and the region’s bigger players, sought to preserve the status quo, a shake-up in the local regulations at the end of the 2010s enabled producers to start marketing wines with a specific vineyard, village or region printed on the front label. This was official recognition for an approach in which the particular patch of land where the grapes are grown, rather than the length of ageing, is what counts.
In an area where producers have historically tended to buy in and blend grapes from across the region, and where the winemaker, rather than the grower, has been king, that’s an important change of emphasis. But it has its lineage in a parallel, more experimental world of rioja that dates back to the so-called modernists of the 1980s and 1990s, who made dramatically riper, richer, darker-fruited wines, using shorter ageing in French rather than the traditional American oak.
As with the modernists, the rise of the new viñedo singular, vino de zona and vino de municipio wines has been seen as a threat to the old ways by some of the more conservative rioja producers. The best certainly deserve a place at your Easter table, preferably alongside (just to compare, you understand) a bottle of fine old gran reserva.
Six of the best riojas
Hacienda López de Haro Tempranillo
Rioja 2018 (from £7.99, bcfw.co.uk; woodwinters.com; frazierswine.co.uk)
Hacienda López de Haro is one of Rioja’s best modern mainstream brands, and this is a good example of the region’s ability to make affordable, succulent red wines based on the dominant local red grape, tempranillo, with vibrant blackberry and a tickle of spice.
Bodegas Ondarre Graciano
Rioja 2017 (£10.95, strictlywine.co.uk)
As well as a move to single-vineyard and other terroir-based wines, Rioja producers have also been giving some of their lesser-known varieties a chance to shine in single-variety wines, such as this bold but softly contoured expression of the dark-fruited graciano.
Lindes de Remelluri Viñedos
San Vincente 2016 (£22.50, thesourcingtable.com)
An estate with 700 years of history has become one of the most exciting in Rioja under the stewardship of winemaking brother and sister Telmo and Amaia Rodríguez, and this “village” wine from vines surrounding the home estate is a polished, deep, vividly dark-berried but fresh gem.
Rioja 2018 (from £23.99, thewinereserve.co.uk; vagabondwines.co.uk; hedonism.co.uk)
Contino, a spin-off from one of Rioja’s great traditional bodegas, CVNE, was a pioneer in making wines from its own estate vineyards when it was founded in the 1970s. Today it makes gorgeously expressive, polished wines, with this garancha a silky, elegant highlight.
Bodegas Artuke Finca de los Locos
Rioja 2018 (from £24.95, leaandsandeman.co.uk; justerinis.com)
A single-vineyard wine from Baños de Ebro in the northerly Rioja Alavesa district, this is a superbly expressive blend of mostly tempranillo with graciano and a touch of the white viura. Sixteen months in French oak provides shade to the mineral-edged bright black fruit.
López de Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva
Rioja, Spain 2008 (£31.50, bbr.com)
López de Heredia’s meticulous approach to the timeless art of long-aged riojas leads to some of the region’s most gloriously evocative, soothingly mellow and complex reds. The Bosconia label is the place to begin an exploration of one of the world’s great classical producers.