Proving that wines don’t need to break the bank to deliver serious drinking pleasure, our 2017 Rioja Masters competition was the most successful of the entire Masters series in proportion to the number of wines entered, with 25 Gold and nine Master medals awarded.
Sometimes criticised as a safe bet, Rioja’s reliability makes it a popular choice with consumers, who know that when they buy a bottle it will reward them with luscious red fruit and velvet-soft tannins.
While the region is going through an interesting transitional phase, as it shifts from a classification system based around barrel ageing to one that also takes terroir into account via its new Viñedos Singulares (single vineyard) classification, the tasting proved that Rioja is a great allrounder, with only its more renegade ‘vinos de autor’ wines failing to charm our judges.
There were treasures to be found among the whites and rosés that entered, with a third of the whites winning a Gold medal, including an intriguing Tempranillo Blanco from Rioja Vega, while Bodegas Muriel’s Viña Eguia Rosado 2016 scooped a Silver.
With Rioja boasting such a broad range of flavours and styles, from leathery, autumnal gran reservas to opulent and powerful ‘vinos de autor’, our judges weren’t looking for one specific thing from the wines, but were broadly hoping for freshness, drinkability and Rioja’s signature softness without the overt presence of oak.
Expectations were not only met, they were surpassed, with Jonathan Pedley MW, who is not usually one for waxing lyrical, believing the tasting offered “the strongest and most consistent line-up of wines” in any Masters tasting since the competition’s inception.
“I don’t think we had to reject a single wine, so hats off to Rioja,” he said. “I usually have a whinge about reductive wines but there was no reduction this time. At the opposite end of the scale, there was no deleterious oxidation either and generally the handling of oak was well judged.”
Fellow judge Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW agreed with Pedley on the topic of oak. “The use of oak was better than it has been in the past in Rioja, with less overt vanilla and some lovely oak integration,” she said.
For Master of Wine Alistair Cooper, the tasting “provided an interesting snapshot of Rioja, reflecting a region in a state of flux with new styles and a new approach”. While he applauded the desire on the part of certain winemakers in the region to “experiment, push the boundaries and challenge the status quo”, he also enjoyed the more traditional styles of Rioja, which “showed really well” in the line-up. “I had high hopes coming into the tasting and I wasn’t disappointed because the standard of wines was excellent,” he said.
Alex Canneti of Berkmann Wine Cellars was equally impressed by the wines, which were “of a higher standard” than he was expecting. “Wines from Rioja are more consumer-friendly than ever, with a much better balance of fruit and more subtle use of oak,” he said.
In the crianza category, over a third of the wines that entered scooped a Gold medal, including the 2014 vintage of R&G Rolland Galarreta, a wine made in collaboration with Javier Galarreta of Araex and renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland.
Moving up to the reserva category, of the 26 wines that entered, seven won a Gold medal and three were awarded the highest accolade of Master. Among those taking home Gold were Codorníu’s Viña Pomal Reserva 2013, and Marqués de Cáceres Don Sebastian Reserva 2014. Cherutti-Kowal believes that reserva is the “sweet spot” for Rioja, and a category capable of producing “fantastic” wines.
Waxing lyrical again, Pedley was taken with Bodegas Amaren Tempranillo Reserva 2009, which his table awarded a Master. “Tempranillo isn’t particularly showy when it comes to aromatics, but this wine had some beautiful floral notes overlaying the usual berry fruit. The oak was entirely integrated into the wine, while the palate was rich and concentrated but nicely balanced,” he said.
The greatest surprise was the quality and consistency to be found in the gran reserva category, which has disappointed in previous tastings for its variability and lack of value for money compared with the reliable reservas. This time around, however, the region’s longest aged Riojas proved that they more than merit their place at the top with enchanting, ethereal wines. Of the gran reserva wines that entered, half were awarded a Gold medal, and two – Rioja Vega Gran Reserva 2009 and Faustino Gran Reserva 1994 – scooped a Master, the latter in the ‘Rioja over 15 years’ category.
“In previous Rioja Masters tastings, the gran reserva flight has been a bit of an anticlimax after all the flashy, modern-style jovens and reservas,” said Pedley, who believes the wines offer excellent value for money compared with the pricier ‘vinos de autor’. He added: “I’ve had the impression that for many of the trendy Young Turks in Rioja, the gran reserva category is despised as it represents the bad old days of dried-out, excessively aged wines.
However, the gran reservas in this tasting showed why the category should be treasured: there were some beautiful, mellow, harmonious wines with deep and complex bouquets. Gran reserva Rioja is one of the last categories of red wine where the consumer can buy a bottle in a shop or restaurant knowing that the wine will be ready to drink at that moment.”
Cooper was also ebullient about the category. “The most pleasant surprise of the day was the excellent performance of the gran reserva wines. This can often be a disappointing category full of old wine with little character, fruit or vibrancy.
“Yet we saw excellent fruit as well as concentration in the examples tasted,” he said. For Canneti, the gran reservas were “better made” than ever, “with interesting autumn leaves and mushroom flavours and a more fruit-focused style”.
When it came to the ‘vinos de autor’, our judges were less impressed and awarded more Silvers than Gold and Master medals. Pedley described the offering as “a real mish-mash”, with prices spanning from under £10 to over £50.
“When the Rioja renaissance kicked off the Young Turks wanted to break free from the consejo rules and make iconoclastic statement wines. However, as with many avant-garde movements like Impressionism, Cubism and Abstractionism, once everyone gets involved you end up with a lot of mediocrity and a loss of purpose. Lord only knows what the consumer is meant to expect when they buy one of these wines,” Pedley lamented.
In a hugely positive tasting, the only other more general gripes were Pedley’s observation that a few of the wines were over-extracted and “a bit on the warm side” alcohol wise, while Cooper’s only criticism was that some of the wines were too dependent on oak. All of our judges agreed that Rioja remains one of the best value for money categories in the wine world.
“Rioja wines have a terrific quality to- price ratio,” said Cherutti-Kowal. Cooper agreed: “For consumers, Rioja still offers excellent value for money and generally excellent consistency,” he said. Pedley believes the northern Spanish region’s enduring popularity lies in the wines being not too high in acid, oak, tannin, or alcohol.
Like the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for consumers seeking reliability, affordability, balance and sheer deliciousness, Rioja hits the spot with wines that are ‘just right’, as Alex Canneti sums up: “Rioja continues to improve and is an obvious success story. It will be exciting to see what the more terroir-driven wines bring to the table.”