The best Riojas from the Wine Masters on sale in 2020

With the judging now finished for this year’s Rioja Masters we can bring you the results in full, listing all the medallists, and drawing attention to the best Riojas on sale in 2020, whatever the style and category.

There’s a place in the wine world that’s proving particularly resilient in its popularity. Unlike the rise and fall of many a mainstream vinous source, from Chianti to claret, California rosé to German Riesling, the demand for Rioja, particularly in its reserva form, just won’t die down, despite its near ubiquitous state. Rather, it’s still a growing category, spearheaded by many strong brands, from Campo Viejo and Marqués de Cáceres to Faustino and Riscal. After years of chairing our annual Rioja Masters, and confirmed in particular this year, I think I know the reason for such enduring appeal. It’s primarily a question of style and value.

You see, Rioja has this appealing character of being juicy, oaky, and fresh. It has ripe cherry fruit from the Tempranillo and Garnacha that dominate its blends, vanilla and chocolate from the oak barrels used in its maturation, and a bright acidity from the cool nights in this relatively high-altitude continental region – vineyards are generally between 300m and 500m above sea level, but they can reach up to 800m or more. Then there’s the price charged for a taste of this likeable mix. Rioja is relatively affordable. You don’t have to stray much over £20 for brilliance. There’s also plenty of good quality, juicy quaffing reds below £10 too. And between these two price points, Rioja consistently delivers something that has a draw.

Such widespread adoration for the region’s produce does create one problem for Rioja, albeit a minor one, and that concerns its image among fine wine collectors – the people who happily regularly spend sums in excess of £100 on Bordeaux or Burgundy don’t seem to snap up Rioja. In my view, they are missing out. The greatest expressions from this region are delicious, ageworthy, and unique. Plus, unlike most great wines, Rioja’s finest bottles are often released when they are ready to drink.

Among the classifications, which are increasingly numerous, it is the reserva age statement, with its minimum of 12 months in oak, that offers the biggest bang per buck. It seems this period of time delivers the right amount of barrel-sourced vanillin and tannin to suit the fleshy red berry fruit of Rioja. It’s a bit like adding a desirable amount of cream to your strawberries – of course tastes differ, but you want something that improves the base ingredient, not smothers it. Having said that, there are plenty of lightly-oaked crianzas that are delicious, as well as joven wines from Rioja that give one a chance to indulge in the fresh berry flavours of this region, undiluted, and in a wonderful youthful state.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, gran reserva Riojas should be celebrated for offering the drinker something rare and historic in the wine world – a drop that’s fully mature on its release, and sometimes pleasingly light and fresh, despite having powerful flavours.

Finally, we have, among the reds, the eclectic wonders of the ‘vinos de autor’ category, a place for experimental and ambitious winemaking. If you love reds with weight, oak influence, and elegance, then look out for this classification, where you generally have a wine style that’s a bit bigger in all areas, be it texture, wood flavours, or fruit ripeness. These can be great wines, and should be judged according to how well they compare relative to the world of powerful wines, rather than Rioja. So often they do admirably on this front, but can fail if you were expecting something with the light, spicy lift of a traditional Rioja.

Rioja is a rare place in the world of wine. Not just because it offers fully ripe wines with a fresh acidity, but because it boasts a broad sweep of wine styles. Such complexity adds interest. Meanwhile, strong brands take away the risk that comes with drinkers experimenting.

In any case, the quality standard that comes with the Rioja tag is high. Of all our tastings, the Rioja Masters generally sees us award the highest number of Golds relative to the quantity of entries, and, I should add, the fewest Bronzes or lower. There’s a reason why Rioja’s appeal endures. As noted above, it relates to style and quality. But as the diversity of Rioja character seen in our Masters shows too, it’s also an issue of choice. This Spanish region now makes a wine to sate all tastes – even those of the aforementioned fine wine collectors, who should have no trouble finding what they want, whether it’s among the concentrated wines of Rioja’s vinos de autor, or the aged elegance of the gran reservas. And it’s high time they started their search.

For now, see the tables below, which illustrate the range on offer in Rioja today, and the highlights from the two days of judging the competition.

White Rioja Joven

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Bodegas Campo Viejo Viura-Tempranillo Blanco 2019 Bronze
£10-£15
Bodegas Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Viura Malvasía 2019 Silver
Fincas de Azabache Tempranillo Blanco 2019 Bronze

White Rioja Reserva

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
£15-£20
Eguren Ugarte Reserva 2017 Bronze
£30-£50
Rioja Vega Tempranillo Blanco Reserva 2017 Gold

White Rioja Vinos de Autor

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
£10-£15
Rioja Vega Blanco Colección Tempranillo 2019 Silver
£15-£20
Bodegas Ortega Ezquerro Don Quintín Ortega White BF 2018 Bronze
£20-£30
Remírez de Ganuza Remírez de Ganuza 2016 Silver

Red Joven

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Bodegas Campo Viejo Campo Viejo Garnacha 2019 Silver
Fincas de Azabache Tunante 2019 Silver
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega 2019 Silver
Bodegas Campo Viejo Campo Viejo Tempranillo 2018 Bronze
Bodegas Ugalde Ugalde Tempranillo 2019 Bronze
Bodegas Solar Viejo Solar Viejo Tempranillo 2019 Bronze

Red Crianza

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Bodegas Faustino Faustino Crianzo ITNOW 2017 Silver
Zinio Bodegas Sancho Garcés Crianza 2017 Bronze
£10-£15
Fincas de Azabache Azabache Crianza Vendimia Seleccionada 2017 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Crianza 2018 Silver
Rioja Vega Edición Limitada 2017 Silver
Bodegas Solar Viejo Solar Viejo Crianza 2017 Silver
Bodegas Valoria Viña Valoria Crianza 2016 Silver
Compañia de Vinos Heraclio Heraclio Alfaro 2017 Silver
Bodegas Ugalde Ugalde Crianza 2016 Bronze
£15-£20
Bodegas Solar Viejo Orube Crianza 2017 Gold
Fincas de Azabache Crianza Garnacha 2018 Gold
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Cuvée 2017 Gold
Hermanos Frias del Val Crianza 2016 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Crianza 2018 Bronze
Zinio Bodegas Zinio Crianza Vendimia Seleccionada 2016 Bronze
£20-£30
Fincas de Azabache Culto 2017 Silver

Red Reserva

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10
Muriel Wines Baron Amarillo Rioja Reserva 2016 Gold
Bodegas la Eralta Señorío de La Eralta 2016 Silver
£10-£15
Bodegas Solar Viejo Solar Viejo Reserva 2014 Gold
Bodegas Valoria Viña Valoria Reserva 2014 Gold
Bodegas Campo Viejo Campo Viejo Reserva 2015 Silver
Bodegas Ugalde Ugalde Reserva 2015 Silver
Bodegas Faustino Reserva ITNOW 2015 Silver
Bodegas Faustino Art Collection Reserva 2015 Silver
Bodegas Faustino V Reserva 2015 Bronze
Bodegas y Viñedos Leza Leza García Reserva 2016 Bronze
£15-£20
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Reserva de Familia 2017 Gold
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Reserva 2015 Gold
Bodegas Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Reserva 2015 Silver
Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres Reserva 2015 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Reserva Vendimia Seleccionada 2017 Silver
Bodegas Riojanas Borisa 125 Reserva 2017 Silver
Eguren Ugarte Reserva 2014 Silver
Bodegas Ortega Ezquerro Ortega Ezquerro Reserva 2014 Silver
Zinio Bodegas Sancho Garcés Reserva 2015 Bronze
£20-£30
Zinio Bodegas Zinio Reserva 2016 Gold
£30-£50
Remírez de Ganuza Viña Coqueta 2009 Gold
Remírez de Ganuza Fincas de Ganuza 2014 Gold
Bodegas Faustino Icon Edition Especial Selección 2015 Gold
£50+
Remírez de Ganuza Remírez de Ganuza 2006 Master

Red Gran Reserva

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
Under £10-£15
Bodegas la Eralta Señorío de La Eralta 2014 Gold
£15-£20
Bodegas Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 2013 Silver
Bodegas Ugalde Gran Reserva 2013 Silver
Bodegas Faustino Faustino I Gran Reserva 2010 Bronze
Bodegas Faustino Faustino I Gran Reserva ITNOW 2010 Bronze
£20-£30
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva 2013 Gold
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Gran Reserva 2013 Gold
Rioja Vega Gran Reserva 2013 Gold
Bodegas Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Gran Reserva 2012 Silver
£30-£50
Bodegas Campillo Campillo 57 Gran Reserva 2012 Master
£50+
Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva 1978 Gold

Red Vinos de Autor

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
£10-£15
Rioja Vega Tinto Colección Tempranillo 2018 Gold
£15-£20
Viñas Leizaola Caminos de Sacramento 2018 Gold
Bodegas Solar Viejo Orube Garnacha 2018 Silver
Bodegas Ortega Ezquerro OE Garnacha 2018 Silver
£20-£30
Bodegas Solar Viejo Orube Selección de Familia 2017 Master
Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres Generación MC 2018 Gold
Hermanos Frías del Val Selección Personal Premium 2016 Gold
Bodegas Campo Viejo Dominio de Campo Viejo 2016 Silver
£30-£50
Viñas Leizaola El Sacramento 2016 Gold
Rioja Vega Rioja Vega Venta Jalón 2014 Gold
Bodegas Ysios Ysios 2015 Silver

Red Organic

Company Wine Name Vintage Medal
£50+
MacRobert & Canals Barranco Del San Ginés 2016 Gold

Judges’ comments

Andrea Briccarello: “Rioja is still a strong brand in the UK, and I could see why during the tasting; the region offers great value for money, particularly the joven and crianza wines. I have a soft spot for white Rioja, so I really enjoyed the vinos de autor part of the tasting. “The crianzas and reservas were stunning, especially in the £10-1£5 range, with plenty of fresh, vibrant juicy red-fruit notes and spicy undertones, offering a lot of value. “There is much to like when it comes to Rioja; it all comes to style, more traditional or more modern, young and juicy (joven or crianza) or leather and tobacco (reserva or gran reserva). “The biggest surprise was the quality of these wines; which had hardly any faults. There were plenty of great wines that delivered in every glass.”

Patricia Stefanowicz MW: “The 2020 Rioja Masters was exemplary, and the wines demonstrate yet again why Rioja is well respected for quality, reliability and value. There are excellent wines in every category, from joven through crianza to reserva and gran reserva. The white wines showed well, and the vinos de autor expressed experimentation and excitement with a masterful touch. The judges awarded every wine in the tasting with a medal, perhaps a first? “The reds showed bright acidity and judiciously managed tannins throughout the different categories. The white Riojas exhibited lovely orchard fruits, purity of flavour and racy acidity in balance. “One or two reservas were serious wines with balanced acidity and lovely oak integration.”

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business, and is an extension of its successful Masters series for grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as other regions such as Tuscany and Champagne, along with styles from rosé to sparkling. The competition is exclusively for Rioja wine, and the entries were judged using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.

The top wines were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those expressions that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Rioja Master. The entries were judged on 9 and 10 November at the Novotel, London Bridge.

The judges in The Rioja Masters 2020 were Andrea Briccarello, David Round MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW and Patrick Schmitt MW

This report features the medal-winners only. Please visit The Global Masters website for more information, or, to enter future competitions – giving you the chance to feature online and in print – please call +44 (0) 20 7803 2420 or email Sophie Raichura at: sophie@thedrinksbusiness.com

Rioja Masters 2019: the results in full

A full report on the top wines and leading styles from this year’s Rioja Masters, the most comprehensive annual blind tasting of current releases from this flagship Spanish region in the UK.

The Rioja Masters was held in Les 110 de Taillevent in London’s Cavendish Square

Before analysing the results in detail from this year’s Rioja Masters, it should be stated that this single tasting achieved a higher tally of top medals than almost any other competition in the Global Wine Masters series. Considering just the most glistening results, the judges awarded as many as 26 Gold medals, and, remarkably, a total of six Masters, which is the ultimate accolade, and given out only when the wine is outstanding.

What does this tell us? It shows us that Rioja is making wines right now of a style and quality that is first-class, and at all levels – although certain categories did perform better than others. It also confirms that the consumer is a good judge too – Rioja is one of the retail and restaurant’s sector most popular wine regions.

And if one is to sum up why this large Spanish wine region delivers so much, and without charging a hugely-inflated price, then it comes down to two key elements: the successful match between the terroir and the grapes of the region, and the particular approach to maturation in this part of Iberia.

Regarding the former, the mix of native Spanish grapes and this high, dry, barren plateau, yields wine with plenty of ripe fruit, but a cleansing natural acidity. As for the latter, the common practise of extended ageing before release, notably in barrels, produces a style of wine that’s soft, layered, and generally ready to drink on release, even at the top end – where rival European fine wine region so often advise buyers to cellar their latest orders for several years before opening.

Rioja’s present success also reflects recent change, and this is an area of Spain that may have an old-fashioned image, but shows marked dynamism. This was certainly clear at the start of this year’s tasting, which focused on the proportionally small white wine offering from Rioja (representing just 8% of production). Whereas this aspect to the region would have – as little as a decade ago – been dominated by Viura-based wines that were either light and simple, or, as a result of long-barrel-ageing, heavy and oxidative, today we are seeing clean, ripe whites of great character, as well as oak-influenced versions with nutty complexity and texture, but fresh fruit too.

The personality of the wines without the traditional Rioja treatment of barrel-ageing, governed by the region’s classifications – from Joven to Gran Reserva – hails from a change to the laws several years ago, allowing a greater range of white grapes to be planted for use in Rioja Blanco. Among these is the aromatic Verdejo grape – with Marqués de Cáceres gaining a Silver for its great value grapefruit-scented Don Sebastian branded version – as well as Tempranillo Blanco. This grape, sister to flagship Riojan red grape Tempranillo – is increasingly being used to produce varietal whites and to great affect, with orchard fruits, and an oily texture that complements a touch of new oak influence – both Viña Pomal and Rioja Vega being brilliant examples of this, and hence their Golds in this year’s Masters.

Indeed, if there was new and distinctive arrival to the world of Spanish whites, albeit niche, it is Tempranillo Blanco. As for the more traditional offer from Rioja, which sees Viura aged for years in barrique to produce something rich, waxy, and vanilla-scented, then this is still on offer, and made to a high standard with the Lar de Paula Blanco Reserva, a Gold standard wine with a strong character.

While Rioja is also able to craft fresh, red-berry rosés too, and sometimes with oak-influence as well, we saw little from this particular category in 2019, but that doesn’t mean one should not forget this offering from Rioja, particularly as the market for pink wines strengthens, diversifies and premiumises.

Moving to reds, however, the mainstay of Rioja’s output, we began the tasting with the youngest category, classed Joven. Interestingly, as Rioja’s classifications concern ageing times, rather than necessarily quality levels, we had Joven reds from the most basic to some of the region’s priciest. While the tasters were very excited to find delicious, fruity, youthful reds at keen prices from Marqués de Cáceres and Rioja Vega in particular, they were also excited by the quality at the top end from Faustino, with its Faustino & Eneko label – something crafted by the producer for the revered Spanish Michelin-starred chef, Eneko Atxa. In contrast to the more common output from Faustino – a Riojan leader in the Gran Reserva category – this expression spends just eight months in oak, allowing the rich red fruit flavours to shine.

Moving to the Crianza category – the classification for reds that have spent a minimum of one year in oak – we once more saw some delicious wines, on top of a big bank of Silver medallists, showing the high base standard in this category, which is such a big seller in Spain. It was here we found some of the best-value wines of the tasting, with sub £15 Crianzas from Viña Albina and Marqués de la Concordia both picking up Golds, while the higher-priced versions from Bodegas Corral and the Rolland-Galerreta label also impressing greatly. At the highest end of the price spectrum, the judges were wowed by the juicy, fleshy, layered pure Garnacha from Baigorri, highlighting the quality attainable from this grape when the vines are old and the site just right.

As for the Reservas, where a minimum of three years ageing (one of which must be spend in oak) brings an altered style of wine, we were delighted to find a delicious, classic, complex and bright red from Bodegas Muriel that retailed below £15, with its Fincas de la Villa Reserva awarded a Gold.

However, it was over £15 that most of the top medals were seen, while the first Master of the day was given to the slightly (but not much) pricier Eguren Ugarte Martin Cendoya Reserva. Notably, over £30, every sample picked up a Gold – or above, with a pure Graciano from Viña Pomal awarded a Master, which also showed that not just Tempranillo or Garnacha can, on their own, make top wines in Rioja.

We then finished the day with two final classifications in Rioja, both of which are divisive. The first, Gran Reserva, can create debate according to the judge’s preference, even though our judges are focused on quality, regardless of their personal tastes. While some are forgiving of more traditional, long-aged, and lighter styles of Gran Reserva, seeing it as a unique offering in the world of fine wines, others desire more weight, fruit and youth in this category. Not only did we see both styles, but each were able to deliver greatness, with the brilliant source of affordable and traditional Gran Reserva Rioja – Bodegas Faustino – gaining a Gold for its sub £20 sample from the 2009 vintage, and Viña Pomal also picking up the same medal for its richer, juicier and younger (and slightly pricier) Gran Reserva from 2012. At the top end of this category was the Remírez de Ganuza Gran Reserva from 2005, a delicious blend of barrel-sourced characters, mature fruit, and freshness, showing what a first-rate producer Fernando Remírez de Ganuza is.

The other controversial category, dubbed Vinos de Auto, which loosely translates as winemaker signature wines, creates discussion as such stylistic variation exists within a sector of Rioja designed to bring together wines that fall outside the traditional rules of the region. In effect, this is a sort of Super Tuscan equivalent for Rioja. As one might expect, the stylistic variation is broad, from intense, concentrated – sometimes over-extracted reds – to lighter, softer examples, although generally the wines lean towards the former type. Among the greats, reds that would compete on a world-stage with any powerful fine wines, were samples from Altos de Rioja, Concordia, Lan, Leizaola, and Ollauri.

In short, it was highly apparent that Rioja can deliver brilliant wines at a wide span of price points, and in a broad range of styles. It can produce something juicy, easy, and fresh at the bistro-level – be it white, red or Rosado – along with something fine, bright, and ready-to-drink at the finest end. Furthermore, it can yield something impressive, and powerful too, allowing the region to compete with top-end showy wine from around the world, while also sating a desire for something fine and delicate too – a growing sector, if one is to judge by the rising demand for great Pinot or Piedmontese reds.

In fact, whether you love big reds, or something more delicate, Rioja can provide something to suit, and, relative to great wines from Europe or beyond, this famous Spanish region offers impressive value for money. While we did see high-priced, high-scoring wines, the majority of our samples were sub £50, and, as noted at the outset, this tasting was near-record-breaking in the tally of top medals.

Over the following pages you can see all the medallists from this year’s competition, as well as comments from the judges (who are pictured below), and more information about the Global Sparkling Masters, including how to enter.

The Rioja Masters 2019 judges (left to right): Patrick Schmitt MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Simon Field MW, and Jonathan Pedley MW

The best wines from the 2018 Rioja Masters

Our latest Rioja Masters competition boasted the highest proportion of Master-winning wines in our tasting series, but that’s hardly a surprise when the liquid, at every price point, is so enjoyable to drink, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

wines in Spain

Despite all the excitement surrounding the emerging wine regions in Spain among the press and sommeliers, the country’s powerhouse is Rioja. A door-opener with global awareness, without Rioja, Spain’s vinous reputation would be far less notorious and much less distinctive. When consumer research on wine regions is conducted, Rioja regularly appears as one of the most-recognised terms that abound in the world of drinks – even if it is widely mispronounced.

But it wasn’t just these outstanding examples that convinced the judges that Rioja is making lovely wines. It was the high number of Golds too – those wines with 93 points or more – with 28 gaining this medal, almost one fifth of the samples. Importantly, such impressive scores weren’t reserved just for the most expensive wines in the competiton, but awarded across the price spectrum. Some of the best-value wines in the world are coming out of Rioja.Many theories could be proposed for this, from the scale of the area, the strength of its brands, and long history of viticulture in the region, but, most importantly, Rioja’s success is connected to its style, quality, and value for money. I know this because the blind-tasting I chaired last month proved that this flagship Spanish wine region is making delicious, balanced wines at all levels. The competition had the highest proportion of Master-winning wines of any tasting we’ve conducted – and that includes all the noble grapes and top-end appellations like Champagne. Bearing in mind that the accolade of Master is reserved only for the very best of their type, and usually wines achieving a score of more than 95 points from all the judges, this is some feat. Out of around 150 wines entered into the competition, we awarded nine Masters.

BRIGHT FINISH

Then there’s the style. Rioja has a mixed reputation with wine professionals – for some it is renowned for its consistency, others think of its diversity – but there is something appealing that runs through all the wines, whether they are made in a lighter or more concentrated fashion, and that’s freshness. While that’s no surprise in the whites and rosés, it’s the bright finish in Rioja’s reds that’s a hallmark for this region. There’s often something Italianate about Rioja, as the region shares the former country’s orange-zest freshness in its reds, and sometimes a sour cherry note too, as well as its dry finish from fine-grained dense tannins.

The Riojas we tasted also displayed drinking pleasure thanks to an overriding restraint – these were, for the most part, neither wines with raisined fruit nor roasted oak. Alcohol levels also seem in check too. And, as one judge, Jonathan Pedley MW, pointed out, unlike some areas of Spain, Rioja seems to have avoided the temptation of going “over the top”, and, thankfully, doesn’t appear to be picking grapes too ripe, or extracting too much tannin in the winemaking process. Even where the Riojas were made in a more concentrated style, “in all cases there was still an overall harmony”, said Pedley.

The Rioja Masters 2017: Results

With nine Masters and 25 Gold medals awarded, last year’s Rioja Masters was our most successful tasting in the Global Masters series to date.

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.”

The judges (l-r)

Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, wine lecturer and presenter Jonathan Pedley MW, wine consultant, Crown Cellars Lucy Shaw, managing editor, the drinks business Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business Alex Canneti, director, off-trade, Berkmann Wine Cellars Alvaro García, London area sales manager, Alliance Wine Alistair Cooper MW, wine consultant

Rioja Masters 2014: The medalists

Rioja has the scope, accessibility and innovation that allows the region to tick nearly every box.

Rioja-Masters-2014-JudgingFew wine regions can truly claim the sort of collective brand status that makes it a household name, but, however vague people’s understanding of its identity, Rioja has carved itself just such a coveted position. That familiarity helped the region to sell a record 277 million litres of wine in 2013, of which Spain accounted for almost two thirds.

However UK consumers’ thirst for Rioja has made it by far the region’s largest export market, accounting for 32.8m litres in 2013 – almost double that of number two market Germany.

What makes this success so striking is that consumers clearly feel confident in the style they expect from Rioja, but – as the broad spectrum of categories tasted in The Drinks Business Rioja Masters demonstrates – the reality is a diversity seen in few other wine regions. When prices range across the board, as does its signature oak influence, Rioja can mean anything from primary fruit-led styles for immediate drinking to tobacco-laced, leathery wines with 50 years ahead of them. Add to the mix its no less polarised white expressions, not to mention the ambitious but classification-defying “Vino de Autor”, and the value of a dedicated, expert assessment of this region becomes ever-more clear.

VALUE AND VARIETY

In addition to picking out individual star performers across each price bracket or category, the results of this year’s competition highlight areas where Rioja offers particularly consistent quality and value for money. The good news for consumers is that there’s plenty of both these two factors on offer at very accessible prices. For Hugo Rose MW, director of fine wine merchant Vinsignia, there were rich pickings below £10.

Ian-Waddington-Judging

Ian Waddington, group wine buyer at Gordon Ramsay Holdings

“The high marks awarded to a good range in the lowest price category continues to speak of the value for money offered by Rioja,” he observed, picking out crianza as a particular “sweet spot”. Indeed, it was crianza and reserva – an increasingly popular style in Rioja’s export markets according to the DO – that attracted the most effusive plaudits from this year’s judges. Describing these two categories as offering “always sure value”, José Godoy, restaurant manager at Arzak’s London partnership Ametsa, also highlighted the “incredible complexity” offered by mature gran reserva as he summed up: “I believe that Rioja in general has the best value for money among the best known wine regions in the world.” That certainly appears to be the view of Laithwaites’ customers, as the retailer’s consultant winemaker and senior buyer Robin Langton confirmed that Rioja is a “huge” part of its business. “We’re gaining the most traction in terms of crianza,” he reported. “For me, it’s probably the most interesting segment where you can find real value.”

Going for gold

One company stands out from this year’s winners: Rioja Alavesa group Araex, which scooped no fewer than 19 medals, including three Golds and the top accolade of Master for its Baigorri Reserva. The result marked a vindication of managing director Javier Ruiz de Galarreta’s decision in 1993 to bring together nine small or medium-sized wineries from the region into a single group. “This has been a fantastic achievement, by far the best of any company,” he rejoiced.Last year Araex Rioja Alavesa saw growth of 52%, with 10.5m bottles sold in more than 70 countries. Setting out his mission “to tell everyone about the quality of Spanish premium wine and the confidence we had in it”, Ruiz de Galarreta remains committed to staying ahead of the pack. Outlining each winery’s involvement in the “long-term innovation process that is vital to continue offering great wines” he adds: “The door is wide open to a new era full of opportunities”.

There was further praise for the region from Ian Waddington, group wine buyer at Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Declaring himself “impressed” by the overall quality of wines on show during the tasting, he asserted: “There were enough wines of real interest and which represented good value for money to ensure the region’s guaranteed presence on most wine lists”.

STRENGTH A WEAKNESS?

That’s not to suggest Rioja offers a completely consistent playground for its fans. Simon Field MW, Spanish buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, drew a parallel with the similarly powerful regional brand of Champagne as he warned that what is in many respects an enviable position also leaves the category exposed to “mediocre quality, quite a lot of discounting, and the general impression that the winemakers cherish the reputation of the brand more than the impulse to improve the raw materials.” In his view the most rewarding categories were perhaps not the most obvious Rioja styles: its unoaked joven classification and the region’s white wines, which account for no more than 10% of total production, despite a push by the consejo in recent years to redress this balance. White Rioja also attracted emphatic praise from Rose, who noted the “exceptional” quality offered from these flights in the competition, adding: “classic white Rioja is a massively underrated category.”

For all the exceptions that exist today, Rioja remains a region that is closely associated with oak maturation. Indeed, the DO’s entire classification system is based largely upon this influence. Reassuringly therefore, judges’ feedback on this element was largely positive. “What impressed me throughout, above joven of course, was the judicious use of oak,” remarked Rose. Reviewing wines tasted during the course of the day he noted: “Oak rarely smothered the fruit component, and surprisingly we were not blasted with once-usual banana, popcorn and vanilla of overt US oak.”

With oak management given the all clear, debate centred instead on those wines that fell outside or strained the boundaries of Rioja’s traditional classification system. Agustin Trapero, head sommelier at Launceston Place, argued that producers wishing to pursue more alternative styles should avoid shoe-horning them into the official DO hierarchy so as not to create confusion among consumers. “I am not against modern styles of Rioja, in fact I think they are even necessary to be able to reach different markets and palates, but what I think is a big mistake is that those modern full-bodied Riojas are classified as crianza, reserva, and gran reserva”, he maintained. Instead, Trapero suggested, “they should be classified as Vino de Autor or Vino de la Tierra to keep the style and tradition of Rioja.”

Rioja Masters categories

RIOJA JOVEN
Young wines which typically have spent no time in oak, or just a few months maximum in barrel before release. Most Bianco and Rosado Rioja falls into the Joven category.
CRIANZA
These are Riojas which have been aged for at least two years with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
RESERVA
This category is for Riojas which have been aged for at least three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
GRAN RESERVA
These are Riojas which have been aged for at least five years with a minimum of 24 months in oak.
VINOS DE AUTOR
These are winemaker’s “icon” style wines, otherwise dubbed “new wave wines” from Rioja, which carry no age statement but generally spend at least a year in barrique, frequently made from new French oak.
RIOJA 15 YEARS AND OLDER
We also included a category of old Rioja to group together older expressions for which the region is well-known. These were typically gran reservas.

From a stylistic rather than communication perspective, Clement Robert, head sommelier at London restaurant Medlar, acknowledged: “I think the more modern style split opinions.” Expressing a personal wariness of Rioja wines made “in the fashion of the New World”, he continued: “I am in the favour of high quality wine but I am not sure that high fruit extraction and 100% new oak allied with more modern techniques are what consumers expect or want from Rioja.”

PUSHING BOUNDARIES

For all this concern, at an individual level there was plenty of evidence for the successful results that producers with a more iconoclastic outlook can achieve. Indeed, Waddington noted, “I think there needs to be room for experimentation, Rioja isn’t a museum.” Meanwhile Godoy cited producers such as Amaren and Baigorri, which took home a Gold and Master award respectively, as prime examples of those producers pursuing a more modern style of Rioja. In his view, “I think it is always good to see that a region is trying to be innovative. It shows that they want to improve their products and that is beneficial for the consumers.”

However, where Godoy did express concern was in the challenge of knowing what to expect from wines in the Vino de Autor category. Typically denoting wines at the very top of a producer’s range, these wines are often used to show off a particularly good site or year but, similarly to Chianti’s Super Tuscans, are made in a way that falls outside the official requirements of their denomination. For Godoy, “the absence of regulation in the category of Vinos de Autor makes it more difficult for the consumers to understand those wines.” This tension between ancient and modern, maverick and traditionalist, is hardly unique to Rioja. As demonstrated by the results, judges were happy to reward the best examples in each of these camps. Indeed, here the Masters’ emphasis not just on recruiting expert palates but encouraging discussion ensured that talent was distinguished from shallow artifice and rewarded. The medal winners here should offer some guidance to Rioja as it treads the line between exploring fresh possibilities and alienating the millions who remain loyal to this impressive brand.

ROBIN LANGTON senior buyer & consultant winemaker, Laithwaites Wine IAN WADDINGTON group wine buyer, Gordon Ramsey Group JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ GODOY head sommelier, Ametsa, Halkin Hotel CLEMENT ROBERT head sommelier & wine buyer, Medlar GABRIEL STONE managing editor, the drinks business PATRICK SCHMITT editor-in-chief, the drinks business HUGO ROSE MW director, Vinsignia AGUSTIN TRAPERO head sommelier, Launceston Place SIMON FIELD MW buyer, Berry Bros & Rudd

L-R: ROBIN LANGTON senior buyer & consultant winemaker, Laithwaites Wine; IAN WADDINGTON, group wine buyer, Gordon Ramsey Group; JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ GODOY, head sommelier, Ametsa, Halkin Hotel; CLEMENT ROBERT, head sommelier & wine buyer, Medlar; GABRIEL STONE managing editor, the drinks business; PATRICK SCHMITT, editor-in-chief, the drinks business; HUGO ROSE MW director, Vinsignia; AGUSTIN TRAPERO head sommelier, Launceston Place; SIMON FIELD MW buyer, Berry Bros & Rudd

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition conceived and managed by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, fortified wines and grape varieties from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Rioja and comprised over 100 entries, which were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.
The top Riojas were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those wines that were deemed by the judges to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Rioja Master.
The wines were tasted on a single day at York & Albany in London.

Rioja Masters 2015: the results

With reds, whites and rosés of endlessly varying – even contrasting – styles, Rioja’s diversity renders it ever more difficult to define. Yet as our Masters competition revealed, some classic Riojan characteristics still sing out, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

Rioja Masters_HEL0541Tempting though they are, generalisations are dangerous. And today, there are few wine regions where sweeping stylistic statements have become less applicable than Rioja. Although best known for the sweet coconut flavours that can come from extended periods in new American oak, along with the fading, leather-scented examples among the range-topping Gran Reservas, the Rioja of today comprises pretty much everything from bright, light Beaujolais-esque reds to concentrated blockbusters, at times more reminiscent of the Barossa than anything from Iberia.

As for the whites, despite a reputation for an oxidative approach, these can take on a Chablis-like quality when fruit is picked early, and handled reductively, and even the rosés are starting to appear paler, with a hue found more commonly outside Spain, above all Provence, even if Rioja is known for its darker pinks.

Such diversity was clearly apparent in this year’s Rioja Masters, where even wines from the same producers showed a wide variation in character. While the tasters looked for quality first, and were fully aware of the broad stylistic capabilities possible in this large wine region – whether that was a result of grape, source, or winemaking – they did remain mindful that this was a tasting of Rioja, rewarding most enthusiastically those examples that were both excellent and identifiably from this famous Spanish DOC.

Rioja Masters_HEL0641What were they looking for? ‘Chocolate’, ‘vanilla’, ‘softness’ and most importantly, ‘racy acidity’ were descriptors most commonly cited by our experienced judging panel when asked about red Rioja’s hallmarks. And, they believed, even among the so-called ‘modern style’ of Rioja – used to denote more deeply-coloured, concentrated reds – the wines were still, for the most part, clearly, classically Spanish. Indeed, the influence of new winemaking approaches was declared beneficial for a region famous for its old-fashioned style.

“I enjoyed the tension between the two types of Rioja, the old and the new, although we didn’t taste the ultra-traditional,” commented Hugo Rose MW, a tasting panel chairman. “But as a group we had a preference towards the classic style, because of its food orientation, but we recognised the quality of the richer, and often more expensive wines.”

Agreeing, another judge, Alex Canneti, commented, “It was interesting to taste the modern versus the classic – for example, comparing Bodegas Baigorri with La Rioja Alta was exciting.” An overt oak character was certainly expected, and for some, necessary, although all the judges were looking for the integration of barrel-sourced flavours, whether these came from French or American trees.

As for the results, the whites, for one judge at least, were a “revelation”. Following the tasting, this niche area of Rioja – it represents just 10% of the region’s production – was declared an area of marked change. “The whites were astonishing, because they were really good, really drinkable,” commented Canneti, praising the bright, fruity nature of the wines, in contrast to a historic approach, where strong barrel-sourced flavours dominated, along with a heaviness that can come from oxidative handling.

That’s not to say that the strongest performers were devoid of oak, and the best whites married ripe stone fruit with a toasty barrique character. Marqués de Murrieta proved itself particularly capable at striking a pleasing balance with its Capellania, although Bodegas Baigorri was similarly excellent.

A standout performance

Once again in 2015, there was one company that stood out from this year’s winners: Rioja Alavesa group Araex, which scooped no fewer than 25 medals, including three Golds and the top accolade of Master for its Baigorri Garnacha. This was an even stronger performance than witnessed in last year’s competition, when Araex gained 19 medals, along with the same number of Golds, and, like this year, a single Master, which was also earned by the Baigorri brand. The result marked a vindication of managing director Javier Ruiz de Galarreta’s decision in 1993 to bring together nine small or medium-sized wineries from the region into a single group. Indeed, from 1993 to 2014, Araex has exported more than €260 million worth of wine from Rioja Alavesa, with one in five bottles produced in the sub-region now sourced from this single company, which controls more than 4,000 hectares. Araex Rioja Alavesa brands currently include Luis Cañas, Lar de Paula, Castillo Labastida, Baigorri, Altos R, Amaren, Heredad de Baroja and Montebuena.

Indeed, as in previous tastings, Rioja showed its best when the oak was present. The Joven category, where youthful fruit was served up without the additional flavour and structure that comes from ageing in barriques, seemed to have less appeal, although there were exceptions: Lagunilla, for example, showed the quality potential of the Tempranillo grape without the influence of wood, as did La Bascula, which married Rioja’s flagship variety with Garnacha for its Joven.

Moving up a quality ladder, it was not until we reached Crianza that the first Golds were awarded, which went to Bodegas Riojanas for its Monte Real Crianza de Familia as well as Bodegas Baigorri for its pure Garnacha, which, because it was deemed the best wine of the flight, was upgraded to the ultimate accolade of Master. But for the best results by category, one had to look to the Reservas, where no fewer than five golds were awarded.

“This year the Reservas were spectacular,” commented Rose, with a winery like La Rioja Alta exciting palates for its combination of oak and fruit, along with palate-cleansing dry tannins and bright acidity – the sort of wine that has, over the decades, made Rioja famous.

This producer was also one of the few to gain a gold in the Gran Reserva category, the region’s top tier. Interestingly, looking back over the day’s tasting, Rose observed, “There were some Gran Reservas that were made to a price, and you could tell, and the standout wines were mostly among the Reservas.

Rioja Masters_HEL0564

“The price was not always a determinate of quality – we gave some higher scores to lower priced wines – and at the top end it was possible that some were trying too hard.”

Having said that, it was at the top, and traditional end of the spectrum where real greatness was observed, with some of the highest scores of the day going to aged Rioja – Gran Reservas that were 15 years and older. In particular, Faustino I Gran Reserva 1994 showed why both this producer and the region as a whole is so sought after for mature wines.

Despite being 21 years old, the wine was still fruity and lively, and continued to evolve during the course of the day, before being enjoyed to its full after the tasting was over, when the judges paired the wine with suckling pig courtesy of Hispania, our host for this year’s Rioja Masters.

Interestingly, this year, we did see good things among those entries declared Vinos de Autor. Sometimes criticised for failing to resemble Rioja, this category is notable for falling outside the region’s traditional classifications, allowing winemakers to experiment to the full.

While the tasters acknowledged that a wine such as Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta was a very different proposition to the likes of Faustino Gran Reserva, the former was no less delicious, and in the world of ambitious reds, undoubtedly a fine wine.

So, after a day’s tasting, Rioja proved home to a diverse source of wine styles. Nevertheless, common characteristics were present, above all the imprint of oak barrels and high-acid fruit. Yes generalisations are dangerous to draw, but as one judge commented, “There is still typicity in Rioja.”

Click through for a round up of all the medals awarded.

The judges

Roberto Della Pietra head sommelier, French Bubbles

Alex Canneti director off-trade, Berkmann Wine Cellars

Agustin Trapero head sommelier, Launceston Place

Lucy Shaw managing editor, the drinks business

Hugo Rose MW, director, Vinsignia

Patrick Schmitt MW editor-in-chief, the drinks business

José González Godoy head sommelier, Ametsa, Halkin Hotel

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition conceived and managed by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, fortified wines and grape varieties from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Rioja and comprised around 200 entries, which were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top Riojas were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those wines that were deemed by the judges to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Rioja Master. The wines were tasted on a single day at Hispania in London. This report features medal winners only.

Rioja Masters categories

Rioja Joven – Young wines which typically have spent no time in oak, or just a few months maximum in barrel before release. Most Bianco and Rosado Rioja falls into the Joven category.
Crianza – These are Riojas which have been aged for at least two years with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Reserva – This category is for Riojas which have been aged for at least three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Gran Reserva – These are Riojas which have been aged for at least five years with a minimum of 24 months in oak.
Vinos de Autor – These are winemaker’s ‘icon’ style wines, otherwise dubbed ‘new wave wines’ from Rioja, which carry no age statement but generally spend at least a year in barrique, frequently made from new French oak.
Rioja 15 years and older – We also included a category of old Rioja to group together older expressions for which the region is well-known. These were typically Gran Reservas.
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