Archives for posts with tag: Rioja

On Thursday 15th February the WING group met at the ICC for a Tasting of wines from Rioja. This theme came out top in the Group’s voting for what to cover this season. I wonder if this is – at least partly – down to the knowledge I was holidaying there last summer, and would personally source the wines. This of course renders a set of wines averaging over £20 at UK prices much more affordable. The prices, and value for money scores, are for the UK (if possible).

Here are my notes:

VIÑA GRAVONIA CRIANZA BLANCO 2006 (R López de Heredia)    –   12½%   –   UK £21 Oldbridge wines
This is from the height of the Alta near Haro, and is 100% Viura aged for 4 years in oak and 6 in bottle. A very sherry like nose, showing stewed apple, nutty and some pungent vegetal elements, a slight honeyed tinge… Palate has all this with sherry salty dryness and an undertow of passion fruit (aged Chenin?) honeyed richness. This has a sharp acidity contracting the palate at the end, a little more than the 2004 tasted in March 2015 (see below). A small sample remained which I tried as an aperitif the next day, before a good Soave. The acidity had slackened a little and the palate more rounded – so it may be a little young? The more interesting observation is that ignoring the sherry overlay, how similar the structure was to the Soave – with acidity and peachy fruit common to both! A very unusual style which radically divided opinions. But for me a great example of a nearly-lost style.
Ratings:        Quality:  17/20   Value:  15.5/20

OLARRA CERRO AÑON MAZUELO 2105        –    14%   –   n/a UK, about £16
This is from Mazuelo (Carignan) grapes from near the Alta/Baja border, and I suspect the fruit comes from both. It has 6 months in American oak, it has the redcurrant aroma common to low-cropped Carignan, with some oak in an identifiable Rioja weight. The palate has some acidity and is round, pliant but a bit simple.
Ratings:        Quality:  14.5/20   Value:  14.5/20

OLARRA CERRO AÑON GRACIANO 2014   –   13½%   –   n/a UK, about £16
This fruit for this is from Alta and Alava and has 14 months in French and American oak. This has a more complex nose – floral elements, some woody acidity and a spice hint. Powerful palate, with warm tannin but with lighter cherry fruit and a long line of flavour. The wine suggest a little of Mourvedre to me, power but subtlety and light aromatics… good!
Ratings:        Quality:  15/20   Value:  15/20

MAYOR DE ONDARRE RESERVA 2013   –   13½%    –    £24 Hallgarten
This (92 point rated) Reserva is 80% Tempranillo and 20% Mazuelo. It has 20 months in American and French oak and then 18 months in bottle before release. Bright sharp fruit nose – cherry? – with a woody but not vanilla hint, Palate has sweet and sour plum fruit with a mocha grainy creaminess, a lifting acid frame leading to long slightly spicy finish– quite lip-smacking and food friendly.
Ratings:        Quality:  16/20   Value:  15/20

CAMPO VIEJO DOMINIO 2015   –   13½%   –    £23 Ricard
This is 90% Tempranillo with 5% each of Graciano and Mazuelo. It comes from 5 or 6 Alta plots – vinified separately with 11 months in all French (Troncais and Bertranges) oak. This is a lovely wine, with a subtle but complex nose – suggestions of  non-fruit and savoury notes – leather came to my mind but others thought of liquorice. There is dark fruit, maybe blackberry and well-contolled oak. The palate echoes the nose but with great refreshment, structure and length. A lovely wine with a Bordeaux-ish inflection to Rioja flavours. Very good – but is it a bit International?
Ratings:        Quality:  17/20   Value:  15.5/20

COTO DE IMAZ GRAN RESERVA 2011   –   14%   –    £22 Liberty
This is 90% Tempranillo (mostly from Alta with 10% from Alava) and 10% Alava Graciano from near the winery in Oyon, on Agrilo-Calcaire soil. Voluptuous open nose with herbs, floral notes and blackberries. The palate is very recognisable GR Rioja showing everything from the nose with warmth and a chocolate-grainy body, very sensual – in contrast to the more cerebral Dominio. Lovely!
Ratings:        Quality:  17/20   Value:  15.5/20

A tasting showing good range of styles, grapes and oak use in Rioja. The Gravonia is very much an acquired taste I think, but I had it pretty close for top wine with the Dominio and the Coto de Imaz. If I had to pick one – I would find it difficult. I am tempted by the white for its sheer unorthodoxy, but in the end that counted against it – it is a great wine but only useful in a narrow set of  situations. The Dominio was the most popular for the group, is beautifully crafted and will be better in 2 or 3 years I think – but does it express Rioja specifically? So in the end my wine-of-the-night is the Gran Reserva.

À Bientôt


Rioja is perhaps the most famous wine region of Spain. It produces over 400 million bottles every year – but that’s only (!) about 8% of all Spanish wine. It is mostly red (88% in 2016, usually 1 or 2 % lower) with some Rosé (5%) and White (7%).

The Red is made in four quality levels, from the highest: Gran Reserva; Reserva; Crianza; Generic. This [Wine Folly] graphic shows the rules, with the % of Red wine made at each level:



Gran Res’va 3

Reserva 19

Crianza 42

Generic 36


The Signature red grape is Tempranillo which accounts for about 80% of red plantings – followed by Garnacha (7%) and Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) about 2% each. White is almost as focused on one grape: Viura (which is 73%) with only one other white grape Tempranillo Blanco (10%) taking up more than 5%.

Rioja exports a lot of its wine – around 37%, a little more of the red and only 27% of the white. By far the biggest destination for that wine is the UK which takes in almost precisely a third of those exports – so nearly an eighth of all Rioja, twice as much as the next biggest importing country, Germany! So the British Rioja market should be a good sample of the styles, quality levels and innovations in Rioja.

The Rioja DO Wine region of Spain straddles the Ebro River for some 100 kms as it flows South East towards the Mediterranean. It is – mostly – in the central, Northern province of similar name: La Rioja. Not entirely though – roughly half – the Southern half – of La Rioja is mountainous and makes no wine at all, and some of the North bank areas are in Álava (which is Basque and accounts for about a quarter of all Rioja) or Navarra (about 5%).

Here’s a map:

You will see that Rioja is split into 3 sub-regions: Alta; Baja and Álavesa. The Álavesa sub region conforms to the administrative boundary  of Álava, and North of the river the Baja boundary conforms to Navarra’s. South of the River the Baja /Alta border follows the same general line just East of Logroño, with a few deviations to allow influential wineries (Marqués de Murrieta…) to be in Alta!

In general Baja is warmer, lower and better suited to Garnacha and maybe Mazuelo, as the Mediterranean influence moves up the Ebro. The Alta (and Álavesa) are higher (400-500m is typical), cooler and better suited to Tempranillo, Viura and Graciano. However the distinction seems pretty arbitrary near the actual borders and soil types and wine-making are much more important – here’s a soil map:

In the past the categories of red Rioja stood for clear stylistic divisions. Generic was plonk – Crianza was lightly oak-affected and showed strong tannin and acidity – Reserva was rounded, still woody but with a voluptuous fruit and Gran Reserva was getting towards an oxidative and secondary-, or tertiary-, flavoured style. Although Reservas had to have at least 1 year in oak, 2 or more was common – and GRs typically had 3 -5 years, and often the same again in bottle.

Now there is a trend to less oak, and fresher (modern!?) styles… The Wine Society categorises the wine styles thus:

Traditional: fragrant, silky and delicate wines from long ageing in cask (usually American oak) and bottle. These are mostly ready to drink on release.  Bodegas La Rioja Alta are an example of traditional style .
Modern-classical: younger, rounder wines that retain the delicious character of Rioja through cask ageing (often a mix of American and French oak) with the structure to develop in bottle. Bodegas Muga and CVNE,  fall into this category.
Modern: richer, velvety wines aged for less time in newer (usually) French oak, which are released earlier and mostly need keeping.


In fact I think the wine forms a wide spectrum and these three headings are but reference points. But it is true that there is a trend to more site-specific wines. Some growers are vinifying their better grapes from better sites in special Cuvées and using exclusively French (Tronçais or Allier…) oak for the time thought appropriate for the wine rather than the time set by the Gran Reserva (or even the Reserva) rules. The result is more elegant and more structured (and more Bordeaux-profiled) wine – a sort of super-Reserva!

Part of this is indeed soil (and more generally terroir), particularly the Agrilo-Calcaire found also in Bordeaux, Loire etc. This seems to be the soil in the most highly prized sites: for Tempranillo and Graciano; for carefully maintained older vines; vines used for single vineyard or restricted source wines (still a minority– though becoming more common in Rioja); and for more serious white plantings of Viura.

Another factor is grape variety. Red Rioja can contain Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Garnacha. We tend to think of Rioja as a Tempranillo wine with some minority blending partners – a bit like Chianti and Sangiovese… But that’s not accurate at all. There are no rules about how much of each grape can be in a Rioja. So it’s possible to have 100% Graciano, 100% Mazuelo or 100% Garnacha! Indeed these seem not too difficult to find as growers move more to site-based wines, and single vineyard Graciano is a style to watch for…

I confess I am interested to see the outcome of these stylistic changes, and hope they don’t end up entirely “Internationalising” a lovely distinctive wine style. There is room for development of course, but there are still many beautiful examples of  Reservas and Gran Reservas, and I for one still enjoy the depth and voluptuousness of well-made classic Rioja, retaining a warmth, richness and sense of place.

Meanwhile the picture is very varied and flexible, for a while yet it will be a bit like Burgundy: it’s quite hard to know what you’re going to get! – so find a producer (or 3 or 4…) you like and follow them…

Very old Álavesa Viura Vines

For this month’s tasting we’ll start with a very old fashioned white (a very rare style nowadays!) – aged for 4 years in barrel and 6 in bottle.

Then we’ll try a couple of varietals – Mazuelo and Graciano; and a more classic Reserva and Gran Reserva, sandwiching a “modern-classic” “super-Reserva” highly rated wine.

Graciano Vines at Coto de Imaz, Oyon, Álava

I hope the tasting illuminates some of the issues discussed here. Anyway, notes on the tasting will be posted in 6 or 7 days, a little later than usual.

À Bientôt

Hello Again

It’s been a while – over a month since the last post (?), and basically nothing in September.

The main reason is that I’ve been away for pretty well the whole month; on a 2,000 mile road trip to the Loire – Bordeaux – Rioja – Bordeaux – the Loire and home… So I thought I’d kick of the first of 6 posts in October with some thoughts provoked by the trip.

The centre of the holiday was 11 days in Rioja. The first time I’ve spent any time in Spain other than on the Coast (Catalonia – Almeria – Andalusia…), and the first where wine is the main (but far from only) attraction.

I found the area captivating. Geographically –  the terrain varying from lush to arid, and in September at least benefiting from refreshing cool nights due to the altitude, but warm sunshine, and sheltered from rain and wind from the North by the Cantabrian Mountains… Without trying we found ourselves in a couple of significant festivals with crowds celebrating, with much singing, dancing, eating, bull-running and conviviality. Indeed people are very hospitable and seem keen to celebrate for the slightest reason, usually some historical pride of town, region or culture without any sense – so common in the UK – of it being competitive with something else….

Anyway, this is a wine blog so let me say a few things about the wine. These will only be of a very general kind as the ICC WING group will taste Rioja in February. In fact I knew that the Theme of Rioja had been elected (top of the poll, in fact) before I set off, so my aim was to garner wines for that Tasting as well as explore for myself.

Let’s start with a map of the Rioja DOC Wine area:

First of all it would be simple if the Rioja Wine Area was entirely in the La Rioja Autonomous Community. However it’s not the case, first of all only the Northern half of the province is in the Wine DOC area. Also, the Rioja Alavesa sub-region is that part in the Basque Province of Álava and the part of Rioja Baja that lies North of the Ebro is in Navarra. Indeed it seems to me that the boundary of Baja and Alta is pretty arbitrarily drawn just East of Logroño, partly to follow the Navarra / Basque Border north of the Ebro and a similar line south of it. In fact that’s not quite right either, as the border bulges further East again just South of the River to allow the very famous Marqués de Murrieta winery to be in Alta!

It’s not that there shouldn’t be distinction from the much hotter Baja, with a  more Mediterranean climate to the South East as the Ebro descend to meet the Sea about half way between Barcelona and Valencia and the higher cooler areas. However a distinction based on Mediterranean influence would draw a border much further West near the River and much further East away from it…

Soil types are not helpful in making distinctions either – here’s a soil map:

So the sub-region issue isn’t that important and certainly near the area the sub-regions meet the issue is more to do with soil and wine-making.

Just North-East of Logroño – about 3 miles only – there is a point near the Camino de Santiago where one could (if you could find it – it’s not marked)  stand with a foot in La Rioja (and hence Rioja Alta), one foot in Álava (and hence Rioja Alavesa) and bend down to touch Navarra (and hence Rioja Baja). We were staying only 4 miles from there and were able to visit Wineries in all 3 sub-regions – though those closest to this point sourced their wines from more than just one…

Two or three things struck me:

  • The first was indeed soil, particularly the Agrilo-Calcaire found also in Bordeaux, Loire etc. This seemed to be the most highly prized sites – with carefully maintained older vines; vines used for single vineyard or restricted source wines (still uncommon – though growing in Rioja); and for more serious white plantings of Viura.
  • Secondly the red wines can contain Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Garnacha. We tend to think of Rioja as a Tempranillo wine with some minority blending partners – a bit like Chianti and Sangiovese… But that’s not accurate at all. There are no rules about how much of each grape can be in a Rioja. So it’s possible to have 100% Graciano, 100% Mazuelo or 100% Garnacha! Indeed these seem not too difficult to find as growers move more to site-based wines…
  • Finally although there is still beautiful production of Reservas and Gran Reservas, there is a tendency to produce what I can only call super-Reservas – wines that don’t fit entirely into that classic hierarchy… Some growers are vinifying their better fruit in special Cuvées and using exclusively French (often Allier) oak for the time thought appropriate for the wine rather than the time set by the Gran Reserva (or even the Reserva) rules. The result is more elegant and more structured – and more Bordeaux-profiled – wine. This certainly has a place, but I for one still enjoy the depth and voluptuousness of well-made classic Rioja, retaining a warmth, depth and sense of place.

I won’t go any further now, we’ll look out for these trends and discuss other issues next February…

Finally a return to the Loire – swapping the richness of so many of the reds for the leaner lighter style of Cabernet Franc was a lovely contrast. One day I thought I’d cook a curry – having missed spicy food since I left England.

As my Birthday was coming in a day or two I opened a 2008 Schaetzel Kaefferkopf Alsace Gewurztraminer Grand Cru to accompany the food. It was transcendentally wonderful! It had the rose petal scents and exotic fruit one expects – but subtle and tending more to passion fruit than lychees and evolving a warm honey hint. The palate had a complex set of fruit and mature elements but had a clean acidity that delighted and worked with the food. Amazing length and pleasure – without doubt the wine of the Holiday! It’s such a pity that these wines can no longer be had from Schaetzel, who has thrown in his name with Marc Rinaldi and the “KIRRENBOURG PROJECT”.

If anyone knows what’s happening to the Kaefferkopf wines that Schaetzel used to exploit– please let me know!

À Bientôt

I’ve been busy with serious family issues in the last month (and expect to be for the next two or three) and have had little time to devote to posting. So, with some delay, I hope this double post makes up in interest what it lacks in fullness.

On August 16th the WING TT Group met to taste Chablis, and three days later a few of us assembled at Perkins for #7 of their Wine Series – an evening introduced by Peter Bamford and David Perkins and focused on Rioja. These evenings were, respectively, delivered and organised by Ann & John – so massive thanks goes to them.

Here are my, briefer than usual, notes:

At the Monday Tutored Tasting Group we tried 6 Chablis (2 named Cuvées, 2 1ere Crus, and 2 Grands Crus) all from La Chablisienne (probably my favourite Co-op outside Alsace). This producer has large holdings and although modern doesn’t compromise on trying to express terroir by – for example – using too much new oak (although oak is used in some cuvées, especially the Grand Crus) – all in all a good consistent quality producer providing a wide range and good value. As to Chablis itself, in my view it is often better value than similar big names from the Côte de Beaune and I find Chablis’ steely acidity both food-friendly and refreshing. So I anticipated an interesting tasting – which indeed it was….

All the wines were sourced from the producer in 2014, and were from the 2010 vintage, prices are approximate £ equivalents at 2014 exchange rate.

Chablis “Le Finage”   –   12.5%   –   £10
This is made from average 20 year old vines from several (17 or so) parcels all over the Chablis Appellation area.
Quite dark in colour with a heavy nose with linseed and orange peel notes. The palate has warm acidity – round rather than “steely”, good length and a pithy finish.

Chablis “Les Venerables” Vieilles Vignes   –   12.5%   –   £14
This is made from average 35 year old vines from even more parcels than the previous wine.
This has a fuller, fruitier nose with hints of peach and even mango. Sharper acidity with a woody element – both nose and palate seem to get more grainy with time.

Chablis Premier Cru Beauroy   –   13%   –   £15
The Beauroy 1ere Cru is on the West side of the Serein, north of the town.
This has a lighter nose – herby elements and lemony citrus. Tighter, long supple acidity and a warmer mineral note – lovely lip smacking lively long acidity.

Chablis Premier Cru Vaulorent   –   13%   –   £17
The Vaulorent 1ere Cru is on the East side of the Serein opposite Beauroy, just north of the Grand Crus.
Some initial brackish pungency, and then herbal and green notes, and grapefruit. Palate is similar with strong minerality, there is a lot going on but it is all a little restrained at the moment. Some good potential here for a wine that will be better in a couple of years I think. Good value.

Chablis Grand Cru Bougros   –   13%   –   £29
This Grand Cru is at the extreme Western end of the GC slope, quite close to Vaulorent in fact.
Darker colour and a darker nose, aromatic with oaky hints and some honey. Palate has honey notes too, and the acidity is powerful but cloaked, like an iron fist in a velvet glove. The finish is nutty and there is some similarity (although at a much higher level) to the very first wine. Needs some time.

Chablis Grand Cru Blanchot   –   13%   –   £29
This Grand Cru is at the very opposite – Eastern – end of the GC slope.
This has a very interesting nose, some fruit (greengage, apples…) and floral hints. Palate is mouth watering, pithy citrus and white peach fruit with a caramel twist and a long line of mineral. Just coming into balance but some time to go I think. Just lovely!

A very pleasurable tasting with the Blanchot showing most promise and the Vailorent most value.


Over to Perkins then and some good food with two white Riojas and four reds: 2 Reserva and 2 Gran Reserva.

The food was a wonderfully balanced tapas-style asparagus and Serrano with honey-drizzled Manchego which were lovely with the whites. A Hake dish with a creamy bean base – which actually went better with the second white than the red Reservas, and a belly pork dish that complemented the 4 reds well… Here are my wine notes:

CVNE Barrel Fermented Rioja Blanco 2013
The wine has 4 months in oak and quite an early release – so quite a modern style, This has a lemon first nose, slightly oily woody notes but not really vanilla. Very lemon and apple intense acidity, with a smokey finish and another sharp hit at the finish.

“Viña Gravonia” Rioja Blanco 2004 (López de Heredia)
This has 4 years in wood and 6 years in bottle before release, so a very traditional style.
Amazingly complex nose: nut and seed oils, a vegetal note, sherry notes, honey… stewed fruit. Palate has a woody and sherry tones, some qualities one might find more in a dessert wine too: honey, soft peachy almost tropical fruit, passion fruit maybe – and a rasping acid finish… Just wonderful and fabulous with the honey dressed cheese and asparagus.
Many of the notes on these Viura-based whites reminded me of Chenin – apple acidity, honeysuckle, passion fruit…. Just a thought!
IMG_2908 (2)
Maetierra “Gavanza” Rioja Reserva 2007
Forward, sweet fruit nose – strawberry? – and a leafy hint. Surprisingly sharp and spicy palate, quite sweet fruit middle palate with a relatively short finish.

Valenciso Rioja Reserva 2007
Firmer fruit nose, more spirit than the previous wine with forest-floor and cedar hints, later a fig note emerges. The palate has lip-smacking acidity balanced by supple tannins and darker fruit – in a long almost Bordelais package. This 100% Tempranillo is very impressive with the food.

Urbina Rioja Gran Reserva 1996
First nose of leathery age – vegetal hints then a quite spirit plum note. Palate is very drying with plum and herbal notes, long and food friendly but a little short on fruit – good, but maybe a little in decline?

La Rioja Alta “904” Rioja Gran Reserva 2001
First notes of vanilla and cardamom, then some spirit fruit more in the fresher cherry line… Palate has sweet fruit, firm acidity and spicy/clove tannin on the mid palate and a slightly washed-out finish. This improved in the glass and with the food, and became a very stereotypical, and good, Rioja – perhaps not yet at its peak…

I liked all the wines in context with the older Blanco and both Gran Reserva the best Rioja – but the Valenciso is fabulous, and maybe the most enjoyable, while at the same time the least typical.

A lovely evening – pleasurable, illuminating and entertaining.

Dates for the diary: Perkins Wine Series #8 – June 11th: Burgundy with winemaker Mark Haisma;
then October 1st: #9 “Call My Wine Bluff”!

Until next time.

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