King of Spain

Drinks: Wines
Location: Europe, Spain

Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat all make much of their aristocratic roots. Clinton Cawood joins a team of tannin-hardened sommeliers to put their top wines to the test and find out which region has the strongest claim to the Spanish throne

Is this a new oak barrel I see before me? When we called in top examples from Spain’s leading red wine regions – Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat – there was little question that this would be a serious oak fiesta. And it was.

Instituting a lower limit of £15 ex-VAT on the wines submitted meant that this was no place for wimps. Only the strongest, most muscled Spaniards entered. The bottles were heavy, and the wines were dark and rich.

Alternative regions to Rioja are increasingly making their presence felt, and there is no doubt greater choice for those looking for top Spanish reds for their lists. But each of these would-be usurpers have their own distinctive character, and uses, as our tasters discovered.

Our panel: Sara Bachiorri, The Glasshouse; Cédric Beaumond, The Savoy Grill; Andrea Briccarello, Galvin La Chapelle; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Xavier Chapelou, China Tang; Alvaro Marcos Garcia, Home House; James Hopkins, The London Cocktail Club; Chee Hui, HK House; Nigel Lister, ex-Royal Thames Yacht Club; Olivier Marie, Coq d’Argent; Gary Newborough, Market Restaurant; Igor Sotric, China Tang


92 Calvario 2005, Finca Allende
‘Fruit and spice, with smoky tobacco. Polished and elegant on the nose, with earthy, savoury tones, as well as black fruit aromas. This wine has bags of character. Well-balanced and integrated,’ IS. ‘Meaty and spiced on the nose, followed by impressive rich fruit on the palate, cloaking big tannins,’ CC.
£47.50, FMV, 020 7819 0360

86 Inspiración Valdemar Colección Varietales 2005 (Maturana)
‘Elegant nose, with toasted almonds. Mineral on the palate, with good oak integration,’ CC. ‘Herbal to start, then smoky, with some floral notes. Good structure, with a dark chocolate finish,’ SB. ‘Doesn’t taste like Rioja, but it’s tasty and refreshing,’ CH.
£24.73, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711

86 Inspiración Valdemar Edición Limitada 2004
‘Lots of complexity and elegant fruit flavours. Very well-balanced, and showing some elegance,’ AG. ‘A touch of caramel to go with a soft vanilla, oaky spiced nose. Gentle, integrated tannin, and spicy length,’ NL.
£20.73, Berkmann, 020 7609 4711

84 Ogga Rioja Reserva 2004
‘Intense meaty notes, with ripe, luscious dark plums. Mellow, soft, gentle and balanced,’ AB. ‘A lovely caramel-tinged nose, with good lifted ripe fruit and balanced tannins,’ NL.
£21.64, Patriarche Wine Agencies, 020 7381 4016

83 Contino Viña del Olivo 2007
‘Some fleshy fruit here, with a liquorice edge, and a slightly sweet aniseed finish. There’s some freshness here,’ CH. ‘Dark fruit, with wood evident. Good depth, followed by a long, fruity finish, with blackberries and blackcurrants,’ SB.
£37.77, Coe Vintners, 020 8551 4966

83 Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2005
‘Full-flavoured, with a big, persistent finish. A rich, very good wine.’ XC. ‘Fruit-forward. Ripe and rounded, with dried fruit finish. Soft oak and tannins make this very approachable.’ JH. 
£17.56, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711

82 Cirsion 2006, Bodegas Roda
‘Prunes, dried fruit and liquorice on the nose. Velvety on the palate, with ripe fruit, firm tannins, and really long ageing potential, as well as good minerality. A beautiful wine,’ SB. ‘The tannins are like a drunk ballet dancer – rolling
over, but still balanced,’ CH.
£88.86, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600

80 Dalmau 2005 Marqués de Murrieta
‘Very dense, dark spiced cherry nose, followed by intense dark fruit, and a silky mid-palate. Still young, but promising, and impressive,’ NL. ‘Blackberries, dark chocolate and leather, with juicy fruit on the palate, supported by mocha notes. Both elegant and complex,’ AB.
£45.00, Maisons Marques et Domaines, 020 8812 3380

79 Bodegas Amaren Tempranillo Reserva Especial 2004
‘Rounded, intense and aromatic, with a touch of flavour from the oak ageing. A classic style,’ AG. ‘Simply irresistible. The nose hasn’t really opened up yet, but this is showing great promise, with good value for money,’ GN.
£23.98, Alliance Wine, 01505 506060

79 Señorío de San Vicente 2006
‘Maraschino cherry on the nose, followed by good dark fruit on the nose, and spice to finish,’ SB. ‘Lifted, with some floral notes accompanying the big, bold rich fruit throughout,’ CC.
£25.98, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400

78 Campillo Reserva Especial 2001
‘Pronounced and spicy, with tobacco and cedarwood, supported by herbal notes of thyme and rosemary. Soft tannins in balance with fruit and spice,’ IS. ‘Plums and raisins, with some cranberry freshness. Good balance of acidity and fruit, making this quite fresh,’ JH.
£25.75, Cellar Trends, 01283 217703

78 Nabot Single Vineyard 2004
‘Modern Rioja: cigar box and spice, as well as red fruit, with a real sense of density, but never ovedone. Elegant,’ NL. ‘Fine and elegant fruit flavours, with a touch of cigar box in the finish,’ AG.
£25.23, Patriarche Wine Agencies, 020 7381 4016

76 Propiedad 2007, Bodegas Palacios Remondo
‘Bright fruit, in a more modern style. Christmas cake on the nose, with ripe fruit: raspberries and strawberries and cream. A nice balance of fruit and tannin,’ NL. ‘Intense wild berry, violet and cherry notes, with some spiciness on the palate,’ AB.
£16.70, FMV, 020 7819 0360

75 Nabot Rioja Reserva 2005
‘Cooked berry-fruit crumble aromas. Nice and nimble on the palate. Considered, with a savoury edge,’ CC. ‘Despite a heavy bottle, the wine isn’t too massive. Enough fruit to balance the pleasant but firm tannins,’ OM.
£20.74, Patriarche Wine Agencies, 020 7381 4016

75 Remelluri Collección Jaime Rodriguez 2003
‘Some medicinal notes, with hints of rhubarb and gingerbread. Dark fruit on the mid-palate. This is quite full-on,’ AB. ‘A real class act, with subtle fruit and tannins – well-balanced,’ GN.
£50.03, Alliance Wine, 01505 506060

74 Baigorri Reserva 2005
‘Clean, classic style, with lots of oak and a sweet fruit character,’ OM. ‘Well-balanced, with nice juicy fruit and soft oak. Very approachable,’ JH.
£16.86, Moreno Wines, 020 7286 0678

74 Dinastia Vivanco Coleccion
Vivanco 4 Varietales 2007 ‘Complex nose of ripe plums and dark floral notes. Savoury, juicy, fresh and elegant,’ AB. ‘Lots of concentration, with some ripe fruit flavours,’ AG. ‘Lifted nose, with cigar box and ripe black fruits, like intense blackcurrants,’ NL.
£28.57, Bibendum, 020 7449 4120

74 Predicador 2007, Benjamin Romeo
‘Expressive, smoky and earthy, with some jamminess, and evident tannins,’ IS. ‘Juicy on the palate, with leather, spice and soft ripe tannins,’ JH.
£20.24, Corney & Barrow, 020 7265 2400

74 Roda I 2006, Bodegas Roda
‘Complexity on the nose, with herbal, smoky notes, as well as raspberry and strawberry. There’s a savoury element too, like bacon,’ AB. ‘Nice freshnessto the fruit in this wine, with a touch of caramel. Still evolving,’ NL.
£26.63, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600

73 Faustino de Autor
Reserva Especial 2001
‘Rustic, farmyard notes with fine tannins. Could maybe do with a bit more fruit on the mid-palate,’ AB. ‘Dense, farmyard notes on the nose, followed by dark, almost liquorice flavours balanced by classic Riojan red fruits. Interesting,’ NL.
£25.75, Cellar Trends, 01283 217703

73 Marques de Vargas 2005 Reserva
‘Herbaceous character at first, showing minerality after that. Round and soft on the palate, with good fruit.’ SB. ‘Power and richness, with intensity. Earthy, with herbs, pinewood, leather and juniper.’ IS.
£18.06, Laytons Wine Services, 020 7288 8853

72 Herederos del Marqués de Riscal 2001
‘Classic, woody, leathery nose. Dark red fruit, with firm tannins, good length, and a pinch of liquorice on the finish,’ SB. ‘Spice notes, as well as a leafy character, along with sage and black fruit,’ IS.
£23.60, Enotria, 020 8961 4411

72 Miguel Merino Gran Reserva 2004
‘Very meaty spiciness on the nose, with hints of earthiness, and savoury on the palate. Soft and elegant on the finish,’ AB. ‘Tertiary aromas of tobacco, leather, and some slight oxidation, but very rounded and ready to drink,’ AG.
£15.10, PLB, 01342 318282

71 Miguel Merino Unnum 2005
‘Lifted strawberry and coconut on the nose with leather and dense fruit on the palate. Well structured and really promising,’ NL. ‘Rioja at its best! I really like the juiciness of this wine, combined with a touch of leather and tobacco,’ AG.
£17.75, PLB, 01342 318282

69 Bodegas Amaren Graciano 2006
‘Fruit-forward, with cherry and spice, and good mouthfeel,’ JH. ‘Ultra-ripe and richly concentrated – this shows breed and raciness. Richly textured, with superb balance. Wonderful,’ OM.
£27.98, Alliance Wine, 01505 506060

69 Bodegas LAN Viña Lanciano Reserva 2004
‘Dark earthy fruit, with leather and spice, as well as good acidity and freshness. Smooth tannins, and a chocolate finish. This will do even better with age,’ AB. ‘A balsamic note on the nose, with strawberry fruit and creamy tannins,’ NL.
£17.40, Bancroft Wines, 020 7232 5440

69 Remelluri Reserva 2006
‘Forest fruit and wild berry flavours. This has good structure, with a touch of herbaceousness on the aftertaste.’ AG. ‘Tobacco, leather and cinnamon on the nose. Spice box and forest fruits, with creamy tannins.’ NL.
£15.47, Alliance Wine, 01505 506060

68 Bodegas LAN Rioja Gran Reserva 2003
‘Juicy and rich on the palate, with a bit of savoury character too,’ CC. ‘Clearly showing developed aromas, with a hit of sweet, dark, cinnamon spice. Generous, ample tannins,’ OM.
£15.65, Bancroft Wines, 020 7232 5440

66 The Coto Real Reserva 2004
‘Lovely sweet oak character, with menthol and a refreshing eucalyptus finish,’ OM. ‘Full and ripe on the nose, with some spice. Fruit and oak on the palate, balanced in favour of the oak,’ CC
£16.71, Cockburn & Campbell, 01234 279241

65 Viña Tondonia Reserva 2001, López de Heredia
‘Some oxidation on the nose – autumnal, forest floor and fading fruit. This is a very subjective style,’ NL. ‘Classic, almost old fashioned in style, with aged aromas,’ AG.
£19.40, FMV, 020 7819 0360

61 Monte Real Gran Reserva 2001
‘Smooth and well-balanced, as well as a little bit earthy. Good aftertaste too,’ GN. ‘Showing some age, this is elegant and well-balanced – a classic style of Rioja,’ AG.
£15.63, Boutinot, 0161 908 1300


84 Somni 2008, Clos de Portal
‘Very full and complex – fig, black olive and umami,’ XC. ‘A point of difference here, aromatically, with celery inflection. More charming with the wood than some of the others,’ CH
£26.40, Genesis, 020 7963 9060

79 Mas d’en Compte 2007
Crianza Red ‘Opens up on the palate with some lovely defined fruit and a mineral edge. Polished,’ CH. ‘Meaty, bacon notes, with some musky character too,’ XC.
£21.55, Laytons Wine Services, 020 7288 8852

78 Idus de Vall Llach 2005
‘Nice complexity, in a rich, ripe, ultra-conventional style. Notes of tobacco leaves, cigar box and graphite minerality coming through,’ OM. ‘Fresh herbs, red flowers, followed by good plum and cherry fruit on the palate,’ SB
£26.81, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400

78 Perpetual 2007, Torres
‘Red fruit pastille tones. Ripe and balanced,’ CH. ‘Ripe red fruit and fine vanilla notes on the nose, with a hint of wild herbs. A refined, lovely wine,’ SB.
£14.99, John E Fells & Sons, 01442 870900

77 +7 2007, Bodegas Pinord
‘Showing some development and evolution. Heathery, musky character, with a complex, sweet finish,’ OM. ‘A full body of dried raisin and dried fruit, with heavy tannins,’ JH.
£22.65, Hallgarten Druitt/Novum, 01582 722538

77 Balcons 2005, Bodegas Pinord
‘Black cherry on the nose, followed by fig, plum, and herbal notes like clove, fennel and white pepper,’ XC. ‘Tangible freshness, with attractive savoury stewed plum notes. Polished,’ CH.
£29.50, Hallgarten Druitt/Novum, 01582 722538

76 Embruix de Vall Llach 2006
‘Dark fruit, a touch of mint, with dried flowers winning through afterwards. Good fruit on the palate,’ SB. ‘Silky tannins – dry but polished, with some spice notes too,’ CH
£15.14, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400

76 Martinet Bru 2007, Mas Martinet
‘Mediterranean, with black and red fruit, pine and a green, herbal character,’ IS. ‘Ripe, concentrated nose, with blackberries, as well as pencil shavings and cedarwood. Very expressive, though the oak needs time to integrate,’ OM
£16.81, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400

74 Ardiles Priorat 2006, Merum Priorati
‘Identifiable blackcurrant fruit. Savoury and sweet at the same time – odd, but distinctive,’ CH. ‘An unusual blend between spice and fruit. Definitely shows regional expression,’ IS.
£20.13, Boutinot, 0161 908 1300

74 Gratallops 2007, Alvaro Palacios
‘Gentle and floral on the nose, with dry cherry mouthfeel, and a youthful finish,’ SB. ‘Herbs, black fruit, and lots of spice. Still young,’ IS.
£28.85, FMV, 020 7819 0360

71 Huellas 2009, Massard
‘Earthy nose, with very light red fruit character. The fruit’s good on the palate, with a spicy, dry mouthfeel,’ SB. ‘Spice notes, with some sage and rosemary, followed by blueberry notes,’ IS.
£19.00, Enotria, 020 8961 4411

71 Mas La Mola 2007
‘White pepper, spice, blackcurrant and pine. Length, with soft tannins, as well as good structure and texture,’ IS. ‘Background notes of oak and raisins, with dried fruit on the palate,’ JH.
£18.08, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

70 Odysseus Tinto Old Vine 2005
‘Aristocratic, elegant, with a nice floral character, with some earthiness evident – hoummos, mushrooms, and a nice oaky character,’ OM. ‘Black fruit and a herbaceous character,’ IS.
£17.01, Moreno Wines, 020 7286 0678

70 Salanques 2005, Mas Doix
‘Black and blue fruit, sweet spice, mocha and vanilla. Rich, elegant, dynamic, with good structure and impressive length,’ IS. ‘Good fruit, followed by a good, spicy dry finish. Great length,’ SB.
£23.14, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400

70 Scala Dei Cartoxia 2005
‘Full-bodied cherry and chocolate,’ JH. ‘Blackberries, mint and vanilla, with some mineral notes. Good fruit, firm tannins and a spicy finish. But needs time,’ SB.
£17.50, Grupo Codorníu, 01892 500250


77 Viña Pedrosa Crianza 2006, Bodegas Hnos Pérez Pascuas
‘Elegant, with lots of juicy, leathery overtones. Well-balanced, and ready to drink now,’ AG. ‘Dark cherry and other dark, spicy fruit, with some oxidative character,’ AB.
£15.65, Bancroft Wines, 020 7232 5440

69 Pago de los Capellanes
Tinto Reserva 2007 ‘Subtle and elegant, not to mention well-balanced,’ GN. ‘With attractive spiced baked fruit, this wine showed both elegance and strength,’ NL.
£26.99, Enotria, 020 8961 4411

68 Tábula 2006, Bodegas Tábula
‘Intense meaty spice – complex, yet fresh and juicy. This is well-balanced, with a fresh and fruity finish,’ AB.  ‘A very well made wine, with ripe fruit and concentration, AG.
£18.67, Bibendum, 020 7449 4120

68 Torresilo 2007, Cillar de Silos
‘Lovely perfumed spice, with complex spice notes. Balanced, with ripe red and black fruit, and decent length,’ NL. ‘Lots of elegance, with wild fruit flavours and a good aftertaste,’ AG.
£21.70, FMV, 020 7819 0360

67 Viña Pedrosa La Navilla 2006, Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas
‘Meaty and iron-rich on the nose. This is then followed by elegant red fruit notes,’ NL. ‘Good development on the nose, almost smoky, followed by fresh acidity and good tannins,’ AB.
£22.40, Bancroft Wines, 020 7232 5440

63 Jaros 2008, Bodegas Jaros
‘Bright red cherry fruit on the nose, with soft, elegant tannins. This is still quite youthful,’ NL. ‘Nice and elegant, with a lot of power, this is alive with fruit flavours, and lots of personality,’ AG.
£17.73, Moreno Wines, 020 7286 0678

63 Portia Prima 2004
‘Very fruity to start, with attractive dark cherry fruit and a fresh juicy finish,’ AB. ‘There is a touch of bitterness on the palate, but some really juicy flavours throughout to balance it,’ AG.
£15.95, Cellar Trends, 01283 217703

62 Dominio de Caïr 2008
‘Earthy and a little bit vegetal on the palate with noticeable tannins,’ GN. ‘Perfumed and powerful, with soft tannins. If anything, it’s lacking a little in fruit.’ NL.
£16.50, Alliance Wine, 01505 506060

62 Finca Villacreces 2006
‘Dark cherries on the nose, with lots of plum flavour too, and alcohol in evidence. Nice freshness and acidity, with a roasted coconut finish,’ AB. ‘Intense and aromatic, with a nice wild-berry flavour, leather notes, as well as toasted flavours,’ AG.
£17.08, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350


  • Overall scores were decidedly high, suggesting good quality across the board and a sommelier appreciation for these styles.
  • Criticisms of individual wines were often related to a lack of fruit, or an imbalance in oak.
  • Questions of age arose, with some wines thought to be too young, while others were possibly already past their prime.
  • Priorat showed consistency, with a dip in the middle price points, returning to form at around £22, and with no wines below 70% – a significant achievement.
  • Ribera del Duero was the only region with wines scoring below 60%. While it excelled at lower price points, quality diminished as prices increased.
  • Rioja’s scores were high overall, starting out slowly at lower prices, but building in higher price brackets. Several top wines were £20-25. Beating Priorat by 0.5%, Rioja achieved this with a number of standout wines.

‘Overall, the Priorats were good. There were so many different styles that I think it’s more about the wines themselves, rather than the terroir. In Rioja, the top wines were amazing. I prefer classic-style Rioja and there were a few of those, but many were very young. I was seeing potential for ageing, with lots of fruit and youthful tannins. The same goes for Priorat, although they tended to be softer, with some spice. It would be easier to sell the Priorats now.’ 

‘The Riberas were big wines, sticky and leathery, and that’s what I was looking for. And the prices were good – my favourite Ribera was the cheapest. The Riojas were less rustic, and more feminine, with more complexity, and more versatility. Ribera’s what I’d choose for food, for my type of restaurant.’

‘I was expecting more for the money from Ribera del Duero. There were some good wines in both the Ribera and the Rioja flights, but were they really worth that price? You have to be really selective, put your feelings to one side, and just taste the wine. I was looking for fruit, spice, and freshness, with good use of oak. I found some of these. My Rioja flight was better than Ribera – more savoury, meaty, and more food friendly. They’re more useful for day-to-day.’

‘The Rioja flight improved as the price point increased, with more moderate, considered winemaking evident. This wasn’t quite the case with Priorat, where oak was often overused, and not always in place. Big tannins made this tasting heavy going at times, but made those with integrated oak that much more rewarding. The best Riojas, in particular, were impressive, with appealing herbal and savoury notes.

‘Some of my top-scoring Priorats were at the lower price points. The higher-priced ones were more difficult. There were one or two that weren’t ready to drink, but had a bitter sweetness like Amarone, where you could see the potential. In Rioja, I found the newer style of winemaking
was more sophisticated, more feminine. That’s more restaurant-friendly, with more ripe fruit.

‘The Ribera selection was good, but I found some of the wines to be lacking in fruit. I did like that the wines weren’t overpowered with oak, though. The Riojas were split in terms of style, classic and modern. The classics either had too many aged flavours, or were just ready to drink, but I really enjoyed the more modern styles, with more concentration, as well as a classic aftertaste.’

‘Priorat started nicely, with fruit-forward styles, but by the mid-priced wines it was like chewing a desk. That said, there were some that were still balanced and that had fruit – plus some real gems. For food friendliness, I’d be looking at Rioja though, definitely. There were some that were really well-balanced, while others have taken a bit of a gamble with their winemaking. There was also a very distinct line between classic and new styles.’

‘The wines that did stand out had definition, and not just wood. They had some acidity, and were a bit more mineral. The Priorats just weren’t very friendly. The Riojas were better in quality all round, with some tangible freshness, and a bit more food friendly. There was diversity in style, but they were unified in ambition.’

‘It’s not about whether or not you like a style, but about quality winemaking, with ripe fruit, not masked by oak. I found Ribera disappointing, and lacking in fruit, with only a few exceptions. Call me old fashioned, but I like to taste fruit in my wine. They might have all been a bit young… Rioja was much more interesting. They gave the impression of not trying so hard, and had more balance. I could shift Rioja at those prices.’

‘The Priorat flight showed real breed and elegance. Rioja showed some interesting aromatic profiles – not forced – and were true to their terroir. Elegant and complex at the same time. They were either made in a classic or modern style, the latter meant to be drunk now. I thought Rioja offered good value for money, overall, and were more food friendly than the Priorats, with well-integrated tannins, and with raw materials better adapted to oak ageing.’

‘What I found interesting with the Riberas was the entry level, as well as the top end. Once you take value for money into account, the stuff in the middle is of no use to me. It was the opposite for me with the Riojas, where the mid-priced wines exceeded expectations. Elegance is one thing, but convincing a customer of some of these price points is another. In the middle bunch, the price was about right. I’d choose the Rioja over the Riberas for food-matching, by a long way.’

‘With the Priorat wines, the lower end of the price range was really good, followed by a dip as they got more expensive. They built up again at the higher price points. Some were super-stylish – in a Mediterranean style – with sage-like notes that reminded me of home. When it came to Rioja, I wasn’t too impressed with the cheaper wines, with their sweet spice and concentrated, jammy fruit, but the top end was stunning.’

Also tasted: Dominio de Atauta 2006; Psi 2008, Peter Sisseck; Ribera Reserva 2004, Bodegas Santa Eulalia; Linaje Garsea Reserva 2006. Many thanks to the team at Geronimo Inns’ The Betjeman Arms for hosting the tasting and for all their help on the day.

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