Drinks: Wines
Location: Europe, Spain

Spain: Rioja
A broad selection of decent, well-made wines, but far fewer for our tasters to get really excited about

This is now a pretty big category, with a large number of entries. But its performance in the SWAs is consistent only in its inconsistency. Dreadful in 2007, decent in 2008, no Gold List wines at all in 2009, then five last year. So which face of Rioja would turn up this year?

The category tends to do well in the early stages, with tasters generally happy enough with the soft, juicy wines that they’re tasting (and the prices) to put forward a good number of wines for Bronze medals at least. And so it was again this year.

However there were a few question marks over typicity. ‘I would have picked one of these as Merlot. In general, there was only a little of that traditional character,’ grumbled Michael Harrison. Overall, however, this was a section that delivered decent, crowd-pleasing wines across the price points.

Stylistically, there was the by-now-familiar battle between ‘old-school and oxidative’ and ‘modern and fruit-driven’, a punch-up that, on this evidence, the latter is winning. Not that the hoodie- ’n’ ipod-wearing wines had it all their own way. ‘Although there were only a couple of old-fashioned bottles, the wine we enjoyed the most was one,’ said Sergio Benito.

In other words, although most of the submissions were in a modern style, and most tasters tended to favour this type of wine, the old style was still popular when done well. So it’s not just the winemakers who are conflicted as to what to expect from the region.

The lower-priced wines were generally some of the most popular, offering genuine value for money when they were not over-oaked. The ability of the region to produce good, customer-friendly wines across the price spectrum was definitely a positive.

‘This was a really nice selection and it was hard to choose,’ said Sara Bachiorri, after judging the first round. ‘The cheapest wines were some of the most impressive. Really good quality overall.’ Her positive feedback at this stage was echoed by the majority of judges.

The region’s problems this year did not start in the early rounds of judging, but towards the end. While a lot of wines got Bronze (12), relatively few made the step up to Silver (five) and only two reservas – from Beronia and Don Jacobo – made it on to the Gold List.

‘[The Don Jacobo] was a clear step up in money as well as quality, but rioja is a name that sells so I think this would be a good addition,’ said Robert Giorgione, ex-Orrery.

These two were excellent examples of mid-price and trade-up rioja, but the broad-based pyramid of medals, suggests a category that makes a lot of good, rather than great, wine.

Hearteningly, we did get a few whites sent in this year, the vast majority in that ‘clean, fresh, modern’ style. The sommeliers preferred this style, tending to dismiss most of the oxidative, barrel-aged examples not so much on grounds of price (though they tended to be expensive) but because they couldn’t see any real market. Something, perhaps, for producers around the Ebro to think about. Are we seeing the death throes of traditional white rioja?

“We found a lot of good examples – and good-value examples – at every price level. The consistency was impressive. ” Matthew Cocks, Cubitt House


Beronia Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain
£7.56 @ Gonzalez Byass
SWA 2011 Gold List Regarded as a textbook example by the tasters, this draw plaudits all round.
Complex, juicy, rich fruit and well spiced, it has dusty tannins, smoky notes and a good finish. ‘Needs aeration,’ advised Peter McCombie MW. ‘Unbelievable quality for the money,’ said Ivo Stoyanov.

Don Jacobo Rioja Reserva 2004, Rioja, Spain
£11.34 @ Matthew Clark
SWA 2011 Gold List With dark fruit on the nose, alongside savoury notes, this is a softer style of Rioja, with relatively smooth tannins, savoury, dried fruit and leather flavours on the palate, and a nice gentle peppery finish. ‘Liquorice and five-spice,’ said Tom Harrow. ‘Full of character and complexity,’ said Robert Giorgione, ex-Orrery.


Paternina Banda Dorada 2010, Rioja, Spain
£4.51 @ Ehrmanns
Well balanced and alive,’ said Matthew Cocks of this lovely medium-bodied, crisp, zingy white Rioja with white floral and clean citrus flavours alongside mineral notes. ‘Beautiful,’ said Ivo Stoyanov.

Baron de Ley Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain
£9.55 @ Bottle Green
Classic Rioja at a good price, there’s smoke, spice, berries, prunes and vanilla on the nose.
‘The nicely structured palate has fresh plums and cherries, dry tannins and a medium finish,’
said Sergio Benito.

Miguel Merino Reserva 2003, Rioja, Spain
£15.15 @ PLB Group
Classic quality, with sweet red fruits on a well-rounded, well-integrated palate alongside cherry, liquorice, spice, dark chocolate and vanilla flavours. Dry, fine but firm tannins and a long finish. ‘Nice balance. Some complexity,’ said Team Leader Jamie Goode.

Baigorri Reserva 2005, Rioja, Spain
£16.52 @ Moreno Wines
Rich with complex flavours of wood, sweet spice, smoke and leather from the oak ageing alongside damson and bramble. ‘This is well balanced and integrated, ‘said Matthew Cocks.
It’s at a higher price but there is more of everything.’ ‘Good length. Very smooth,’ added
Nicola Thomson.

Altos de Corral Rioja 2002, Rioja, Spain
£25 @ Matthew Clark
Fine bouquet with blueberry, chocolate, vanilla and sweet spices – think ginger, cloves and cinnamon – followed by a complex, multi-layered palate. ‘Well made with decent acidity,’ said James Hocking. ‘Proper Rioja.’


Inspiracion Valdemar Tempranillo Blanco 2009, Rioja, Spain
£15.25 @ Berkmann Wine Cellars
Wonderful lemon gold, rich colour. Creamy, rich vanilla on the nose leads to a rich, rounded palate with a healthy dash of oak and ripe fruit flavours.

Paternina Monte Haro 2009, Rioja, Spain
£4.51 @ Ehrmanns
Bold and savoury, this has a very traditional nose. With sweet oak and slight medicinal notes, the fruit and spice carry through to a lengthy finish. ‘Great value,’ commented Christine Parkinson.

San Millan Rioja Crianza 2007, Rioja, Spain
£5.16 @ Majestic Wine
Dark fruit with a touch of brett and nice American oak. ‘Savoury, herby, slightly earthy nose,’ said Jamie Goode. ‘Subtle cherry fruit palate with spicy, earthy undertones.’

Vega del Rayo Vendimia Seleccionada 2008, Rioja, Spain
£5.19 @ Boutinot
With good fruit character on the nose, there are juicy fruits on the palate with gentle spiciness and fine, drying tannins. ‘Young but good,’ said an approving Sara Bachiorri.

Artesa Rioja Crianza 2007, Rioja, Spain
£5.59 @ Boutinot
A fine depth of flavour on this well-integrated rioja, with ripe red and black fruit plus sweet spice from gentle use of oak. ‘Great at the price,’ said Matthew Cocks.

Paternina Clisos 2009, Rioja, Spain
£6.23 @ Ehrmanns
With sweet red fruit on the nose, the palate is a mix of sweet and savoury, with sweet oak and grainy tannins. Medium in length but lacks a bit of freshness.

Pago Malarina 2008, Rioja, Spain
£6.72 @ Enotria
Traditional and earthy, this good-value proposition proved popular all round. Vibrant, fresh, juicy cherries sit harmoniously alongside herbs, red berries and leather from the grippy but ripe tannins.

Paternina Banda Roja 2005, Rioja, Spain
£6.95 @ Ehrmanns
Growing old gracefully, this has plenty of savoury, wild flavours, with good spice and incense on the nose. Although it slightly lacked concentration, there’s a good charry character from the oak alongside smooth tannins.

Valenciso Reserva 2005, Rioja, Spain
£12.94 @ Boutinot
A complex bouquet of dried and ripe fruit with spice heralds a rioja that is ageing well. The savoury nature dominates on an earthy well-integrated palate, with good freshness on the finish. ‘Plenty going on in the glass,’ commented Laurie Watson.

Monte Real Gran Reserva 2001, Rioja, Spain
£15.59 @ Boutinot
Complex and long with nicely integrated oak,’ said Natasha Hughes. Dried fruit, silky texture plus leather and tobacco notes alongside prune and date flavours. ‘A lovely sweetness comes through with baked berries and delicate tannins,’ said Sergio Benito.

Don Jacobo Gran Reserva 1995, Rioja, Spain
£16.26 @ Matthew Clark
Complex and savoury from the start, this has earthy notes of stewed blueberries and forest fruit alongside vanilla notes on the palate. ‘There are juicy red fruits – think strawberry, redcurrant, bramble – plus a good length,’ said Nicola Thomson.

Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2005, Rioja, Spain
£17.43 @ Berkmann Wine Cellars
Modern and bright, this impressed the panel with its juicy black fruit flavours, its spicy notes and its firm but fresh palate. ‘Youthful but approachable,’ was Peter McCombie MW’s verdict.

“This was a positively good flight – I’m sceptical about rioja, but I found some gems here. ”
Andrea Briccarello, Galvin La Chapelle

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