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Rioja Riding High

As Spanish wine surges, Rioja stands out for a winning combination of quality and value
Thomas Matthews
Posted: December 15, 2008

Spain has more acreage planted to winegrapes than any other European country, and in recent years it has been exploiting this bounty to produce an extraordinary array of wines. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, as new wine regions emerge, and old ones revive.

But for one-stop shopping, focus on Rioja. While this vineyard region in north-central Spain was the country's most prestigious for most of the past century, it fell behind in the extraordinary progress that flowered beginning in the 1980s. Now, however, Rioja has regained its crown. Today, no other region can deliver such quality, value and diversity.

Since my last tasting report on the country ("Spain's Ascent of Quality," Dec. 15, 2007), we have blind-tasted more than 900 Spanish wines (including cava and Sherry) in Wine Spectator's New York office. About 165 rated 90 points or higher, with five reds earning classic scores (95 to 100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale). (For a list of top wines and values, see page 97; for an alphabetical list of all wines tasted.)

Collectors can debate the merits of bold, international-style reds versus the silky elegance of the classic style. On the value side, you can choose among fruity Garnachas, meaty Monastrells, minerally Mencías and balanced Tempranillos. There are bright, crisp, un-oaked whites from Rueda and Rias Baixas, and exuberant rosés from Navarra and Campo de Borja. And don't overlook the distinctive Spanish treasures from Jerez.

This September in a WineSpectator.com survey, respondents pointed to Spain as Europe's best country for wine values, and that judgment was borne out by our tastings. We reviewed more than 110 bottlings (including 39 whites and 14 rosés) that scored 85 to 89 points, or very good, and cost $15 or less.

But Spanish wine producers are still struggling with neglected vineyards and outmoded wineries, so consumers should exercise caution with labels unfamiliar to them. More than 50 wines in this report scored fewer than 80 points, or mediocre in quality. Most of them sell for $15 or less, proving that not every inexpensive wine is a value.


Rioja mirrors Spain's wine diversity in microcosm. Whether you're looking for big reds for the cellar, bright whites or juicy rosés, this region delivers.

I tasted nearly 200 Riojas for this report, the most from any region by far. The top reds were evenly divided between the sleek, fresh 2005s, the richer 2004s and the balanced, maturing 2001s. These Tempranillo-based blends show ripe red fruit flavors, firm but balanced structures and uncommon grace.

Bodegas LAN succeeded in both younger vintages. Its concentrated and expressive Culmen Reserva 2004 (96, $60) is the top-scoring Rioja in this report; the intense, vibrant Edición Limitada 2005 (91, $45) is also a great value. Baron de Ley produced the top 2001, the debut vintage of its 7 Viñas Reserva (93, $69). This balanced, complex red includes seven indigenous varieties, including three white grapes (Viura, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia) that comprise 8 percent of the blend and add an intriguing floral note to the plum, fig cake and mocha flavors.

The best Riojas have become quite expensive, with many breaking the $100 mark. But you can find outstanding wines for $50 or less, especially among the reservas from 2004. Look for the rich but graceful Finca Valpiedra (93, $40), the focused, minerally Bodegas Muga (91, $30) and the silky, expressive Bodegas LAN (90, $17).

There are plenty of fine values at $15 or less, too. Among the reds, try Ramón Bilbao's Tempranillo Crianza 2005 (88, $13), plush and modern, or El Coto de Rioja's Crianza 2005 (86, $12), a fresh, balanced red with plum and mocha flavors. It's hard to top the Márques de Cáceres White 2007 (86, $8), with its bright peach and floral notes. Among rosés, Cune's Rosado 2007 (87, $13) is bold and rich; Faustino's Rosado V 2007 (86, $13) is more traditional, light and graceful.


Ribera del Duero, southwest of Rioja, focuses on sturdy reds made mostly from Tempranillo, built for medium- and long-term aging. While similar to Rioja reds in many ways, they tend to show more structure and a characteristic smoky, gamy note that complements grilled meats and stews.

Ribera excelled in 2004, and it's worth hunting for the top late-release wines from the vintage, including my highest-scoring Ribera in this report, the J.C. Conde Delgado y Otros Neo (96, $58), and the Bodegas Las Astrales (94, $55). Both exemplify modern Ribera, with dense textures, dark flavors of black fruit, mocha and chocolate, and notes of smoke, mineral and game. These are powerful wines with a hint of wildness that keeps them alluring.

However, many bodegas are moving on to the 2005 vintage, a bit lighter than 2004, but still ripe and balanced. When it comes to outstanding quality bottlings, you'll find the best value here, especially among crianzas.

Look for Bodegas Felix Callejo (93, $22); it's well structured but accessible now. Condado de Haza (93, $34), from pioneer Alejandro Fernández, shows focus and depth, on a supple frame. O. Fournier's Spiga (91, $31) is brooding but balanced. Torres Celeste (90, $22) delivers plum, coffee and game flavors; it's a bit rustic, but balanced.

Conde Delgado's Neo also excelled in 2005 (93, $69), proving that this young bodega, founded in 2000 by three partners with no vineyards and no winery, is more than a flash in the pan. Winemaker Isaac Fernández (nephew of local hero Mariano García) buys grapes from old vineyards and follows a modern protocol (mostly French oak, no fining or filtration) to make these finely chiseled reds. The model follows Peter Sisseck at Pingus, more proof that a talented winemaker using exceptional grapes can succeed despite a lack of long experience or high-tech operation.

Neo makes Ribera seem more like a New World frontier than a bastion of the Old World. On the other hand, Vega Sicilia, the region's flagship winery (and former home of García), continues along its traditional way. The Unico Gran Reserva 1998 (91, $440) delivers harmonious dried cherry, tobacco, mineral and spices on a polished texture, an exceptional showing in a difficult vintage.


With Priorat and its satellite DO, Montsant, we move east for reds built from Garnacha and Cariñena, along with dollops of Syrah, Merlot and other international varieties. These wines show more red fruit than the Tempranillo-based wines, along with seductive garrigue notes, and sleeker structures, and they are more accessible in their youth. They consistently deliver outstanding quality—about 40 percent of the Priorat wines reviewed scored 90 points or more.

Álvaro Palacios continues to set the benchmark; his three 2005s are outstanding. While his tiny-production, old-vine Garnacha bottling L'Ermita (94, $700) deserves its eminence, his négociant bottling Les Terasses (90, $35) is a more affordable introduction to his intense, elegant style. The Finca Dofí (92, $80), with Syrah and Cabernet in the blend, is more structured, yet still expressive.

Cellers Capafons-Osso also excelled this year. The families of husband Francesc Capafons and wife Monserrat Osso have been growing grapes in the region for generations and have been bottling their wines since the 1990s. Their wines are ripe and structured, if a bit rustic, and need some age to show their best. The Mas de Masos 2004 (94, $70) is a single-vineyard blend of Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon. Also look for the smoky Masos d'en Cubells 2005 (91, $50) and the brooding Sirsell 2005 (90, $30).

Though best known for dry red wines, Priorat also offers a few offbeat bottlings. Costers del Siurana Priorat Dolç de L'Obac 2004 (92, $122/500ml) has the sweetness of a dessert wine, but remains balanced and lively, with kirsch and bitter chocolate flavors. Clos Mogador Priorat White Nelin 2006 (90, $50), a blend of white Garnacha and a melting pot of other varieties, is lush yet lively, with melon, guava and vanilla flavors.

Neighboring Montsant uses basically the same grape varieties as Priorat. Joan d'Anguera, one of the best-established bodegas, produced two outstanding reds in 2005, the blackberry-scented, Syrah-based Bugader (91, $75), and the dark, alluring Finca L'Argata (90, $30), a blend of Syrah, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon.


Among Spain's many attractions are the upsurge of quality in and distinctive character of wines from that country's many far-flung regions and indigenous grapes.

Garnacha reaches its apogee in the intense, elegant reds of Priorat, but also makes delicious, and much less expensive, wines in the DOs of Campo de Borja, Calatayud and Cariñena, clustered in north-central Spain between Rioja and the Mediterranean.

At their best, these wines deliver fresh, juicy flavors of cherry, raspberry and even strawberry, with round, fresh textures, bright acidity and just enough tannin for grip. Often, a touch of American oak adds sweet vanilla accents.

From Campo de Borja, Bodegas Borsao consistently delivers delicious wines at reasonable prices. Its Crianza Selección 2005 (92, $16) is more structured than most, while its estate 2007 (86, $8) has lovely wild berry flavors. Coto de Hayas 2006 (86, $8) from Bodegas Aragonesas is another fresh value. At higher price points, Bodegas Alto Moncayo continues to deliver lush, modern Garnachas; its Aquilon 2005 (94, $156) is dense yet expressive, with raspberry jam and dark chocolate flavors.

Jumilla is another interesting DO. Located in southeastern Spain, it grows old-vine Monastrell (Mourvèdre) in sandy soils under a hot sun. The resulting reds are muscular, with a distinctive meaty note. Bodegas El Nido is the top producer; its El Nido 2005 (94, $154) adds Cabernet Sauvignon to the mix and shows blueberry, mineral and tar flavors. El Bully's Enciro 2005 (86, $10) swaps Merlot for the Cabernet; it's round and fleshy, with kirsch and coffee notes.

Toro, Ribera's muscular neighbor, produced a classic-rated red in 2005: Bodegas y Viñas Dos Victorias Gran Elias Mora 2005 (95, $85). This bodega, founded in 2000, uses old, head-pruned Tinto de Toro (Tempranillo vines) aged in French oak. I preferred this cuvée to the bodega's even oakier but still impressive 2V Premium 2005 (93, $143). The best value is its Elias Mora Crianza 2005 (93, $38), which shows a similar core of cassis, currant and espresso flavors.

Abadia Retuerta, based just outside Ribera del Duero, impressed with its austere yet balanced reds. The Syrah Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León Pago Garduña 2005 (94, $110) is complex and lively. The Petit Verdot Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2005 (91, $110) shows distinctive blueberry and blackberry fruit.


Spain's white wines continue to improve. Most are lively, unoaked wines with bright fruit flavors and crisp acidity. Most are best drunk very young, but a few exceptions are intriguing.

The Fernando Diéguez Otero Rias Baixas Aquís Celenis Cepas Vellas 2005 (91, $18) suggests that well-made Albariño can gain interest with age; it shows peach, tangerine and chamomile flavors and a graceful finish. Viña Nora's Rias Baixas Nora da Neve 2005 (90, $28) is bigger and bolder, but lively, with an enticing mix of melon and floral notes. R. López de Heredia continues to fly the flag for traditional white Riojas, made with Viura long-aged in American oak; its Viña Gravonia Crianza 1998 (91, $29) is unique, with toasted hazelnut, lemon confit and lanolin notes, firm and delicate.

We also tasted nearly 50 cavas, Spain's sparkling wines, which are made in the traditional method with mostly indigenous grapes. The best are firm and aromatic, with stone fruit and pastry flavors. Jaume Serra turned in a consistent range, topped by their fresh and well-integrated Brut Cava Cristalino NV (86, $9).

Sherry continues to flourish under the radar. Its long history, unique winemaking technique and wide range of styles and flavors still somehow fail to earn it the respect and success it deserves. Whether you're looking for a firm, dry aperitif or a sweet, viscous dessert wine, there's a Sherry that fits the bill, generally at a reasonable price. Even the best sell for as little as $25 to $70 per bottle.

Overall, about two-thirds of the wines that we tasted for this annual report are reds. But the very real values in white wines and cavas and the amazing quality and diversity of Sherries testifies to Spain's extraordinary vitality as a wine producer. There's no end to the delights an adventurous wine lover can find in this dynamic and constantly evolving country.

Executive editor Thomas Matthews is Wine Spectator's lead taster of wines from Spain.





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