Best of Rioja 2016

Wednesday, 7. September 2016 - 12:00

Every year, a major tasting gets underway in the tasting room of Meininger Verlag in Germany. Top experts from Europe come together to taste their way through hundreds of wines from Rioja. This is the result of that undertaking.

Despite Rioja’s continuing trend towards generic wines and the subsequent abandonment of traditional quality categories, more than two-thirds of the top one hundred were accounted for by the classical quality labels. In particular, the frequently underestimated Crianza class – of which there were 27 samples – showed that in Rioja, a high-quality wine can be purchased at a very reasonable price. Numerous unknown Bodegas excelled in this category; names such as Berzal, Domeco de Jarauta, Perica and Obalo won judges over, because it was clear that their production is terroir based. The Reservas were on a par, followed by ten Gran Reservas. Among the wines of this last group, some producers excelled with high ratings, making it clear that Gran Reservas can also hold their own in front of a wide range of tasters and are not – as so often alleged – an outdated wine profile at all. It’s also worth noting that the top category wines were not the sole preserve of the long-established vintners. Names such as Olabarri, Navarrsotillo or Finca Nueva fared very well. The results for the Campillo or Bujanda Gran Reservas, brands that are better known for restrained and less spectacular styles, were noteworthy. Panelists honoured elegance above extraction and thus the essence of the actual Rioja character. Although the many experts may disagree, the traditional quality categories still have much to offer.


It was interesting to note that no one area in Rioja was the ‘winner’ as such, although the largest region, the south bank, i.e. the Rioja Alta, managed to place a correspondingly large share of wines among the top 100. Since classical producers are predominantly active on this shore, the Rioja Alta was naturally strongly represented in the Reserva class. The north shore, which mainly falls within the Basque Rioja Alavesa, fulfilled expectations, particularly with respect to Crianzas and generic reds. The top rankings were similarly evenly balanced. Escudero, a producer from the Rioja Baja, gained the distinction of joining the top group. Only in the white wine category did a clear winner emerge: the Basque shore held the lead for Blancos.


Due to the low number of white samples presented, only a handful joined the top hundred. Nonetheless, several notable wines appeared, especially a Gran Reserva which has only recently been launched as a brand. Even though this great white Gran Reserva wine will need some time before it takes its place in the ranks of prestigious wines, it is remarkable that a medium-sized producer like Bodegas de la Marquesa – which has just successfully undergone a change in generations – has been able to make such a mark working in this category. Notably, white wine has become an important issue for an increasing number of producers – and is set to be the next big trend in Rioja. What they have in mind is not the simple, conventionally made whites offering fresh and fruity qualities, but the so-called ‘elaboraciones especiales’. We’re talking about mature wines from selected locations, vinified in a way not to be found elsewhere in Spain. In addition to the clas-sic varieties Viura and Malvasia, autochthonous grapes are also showing what they can do. Whites like Maturana Blanca and Tempranillo Blanco have the potential to remake the look of Rioja’s white wines. Not only that, but as wood-refined wines, they have the potential to revive the Reserva and Gran Reserva category for whites. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring.


Of Spain’s Tempranillo appellations, the DOCa Rioja is undoubtedly the best known. More than 50,000 ha of Spain’s principal red variety are registered in the winegrowing authority´s registry in Logroño. Although it is flanked by the three other main red varieties Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano, Tempranillo’s dominance is absolute. The wines that come from it can be graceful, lean, and almost filigree; on the other hand, they can be concentrated and powerful. Its very trademark soft berry-like fruit with balsamic touches, can so easily be hidden behind earthy or spicy components, that even experts can find it difficult to identify the grape. This mutability is a big plus, allowing winemakers in Rioja to create a very broad stylistic arc. Nevertheless, the Rioja growing region defines itself as a ‘blending area’ – a wine region with a great cuvée tradition. This statement may seem surprising at first; certainly, the share of straight varietal Tempranillo has risen in the past 20 years. However, many producers have recently taken to sending Tempranillo to the vat in the company of other grapes: Post-modernism is returning to traditional blends. Probably the most desired cuvée partner is Graciano, which supports Tempranillo with acidity and colour. Interestingly, an increasing number of producers are now showing interest in the new arrival Maturana Tinta, an almost vanished species with low pH and bitter freshness, which is now being replanted in many locations.


One can say with complete justification that Rioja retains and maintains its traditional heritage like no other area. A great traditional Rioja red wine presents itself with a brilliant ruby red, amalgamates the spice of American oak with red fruitiness and delicate notes of undergrowth, displays a remarkable acidity and polished tannins and is carried by a finely woven body of only moderate concentration. The fascination that emanates from this type of wine is considerable: it is very accessible and can nonetheless show great complexity. Also noteworthy is the absolutely amazing ageing potential of these wines. This traditional type stands in contrast to the modern Rioja which, from a technical point of view, is usually more strongly extracted from an extended maceration, followed by refining in newer wood, generally with a high proportion of French oak. This maturation is shorter than in the predominantly American oak barriques commonly used for the traditional Riojas. However, the majority of red wines cannot be pigeonholed. The extremely varied wine landscape with its different soil structures does not allow a truly universal characterisation. But one thing is certain; the fairly mild climate, by Spanish standards, brings forth a rather mellow and accessible Tempranillo style as found nowhere else on the Iberian Peninsula.

Best of Rioja on tour in Germany

If you’ve got plans to travel to Germany in September or October, then take some
time to come and taste the most highly rated wines, with renowned expert David

  • 19. September 2016 in Frankfurt, MainTower
  • 26. September 2016 in Hamburg, Elb-Panorama penthouse
  • 24. October 2016 in Cologne, KölnSKY

Register at: