THERE’S NOTHING quite like a competition focused on a single region to highlight its strengths, and in the case of our annual Rioja Masters, a full day’s tasting of wines from this famous Spanish DOC proved that barrel-aged reds and whites are undoubtedly its specialisms. That’s not to suggest the area can’t make high quality wines without the influence of oak, and there were a clutch of medals awarded within the Joven category, but rather its high points are reached when the best fruit is aged in barriques.
This was the second year the drinks business has conducted a competition focused just on Rioja as part of its Masters series for wine. On this occasion a higher number of entries forced us out of The Institute of Masters of Wine and into the larger venue of London’s Home House, where 10 judges worked their way through just under 200 wines.
Beginning with Rioja’s youngest wines, the Joven category included whites, rosés and reds from 2010, ‘11 and ’12 vintages. Light and gently fruity wines were in stark contrast to dark, concentrated and vanilla flavoured examples encountered later in the day, reminding the tasters just how broad the range of styles are from this single region. Among the entries in this entry-level sector that stood out for quality were wines from Muriel, Paternina and Viñedos de Aldeanueva, with each of these producers gaining a silver medal for their red Joven Riojas, which this year was the highest accolade awarded in this category.
However, once we stepped up in price to the Crianza arena, we saw our first Rioja gain a gold, with Ramón Bilbao’s Mirto Special Cuvée 2008 declared the best of the crianzas and the only wine to get a gold. Two blancos were awarded a silver medal, and four further silvers went to red Crianza Riojas from Baigorri, Dinastia, Ontañón and Valpiedra.
The competition’s highest accolade of Master was then awarded for the first time in the Reserva category, with the Vina Muriel Reserva 2006 impressing the judges with its balanced richness and freshness, as well as appealing evolution. Indeed, it was felt this wine was drinking extremely well now, in comparison to some examples that were either felt to be still a little too tight and youthful, or somewhat tired and prematurely aged. Beyond this example, however, were as many as nine golds – among which were two blancos – and 18 silvers, attesting to the quality in the reserva category, which is a style of Rioja deemed particularly attractive by the judges.
Moving up yet another quality and age level into the Gran Reserva category, unlike last year where just one gold was awarded, 2013 saw six wines gain a gold, 11 given a silver, and, like the Reserva category, one wine identified as outstanding, with Castillo Clavijo gaining a Master for its Gran Reserva from the exceptional 2005 vintage.
Results in the more controversial Vinos de Autor category, dubbed “new wave wines”, were rather more extreme, with no golds, but one master for Bodegas Lan with is Lan A Mano 2009, and then seven silvers. Freed from the strictures of Rioja’s traditional categories, this sector allows winemakers to experiment with grapes, extraction techniques, oak use and ageing times, but in some cases, the judges expressed concern that the cellar master may have gone a little too far, hiding Rioja’s bright fruit character with either too much oak, or rather heavy handed winemaking methods.
In the case of Bodegas Lan however, the result was a great age-worthy red that could compete with some of the best wines from any fine wine region.
Finally, the judges were presented with a small selection of very old Riojas to taste, which highlighted the longevity of great wines from the region, and among the entries, it was the Coto de Imaz Gran Reserva from 1996 which gained the highest accolade in this class.
Having spent the day tasting every expression from the region, it was clear that Rioja can produce a very broad range of styles to a high standard. However, its strength lies in barrel-aged reds and whites. These are wines with weight, a pleasing oaky edge, and a refreshing finish. Furthermore, they are wines with age that are released ready to drink. It is such characters that typify the wines from this region, and explain why Rioja is so successful worldwide.
DROR NATIV Buyer – Marks & Spencer
JACQUES SAVARY DE BEAUREGARD Head Sommelier & Wine Buyer – Home House
PIERRE MANSOUR Spanish Wine Buyer – The Wine Society
ROBIN LANGTON Buyer & Winemaker – Laithwaites Wine
GEMMA ADAMS Product Manager – Grossi Wines
REBECCA PALMER Associate Director & Buyer – Corney & Barrow
JEAN WAREING MW Buyer – Boutinot
ISOBEL KOTTMANN Project Manager – Gonzalez Byass
PATRICK SCHMITT Editor-in-chief – the drinks business
RUPERT MILLAR Staff writer – the drinks business