Rioja Masters 2016: results and analysis

Rioja Masters 2016: results and analysis

Rioja Masters categories

Joven – Young wines that typically have spent no time in oak, or just a few months maximum in barrel before release. Most Blanco and Rosado Rioja falls into the Joven category.
Crianza – These are Riojas that have been aged for at least two years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Reserva – This category is for Riojas that have been aged for at least three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
Gran Reserva – These are Riojas that have been aged for at least five years with a minimum of 24 months in oak.
Vinos de Autor – These are winemaker’s ‘icon’-style wines, otherwise dubbed ‘new wave wines’ from Rioja, which carry no age statement but generally spend at least a year in barrique, frequently made from new French oak.

Hard to pigeonhole

Then there’s the diversity available. Now, this can be a complicating element for people with a preconceived idea of Rioja, and that’s because, today, this wine region has become increasingly difficult to pigeonhole in terms of taste. Even the idea of old- and new-wave Rioja is hard to apply brand by brand, with some producers embracing both styles – ie, offering the more oxidative, spicy, leathery, long-aged type alongside a concentrated, highly-extracted, youthful version.

But what this does mean is that there’s now a Rioja for everyone – from the light and berry-scented jovens to the equivalent of Chianti’s Super Tuscans with the rule-breaking Vinos de Autor, which tend to be powerful and youthful reds that bear almost no resemblance to so-called ‘classic’ Riojas.

Essentially, the region is in a state of flux, and while some might bemoan a lack of typicity from certain cellars, it is important to remind oneself that Rioja is a place trying to adapt to the tastes of a broad range of consumers, some of whom are entirely new to wine. In fact, Rioja’s urge to try different styles using the same basic ingredients highlights the commercially-minded nature of the area, and probably also explains why the region’s appeal has endured.

Where is Rioja headed?

Nevertheless, it’s not all a bed of sweet-smelling roses, and this urge to move on can leave one wondering where Rioja is headed. “The Rioja style is changing dramatically,” says José González Godoy, restaurant manager and sommelier at Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, before stating: “What we do not know yet is where is it going?” Continuing, he observes: “I felt that the American wood and long ageing, with a slightly oxidative style, has disappeared; and even some ‘classics’ were not that classic.”

Having identified more concentration and extraction in the wines, he then wondered whether the idea of a typical Rioja should be revised. “Is Rioja losing its identity, or rather, finding a new one?” he asked, suggesting that it’s up to us to catch up, rather than for producers to turn back the clock.

Finally, while many of the Riojas tasted seem to be new and trendier in terms of taste, there are still those wines that appear as though they were from a different era, and the effect isn’t always endearing. As Pedley notes: “All the innovation seems to have been in the younger categories and poor old gran reserva is seen as an embarrassing relic from the past.” He then adds, mournfully: “This is a shame as the classic mature, mellow and complex gran reserva style is a unique, internationally-recognised and treasured part of the Rioja family.”

In essence, the gran reserva category, which should serve as a flagship for the region, has become home to some of the region’s greatest disappointments – mainly because expectations are so high at this level. The letdown comes when the wine, after many months in barrel, emerges tired and tannic. Thankfully, as the results showed, there are still producers who, with sensitivity and experience, manage to produce great results using extended oak ageing, and in doing so, deliver something both wonderful and inimitable.

Summing up on the day’s sampling, Sarah Janes Evans MW enthuses: “The tasting confirmed my view that Rioja can undoubtedly provide really pleasurable wines. The blend of the grape varieties with the climate and the soils – and those millions of oak casks across the DOCa – can make for lovely wines.”

However, she raised a new concern, one that doesn’t involve stylistic evolution and diversity, but low pricing. “With wines of this quality, it’s a pity to see that Rioja is still selling itself cheap. I don’t expect to find Burgundy at bargain-basement prices, or Barolo or Rhône, so why Rioja? In arguably Spain’s most prestigious region – apart from Jerez – we should expect pricing that supports the growers and allows them to invest.”

In other words, Rioja has the right image and quality, but it must price those positive traits to ensure that it can sustain them.