Rioja was first touted in the early 1970’s, introduced to us by wine writers of the time, chiefly English, as an affordable Bordeaux alternative, writes Ernie Whalley. Few if any of these patrician gents bothered to mention that the key grape was tempranillo, not Bordeaux’s usual suspects. Of course there is a link, in that the Rioja vines escaped the late 19th century phylloxera epidemic. The devastation further north opened up the French market for Rioja and also brought both French capital and French winemakers to the region. Rioja is the most internationally recognised of all Spanish wines. The boom years of the 1980s and beyond were not an unmitigated blessing. As demand expanded, quality wavered and a run of poor vintages did nothing to help. Rioja is over it now. There are now two styles, one modern, more ‘international’, stemming from around 1970 when Marques de Cáceres started to experiment with new French oak; the other classical, whose proponents traditionally used second or third fill American oak casks, giving the wine long maturation in barrel. This week we taste crianza wines, in both styles. Here are our top four picks from the dozen we sampled.
La Hoja Crianza 2010
EW: Doing the job; clean, well put together plum and brambly fruit with a decent bit of character. Excellent value for money.
MM: Seems more like a reserva than a crianza with its rich plummy fruit, backed by tannin, oak and good length.
Vinasperi Crianza 2009
EW: A good example of the modern style of Rioja. Elegant nose, oak quite prominent, leading smoothly into a wealth of black fruit. Firm tannins resolving nicely.
MM: Plenty to like in this modern Rioja with its smooth, rich plumy feel and fine texture.
Vina Hermosa Crianza 2009
EW: Quite old-fashioned and isn’t it good that the traditional regional style is still out there. Huge drinkability and charm from soft fruit, with nutty overtones.
MM: An intriguing cross of old and new styles with vibrant fruit but an oaky softness too. Great balance and drinkability
Rondan Crianza 2008
EW: Nice old-fashioned style. Subtle hints of coconut and vanilla from the American oak floating on top of ripe-but-not stewed plum and cherry fruit, tapering to a long finish.
MM: A classic old-fashioned style but that’s no bad thing as there is plenty of soft berry and plum fruit, overlaid by coconut and vanilla.