Decanter March

¡Ola, entusiastas del vino!

It's late January, and that means it can only be time for a Spanish-focused edition of Decanter. The March edition ( cover leaves none of us in any doubt of that:

The wines featured this month in Decanter - and that we list - appear at the foot of this page. The reviews for each wine  appear on each product page.

Before we cover this month's wines, some/many of you will remember it was in this issue last year that the Cerro Añon Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 broke the horizon, landed 96 points/Outstanding status in - and topped - a review of 2010 top-end Rioja(s), and properly became A Big Thing. It proved enormously popular with hundreds of Exel customers. We could go on (and we have). However, as many know, that vintage ran out just into the New Year. The new vintage has just been released by the producer and arrives here shortly. So, both for fans of the 2010 and those coming to this wine anew, we've written here of just how the new vintage - another officially Excellent year in Rioja - with the old. In (very) short, it remains an exceptional Rioja at £14.95.


Likely to be by far the most pored-over feature of the new edition is a(nother) panel tasting of (red) Rioja(s). This time, compared with last year, Decanter have widened the scope of wine types and vintages to make it a test of Affordable Rioja (their title) in the price bracket of £10-£20 (interestingly, the entry criterion at the time samples were submitted was a top price of £15, but the upper bound was extended to £20 when (other) merchants submitted their prices for the wines on test. Make of that what you will.

In most other famous red wine areas - Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, say - a maximum price of £20 would allow you only into the world of 'ordinary' wines. In Spain generally, and particularly Rioja, £20 still provides access to some quite astounding wines. Mainly, despite the undoubted popularity of Rioja, one can put this down to high volumes of supply and tight inter-producer competition holding down prices (Ribera del Duero providing an interesting and costlier counterpoint). It's what makes this panel - and the Spanish edition generally - so interesting: an exposure of great wines at great - one might even use "everyday" - prices. 

In general, echoing the above theme, the panel were hugely impressed by the overall quality, a key quote being:

"Rioja drinkers will be getting seriously good wines of real complexity... for a price that's relatively unbeatable around the world in terms of the quality they offer".

The test - of a massive 183 wines in total - reveals two Outstanding/95-point wines and 53 Highly Recommendeds (90-94 points). We'll get to those in just a second.

The composition of those 55 wines is interesting: one might expect them all to be Reservas, but, in fact, honours are more evenly shared. Just one Gran Reserva makes the list, plus 20 Reservas, 21 Crianzas and 13 'others' (a few being young (surprisingly good) génerico wines, and rather more being wines of a single, non-Tempranillo, permitted-in-Rioja grape variety (Garnacha or Graciano here) that have chosen to avoid the classic oak-time-based classifications (even though they may, in fact qualify for one such).

To the key wines, then. Now you know us: we want to - and generally do - bring you the very toppest of the panel toppers. Here, then, we'd love to let you have the two Outstandings. Thing is, we can't. And neither can anyone else right now.

  • One is a Naked Wine, but two vintages ahead of the huge stock they already hold; they tell me we're unlikely to see the rated wine for at least another year.
  • The other is resolutely not available in the UK. And don't we just know it, having been in long discussions with the producer? Right now, we learn, the UK market is not a key priority for them.

But be you not dismayed, for we bring you two superb wines - two of the top three Highly Recommendeds, and one - a classic and glorious Reserva on 93 points - is but £12.50. It is (Bodegas) Muriel's Fincas de la Villa Reserva 2015, which has yet to reach the UK market and is - excitingly - on its first (and only current) release here via us. Its low price tag absolutely does not preclude very fine viticulture and winemaking: harvesting is by hand, rigorous grape selection is applied and French and American oak are brought to bear in the cellar (a generous 30% of both is new). Mi amigo/as, this is no tatty génerico.

Decanter's words (see immediately below) can leave us in little doubt of the proposition before us. If that review doesn't describe a classic Rioja - especially terms such as "dark chocolate" and "exceptionally smooth and supple" - then we don't know what does. Our own tasting does not see us separate from Decanter. The rounded mouthfeel and flavour intensity here are ones you'd expect of a wine some times the price of this. Click the box below for more details and/or to buy.

The other 93-pointer is an old favourite of ours and we're delighted to see it fare well under test (although it's no surprise as it has done so before in previous vintages). Sierra Cantabria are a firm favourite at Exel; we offer a very full range we've been to see them in Rioja (in the dead of winter) and they then came to visit us in Perth for a great evening of tasting. The standout (and real surprise) hit of that Perth evening was the wine now rated here. It's not one of their timeless, classic, Tempranillo-based Riojas, but a 100% Garnacha (Grenache). We talk of their 2015 Rioja Garnacha. Much of the Garnacha used in Rioja - especially its lower wines - is grown in the hotter, flatter, eastern province of Rioja Oriental (Baja, as was) and brought west for vinification in blends to fatten and 'fruit up' much Rioja. Much of that Garnacha itself can do what Grenache so often does - go all flabby, over-ripe and even sweet. Credit then, to Sierra Cantabria, who grow their Garnacha for this wine in and among their best vineyards in Rioja Alta (near San Vicente de la Sonsierra) to markedly higher standards.

As Decanter's review testifies, that quality shows. Although aged in oak (14 months), this is a fruit-driven wine of considerable opulence and style. Now, "fruit-driven" is often a term oftem used euphemistically to cover a lack of complexity and for simple 'gluggers'. This wine - as its score rather suggests - is not that at all. Rather, as Decanter put it, it is "superb".

I admit to having a glass of it on my desk as I type this, and, as a consistency check, I am also checking back to the notes I made at that Perth tasting, which read: "bountiful, full-on and opulent. Huge fruit. Somehow, not a Rioja, but arguably better. Most of all, extremely moreish" (underlining as in notes). At £16.65, it's a little more than the Muriel, but a delicious take on modern Rioja from a classic, old-school producer and still amazing value (and you find it at Exel markedly cheaper than you will elsewhere this side of the Pyrenees).

Of course, for those wishing to take a broader tour of Affordable Rioja, we offer others among the Highly Recommendeds, chiefly 


There's a point made in the panel test regarding consistency, which is: find a producer whose wines you like and follow them. Indeed, we know a good few Exel customers who may look askance at the wines above in favour of doing just that and sticking with a more prestigious name... and in Rioja, thre are many. But few are more prestigious than La Rioja Alta

We mention this as the edition features an excellent producer feature on LRA. In particular, it focuses not only on the great classics - the 890 and 904 Gran Reservas and the Ardanza Reserva - but also on LRA's satellite Torre de Oña estate in Rioja Alavesa. Purists may not see these as true LRA wines, but we beg to differ. They see all the love and attention of the LRA originals, yet come in at an incredible price for wines of such quality. We've been able to taste a number of the Torre de Oña wines recently and are hugely impressed. Although not featured in the review, the Martelo Reserva is quite outstanding in its fruit/oak balance (and now a go-to Rioja Reserva for me, more so perhaps than the hallowed (and older) Ardanza).


Elsewhere in the magazine:

  • boutique producer Abadia Retuerta see their awesome Negralada feature twice: once in 20 Best North-West Spanish Reds and again in a review of best Tempranilllos by Sarah Jane Evans MW (with whom <he casually namedrops> I stood chatting last week on the topic of Scala Dei above) ...
  • the LaLomba Rosado from Ramon Bilbao makes an appearance in a regional feature on Rioja Oriental;
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Muriel Fincas de la Villa Reserva 2015 (1x75cl)

Awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter ( in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

Muriel Fincas de la Villa Reserva 2015 - March 2020 Decanter review

Founded in 1982, when Julian Murua Entrena revived his father, Jose Murua’s winery, which dates back to 1926 in the heart of the Rioja Alavesa (one of the three sub-regions that make up Spain’s Rioja appellation). The cellars are in the quaint, historic village of Elciego, which is renowned for being surrounded by some of the best “terrior” in Rioja. The name “Muriel” comes from the combination of the family name, Murua, the region, Rioja, and the name of the town itself, Elciego.

Today, Julian and his son Javier run the winery with the mission to meld the long-held winemaking traditions of the region with new technologies and techniques in order to make wines that express the “best qualities” of the grapes coming from these fertile Riojan vineyards. Like most of red wines in the region, all Bodegas Muriel wines are 100% Tempranillo, the “signature” grape of the region.  Due to the special micro-climate of the region, there is a triple influence from the Mediterranean, Continental and Atlantic climates, which helps the vines produce very aromatic and elegant wines, whose main characteristic is the potential to age.

Located in Rioja Alavesa (Elciego), the vineyard is grown using both trellised and traditional gobelet-pruned system on very poor calcareous soil with a clay loam texture.

The fermentation and maceration process is carried out over 20 days in stainless steel vats. The daily pumping over routine allows an optimal extraction of colour and tannins. The aging process lasts for 24 months, including three rackings in 225-litre American and French oak barrels (50% of each type; 30% of the barrels are new). The wine matures in the bottle for another 12 months before it is released to the market.

100% Tempranillo.

For a little more detail, see the blue link below for the excellent technical note from the winemakers themselves.

Muriel Fincas de la Villa Reserva 2015 - fiche technique

Classic ruby red with hints of a light brick red colour. Very complex and intense aroma, with fine scents of aging which are assembled perfectly: vanilla, spices and herbs. Very ripe fruit recollections appear. In the palate, it is a finely balanced wine, with a polished and elegant body, with a long and pleasant aftertaste. Matches especially well with roasted lamb, cutlets barbequed on vine shoots, fish in sauce recipes, as well as smoked and cured cheese. Excellent wine to accompany chocolate desserts.

ABV = 13.5%.


Rioja Garnacha, Sierra Cantabria 2015 (1x 75cl)

Awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter ( in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

Rioja Garnacha, Sierra Cantabria 2015 - March 2020 Decanter review

Also the most sold wine (by far) at our 2017 Perth tasting with Sierra Cantabria!

Founded in 1957 by Guillermo Eguren, Sierra Cantabria is nestled in the heart of San Vicente de la Sonsierra, a town of great winemaking tradition, situated in a unique location between the River Ebro and the Sierra Cantabria mountain range. The Sierra Cantabria mountain range (1,200 m. of altitude) and the river Ebro (350 m.), create a special microclimate with Mediterranean and Continental characteristics - providing mild winters and gentle summers- unique for vine cultivation. On the other hand, the summer thermal jump (intense heat during the day with fresh night temperatures) creates an increase in the level of polyphenols, normally associated with excellent quality wines. 

100% Grenache.

Traditional winemaking: fermented with indigenous yeasts. Maceration of 21 days with reduced frequency of pump-overs to avoid the extraction of bitter characters. Malolactic fermentation in barrel, these being French oak, 15% new and 85% one-use barriques.

Ageing: 14 months in 225-litre barriques.

See also the blue link below for the excellent fiche technique/technical note from the winemakers themselves.

Rioja Garnacha, Sierra Cantabria 2015 - fiche technique

Sourced from a single vineyard planted in 1927 in San Vicente, this is a comparatively rare varietal Garnacha from the Rioja Alta sub-region. Elegant and well balanced, it has red cherry and pomegranate flavours, scented oak and a spicy undertone.

ABV = 13.5%.


La Rioja Alta Vina Alberdi Reserva 2014 (1x75cl)

The 2013 vintage (no longer available) was awarded 91 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter ( in their March 2020 edition producer profile of La Rioja Alta (see blue link below).

La Rioja Alta Vina Alberdi Reserva 2013 - March 2020 Decanter review

Formed by five families in the late 19th century, the La Rioja Alta S.A. winery has been among the leading producers who have helped to establish and maintain the classic standards of Rioja. Their Tempranillo-led Gran Reservas, aged for remarkably long periods in barrels from the producer’s cooperage, are some of the most sought-after wines from the region. And while they always upheld standards and tradition, La Rioja Alta S.A. never stopped experimenting and pushing for better quality, offering some of the purest, precise expressions of Tempranillo in the world.

100% Tempranillo grapes come from the Mayorita, Rebollar and Bardal vineyards, as well as selected plots in El Palo, Rodezno and Alto del Rey, Labastida. These vineyards are located at an altitude of 500-600 metres (1600-2000 ft) above sea level, planted in chalky-clay soils more than 40 years ago. 

See the blue link below for full details of this wine in the excellent fiche technique/technical note from the winemakers at La Rioja Alta.

Vina Alberdi Reserva, La Rioja Alta 2014 - fiche technique

Lively, medium depth, garnet–red with an intense pink rim. High aromatic intensity with dominating ripe fruit: raspberries, red cherries, wild strawberries and red currants set out against a balsamic background of vanilla, toasted caramel, biscuits, coffee and sweet mints. In the mouth, you can enjoy good acidity, great freshness and balance and mild, friendly tannins. Aromatic harmony persists through the aftertaste, with notes of red fruit jam, prunes, coffee, vanilla and caramel.

ABV = 13.5%.


Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa (1x75cl)

Awarded 94 points by Decanter ( in their March 2020 expert tasting (by Sarah Jane Evans MW) of Manzanilla (see blue link below).

Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa - March 2020 Decanter review

Valdespino is among few family-owned bodegas in Jerez, and with a history of sherry production going back six centuries, also one of the oldest. Alfonso Valdespino was one of 24 knights who fought for the city of Jerez with King Alfonso X, against the Arabs in 1264. As a reward for his efforts he was given land in the Jerez region. Today Valdespino belongs to the Estevez family, and they own 750 hectares of their own vineyards in Jerez, rare in this region, which allows them close control over grape quality. Their Pago Macharnudo vineyard provides the grapes for their single vineyard wines, which include the Fino 'Inocente', the 'Amontillado 'Tio Diego' and the Palo Cortado 'Viejo CP'. They are one of the only bodegas currently producing single vineyard sherries. Valdespino is also renowned for their VOS (Very Old Sherries) with over 20 years of ageing and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherries), with over 30 years of ageing.

The Palomino grapes for the Manzanilla come from Valdespino's single vineyard (Pago) Miraflores, which is situated in Sanlucar de Barrameda. The white albariza soil is typical of the region, and comes from a layer of earth rich in marine fossils. Thanks to the high content of calcic carbonate, its clayey texture does not split; it is soft when wet and absorbs rain like a sponge, and when it dries out it forms a layer that holds in the water, preventing evaporation. This reserve of moisture encourages the vine roots to develop, some reaching to more than four metres depth, allowing them to use this water reserve when needed.

The must is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks to preserve crisp, fresh fruit flavours. At this stage is has reached between 10.5% and 12% alcohol, and is then fortified to 15% and the 'flor' yeast layer is encouraged to develop, protecting the wine from oxygen and transforming its components. The Manzanilla bodega is situated in Sanlucar de Barrameda, where the climate is cooler than inland Jerez, and as a result the flor layer is thicker, offering more protection to the wine and therefore more freshness and saline character. The wine ages biologically, spending five years under the flor, and producing a more delicate style of Sherry.

100% Palomino.

Pale straw yellow coloured, with a delicate yeasty, bready note on the nose, as well as a hint of flower blossom. On the palate it is very dry, crisp and fresh with a slightly saline finish.

ABV = 15.0%.


Bodegas Verum Ulterior Parcela #17 Graciano 2016 (1x75cl)

Awarded 90 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter ( in their March 2020 edition feature, Weekday Wines (see blue link below).

Bodegas Verum, Ulterior Parcela #17 Graciano 2016 - February 2020 Decanter review

Awarded a Gold medal and 95 points at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards (click link for details).

For other 2019 DWWA winners, click here.

The origins of the López-Montero family in wine-making and distilling date back to 1788. It was then when the first of their wineries in Tomelloso was registered, which is still on the records at the local archives of the town. In 1963 Juan Antonio López Ramírez and María Victoria Montero established Altosa, a winery and distillery that continues to make and market wines and distilled spirits. In 2005, María Victoria, with her daughter, María Belén, and her sons, Juan Antonio, Pedro José and Elías, created Bodegas y Viñedos Verum. The brand encompasses the wines of the López-Montero family from the best vineyards and terroirs in their property.

Put simply, La Mancha's Bodegas Verum is an organic vineyard which produces mono-varietal wines from both traditional grapes and forgotten indigenous varietals such as Albillo Real and Tinto Velasco.

For this, the Ulterior Parcela #17, a single-vineyard wine from Parcela 17 of the El Romeral vineyard, the grapes are picked by hand, destemmed, crushed and fermented in stainless still tanks, then transferred to old barrels for malolactic fermentation. 10% of the wine is aged in oak demi-muids of 600 liters made of new French oak, the rest in earthen jars (clay) of ~ 5,000 liters for 8 months. After bottling, it is held another 12 months before release.

Verum puts its wines on sale when they are at the optimum moment for consumption;  nevertheless, you can store this wine up to 7 years after harvest.

100% Graciano.

Cherry red with white trim, bright. On the nose it is intense, highlighting a floral character of violets, lavender and other aromatic herbs (typical of ripe Graciano) with a background of black fruit and subtle cocoa. On the palate it is also intense and ripe with smooth/fine-grained tannins that provide structure. There is great persistence that brings back the black fruits and violets, plus a touch of appealing bitterness that adds character.

Or, as DWWA 19 put it:

"Bright and pure purple berry fruit nose with attractive vanilla bean new oak aromas. On the palate, this is sumptuous and rich with generous, fleshy fruit. Very pure and expressive".

ABV = 13.5%.

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