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Panel-leading Affordable Riojas - March 20

Likely to be by far the most pored-over feature of the new March 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 Reservas21 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 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 

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

Awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) 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%.

£16.65

Bodegas Martinez Laorden, Lanzado Crianza, Rioja 2016 (1x75cl)

The 2015 vintage was awarded 91 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

Bodegas Martinez Laorden, Lanzado Crianza, Rioja 2015 - March 2020 Decanter review

Martínez Laorden are producing some of the most cutting edge wines in Spain. They are fresh and vibrant with winemaker, Jose Maria Martínez, striving to produce modern wines from his families old vineyards. Jose Maria constructed the first bioclimatic winery in Europe complete with solar panels, gravity fed wine pumping and a comprehensive plan for reusing waste water reducing the winery's carbon footprint. Jose is a total maverick and only produces wines up to and including Crianza level as he does not agree with the stipulations for Reserva and Gran Reserva.

The vines are grown in clayey-ferrous soils, which are garnet in colour and absorb water easily, producing low yielding vines with small berries.

The grapes were harvested at optimal phenolic maturity, sorted and then fermented in stainless steel tanks at controlled temperatures, to retain the fruity characteristics of the Tempranillo variety.

Tempranillo 100%.

Soft oak, black cherry and dried fruit aromas are followed by warm earthy tones on the palate, with a touch of oak on the finish. Good integration of tannins and fruit make this a rich, smooth and balanced wine.

ABV = 13.5%.

£12.40

Rioja Crianza, Sierra Cantabria 2016 (1x75cl)

Awarded 91 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

Rioja Crianza, Sierra Cantabria 2016 - March 2020 Decanter review

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 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.

The calcareous clay soil is excellent for obtaining high quality wines and to enhance the expression of Tempranillo. Environmental integrated agriculture cultivation, applying a viticulture respectful with the environment, following the biorhythms of the plant and organic fertilization.

Grapes are traditionally destemmed and fermentation is temperature-controlled between 26 and 28ºC with indigenous yeast selected from their own vineyards. Extended maceration on the skins for 24 days, starting with two daily pump-overs and then a light pump-over daily during the last ten days.

Ageing: 14 months in barriques of French and American oak, almost all pre-used (but never for more than 3 uses).

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

Rioja Crianza, Sierra Cantabria 2016 - fiche technique

100% Tempranillo. 

A smooth and elegant Crianza from this esteemed Rioja producer, which deftly balances fruit and oak. This is arguably Sierra Cantabria's most admired wine due to its incredible value and delicate but complex style. Ripe cherry and red fruit, hints of spice and smoke, and a dusting of cocoa combine to form an elegant, complex Rioja with layers of oak and fruit. 

ABV = 14.0% (this figure does vary on bottles; we have also seen 13.5%).

£14.50

Bodegas Ondarre, Ondarre Reserva, Rioja 2014 (1x75cl)

The yet-to-be-released 2015 vintage was awarded 90 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

Bodegas Ondarre, Ondarre Reserva, Rioja 2014 - March 2020 Decanter review

Bodegas Ondarre, is based in Viana, a historic town six kilometres from Logroño, Rioja's capital. Founded in 1986 it has quickly become one of the standout producers in the region with its elegant and distinguishable style. Their most acclaimed wines are their Reservas, which win top awards and critical approval every year. They attribute their success to the hard work in the vineyards and their continual investment into the winery and barrel stock. They use both French and American oak casks to help them obtain the incredible character in their wines. As well as their Reservas, they produce a few thousand cases of a single varietal Graciano; this is a real rarity due to the low-yielding nature of the vine.

The grapes are grown in vineyards covering 1,200 hectares around the winery, at the point confluence of La Rioja, Alava and Navarra. The area offers an optimum climate and terroir. The vines are grown in clay-based soils with high iron and chalk content.

A cold winter with high rainfall, followed by further rains in April and May created good soil water reserves. Weather patterns were mixed over the summer, with some rain, sunny days and overcast days, but véraison occurred on time and the growth cycle of the vines continued at a steady pace. September saw warm, sunny weather which encouraged the ripening of the berries. The grapes were exceptionally healthy and of very good quality at harvest.

Each grape variety was fermented separately in temperature controlled vats at 28 to 30°C, which lasted for between 16 to 18 days. The wine was blended and then aged for 16 months in American and French oak, Bordeaux-type casks imparting subtle oak complexity. During the maturation the wine was racked four times, in order to gently extract phenolic compounds by oxygenating the wine. This produced a softer wine which exhibits great varietal fruit character.

Tempranillo 75%, Mazuelo 15%, Garnacha 10%.

Leather, vanilla and spice of traditionally made Rioja enveloped in a smooth and textured palate. Balanced, with ripe, wild strawberries and integrated tannins through to a long, lingering finish.

ABV = 14.0%.

£11.95

El Coto, Coto de Imaz Rioja Reserva 2015 (1x75cl)

Awarded 90 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

El Coto, Coto de Imaz Rioja Reserva 2015 - March 2020 Decanter review

El Coto was founded in 1970 in Rioja Alavesa and has grown from modest beginnings into one of the best known Rioja producers. Today El Coto has over 700 hectares of vineyard in production across the three Rioja DOCa sub-zones of Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. They also source grapes from all three areas, but mostly from Rioja Alavesa. Head winemaker César Fernandez oversees production, starting with hand-picking into 350 kg crates to ensure the grapes arrive at the winery in pristine condition. Modern and intelligently designed, the emphasis in the winery is on temperature control and gentle handling of the grapes.

Grapes for the two Coto de Imaz wines are sourced exclusively from El Coto's estate in Cenicero in Rioja Alta. The low yielding bush vines aged between 35- 55 years are planted on predominantly limestone and clay soils.

2015 was characterised by abundant rainfall in the winter and a very warm spring and summer, which meant the grapes were harvested earlier than usual. August, however, was marked by more moderate temperatures which enabled the grapes to retain freshness and aromatics in the run up to harvest.

The best grapes were needed for the Imaz wines because of the extended maceration on the skins which lasted for 21-30 days during fermentation in stainless steel tanks at 22-27°C. Malolactic fermentation took place in the tanks before the wine was transferred to new American oak barrels (225-litre) to age for at least 18 months. Following bottling, the wine was further matured for a minimum of 24 months prior to release.

100% Tempranillo.

This wine is intense cherry in colour with a hint of ageing at the rim. On the nose, it has a wide range of delicate red fruits accompanied by smoky nuances and hints of vanilla from the new American oak. On the palate, the wine is velvety and round, with smooth tannins and good acidity. The finish is balanced and long.

ABV = 13.5%.

£14.95

Muriel Fincas de la Villa Reserva 2015 (1x75cl)

 

Awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) 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%.

** WITH US AND WITH CUSTOMERS AROUND 19th FEBRUARY. **

£12.50

Fincas de Azabache, Rioja Tunante de Azabache 2018 (1x75cl)

Awarded 90 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

Fincas de Azabache, Rioja Tunante de Azabache 2018 - March 2020 Decanter review

Fincas de Azabache is a state of the art cooperative, founded in December 1956. The Bodegas now owns 2,600 hectares of vineyards at the foot of Mount Yerga, in the dry region of the Rioja Oriental. With limited risk of rot, it is an area conducive to the principles of organic viticulture, to which the Bodegas is firmly and successfully committed. The cooperative have recently invested heavily in a new winery, the fruits of which we are now seeing.

This is an unashamedly young and straightforward Rioja that sees no oak treatment in seeking to maximise the pure fruit character of the Tempranilo grape.

100% Tempranillo. 

A vibrant, unoaked and supple red, made exclusively from Tempranillo grapes grown in the dry Baja region of Rioja. This plummy, soft seductive wine exhibits typical Tempranillo character of red fruits such as cherry, raspberry and plum with notes of liquorice and finishes soft and rounded.

ABV = 14.0%.

£9.25

Izadi Rioja Reserva 2015 (1x75cl)

Awarded 90 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their March 2020 edition panel tasting of Affordable Rioja (see blue link below).

Izadi Rioja Reserva 2015 - March 2020 Decanter review

Izadi is based in Villabuena in the Rioja Alavesa, the highest part of Rioja. The hillside winery (whose precipitous slope allows for gravity assisted production) was founded in 1987 by Gonzalo Antón as a modern breakaway from the traditional style of wine produced by other members of his family. As his son Lalo, who now runs the estate, says: "the whole concept of Izadi really started around wanting to produce wine to satisfy the needs of our friends over a meal". Izadi produces modern, international wines that are true to their roots and a natural expression of the area.

Izadi owns 178 hectares and sources fruit from selected growers from another 108 hectares of old vineyard with an average age of 45 years. All located within the triangle formed by three villages: Villabuena, Samaniego and Ábalos. The vines are traditionally trained bush vines, a method which Izadi believes gives better exposure of the grapes, something which in turn leads to better ripeness and softer, fuller wines. The vineyards are 450-550 metres above sea level so warm days give way to cool nights, encouraging the aromatic qualities in the grapes to develop. The vineyards are planted in clay-chalk soils.

2015 was characterised by abundant rainfall in the winter and a hot summer, which brought the harvesting period forward. August was marked by more moderate temperatures and an excellent vegetative state with a moderate yields - factors which endured until harvesting.

Grapes were destemmed and fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks at 28ºC, with pumping over several times daily to extract the right amount of colour and tannins. The wine underwent malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks before being aged in a mix of French (27%) and American (73%) oak barrels for 16 months prior to more than two years additional ageing in bottle before release.

100% Tempranillo.

This wine displays intense aromas of red fruits, liquorice and spices combined with delicate hints of cedar and smoky notes. The full bodied palate is rich and concentrated with a long, fruit-forward finish.

ABV = 14.0%.

£14.65
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