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 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.
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
The 2015 vintage was 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).
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.
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.
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 = 15.0%.
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).
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.
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%).
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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).
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.
For a little more detail, see the blue link below for the excellent technical note from the winemakers themselves.
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 = 13.0%.