Rioja is a staple on wine lists all over the country. But does it deserve its must-stock status? Our judging teams put a wide range to the test.
From Cornwall to the Scottish islands and gastropubs to three-star Michelin, Rioja is a staple of wine lists across the UK. Customers love it and feel safe ordering it unprompted, which can make it a great margin-generator for your venue.
But does it deserve its popularity, and where are the sweet-spots in terms of over-delivery?
In this tasting, we decided to concentrate on the upper end of the category; wines that were classified Reserva or Gran Reserva. But we also included wines that were of equivalent price/quality level, but had elected not to classify themselves as such.
These so-called ‘genéricos’ are a growing, and dynamic part of the region’s wine scene, so we felt they needed to be tasted alongside their more traditionally-labelled categories. All the categories had their own flights.
Rioja Awards 2022Full list of award-winning wines from The Sommelier Collective Rioja Awards 2022.
|Score||Producer||Wine name||Classification||Importer & Price||Tasting note|
|96||La Rioja Alta||904 2011||Gran Reserva||Armit Wines|
|Perfumed savoury notes with charming dry plum aromas and fine tannins. Elegant.' ALM; 'Rose petal and poppy flowers with tertiary notes. Drinking beautifully now. Perfect for a preservation system.' AG; 'Classical refined Rioja. Prunes, integrated oak and finely developed. Great freshness and will mature further too.' MR|
|92||Bodegas Ondarre||Rioja Gran Reserva 2015||Gran Reserva||Hallgarten & Novum|
|Rich blackberry and mint, with spice and fruit coming together on the palate.' MR; 'Chocolate and coffee with ripe berries. The tannin is high, but integrated.' JvH; 'Perfumed cherry, balsamic and tobacco leaf. Complex, with a long finish.' ALM|
|92||Marques de Caceres||Excellens Gran Reserva 2014||Gran Reserva||RDM Wines|
|Luxurious nose of jam, plums and tobacco; strawberries and spice on the palate.' MR; 'Cedar, leather and black pepper, it has spicy blackcurrant leaf on the palate with a long finish.' MS; 'Dark fruit - cherries, dates and figs. The oak is present but integrated.' JvH|
|92||Bodegas de La Marquesa Valserrano||Valserrano Gran Reserva 2015||Gran Reserva||Davy's Wine Merchants|
|Strawberries, cherries and plums with some herbal medicinal notes. Well balanced.' MS; 'Cherries, green tea and bitter chocolate. Oak still quite intense.' ALM; 'Graphite and cocoa with a subtle chocolatey mid palate.' MR|
|92||Marqués de Murrieta||Gran Reserva 2015||Gran Reserva||MMD|
|Minty, stony nose with olives on the mid0palate. Juicy and fresh, with a long, fine-tannined finish.' MR; 'Ripe, candied red fruits with sweet spice and vanilla. Quite full-bodied.' JvH; 'Strawberries and black plums with a hint of cedar and toast. Soft tannins.' MS|
|92||C.V.N.E||Imperial Gran Reserva 2012||Gran Reserva||Hatch Mansfield|
|Traditional Gran Reserva - plenty of mushroom and damp cellar notes along with smoke and savoury red fruit. Clean and elegant. Gorgeous.' MM; 'Red/black fruit with layers of mint, eucalyptus and baking spices. Great length.' BB; 'Concentrated cranberry and loganberry fruit with delicate hints of meat, herbs and black tea. Would work well in a preservation system.' RM|
|91||Bodegas Bilbainas||Vina Pomal Rioja Gran Reserva 2012||Gran Reserva||Codorniu UK|
|Savoury, dusty and meaty with mature fruit, but the palate is still quite vibrant.' MM; 'Heady, decadent nose, spicy and approachable with a well-integrated palate.' JC; 'Rose petals and cranberries, but well-rounded.' MW|
|90||Bodegas Olarra||Dehesa De Gazania Gran Reserva 2011||Gran Reserva||Majestic Wines|
|Leather, baked fruit, strawberries, plums and cherries, with good balance.' MS; 'Tobacco and red fruit. Rounded, with smooth tannins and great acidity.' MR; 'Tobacco, balsamic and bitter chocolate with an elegant finish.' ALM|
|90||Bodegas Olarra||Laztana 2011||Gran Reserva||Jascots|
|Strawberry and plum compote. This is simple, but fresh with a good finish.' BB; 'Juicy fruit with hints of liquorice and meat. Fine tannins. This is great value.' RM; 'Dried fruits and savoury sous-bois, but the palate is still expressive. Well made.' MM|
|89||Ramón Bilbao||Rioja Gran Reserva 2012||Gran Reserva||Enotria&Coe|
|Ripe, jammy red and black fruit with baking spices. Fresh, but complex. Good quality.' BB; 'Concentrated purple fruit and bitter chocolate. Some alcohol, but the finish is long.' JC|
|89||La Rioja Alta||Viña Arana 2014||Gran Reserva||Armit Wines|
|Subtle, fragrant nose with a lovely balance between wood oil, spice, dried leaves and fresh cherries. Ample complexity and will age further.' JC; 'Oxidative nose - coconut, dill and milk chocolate but the wine is still vibrant and elegant.' MM|
|96||Viña Salceda||Conde de la Salceda Reserva 2017||Reserva||£38.00||Really charming nose of redcurrants and red cherries with a touch of cloves. Great concentration on the palate, but also softness. Outstanding wine.' AG; 'Lots of fruit, coffee, vanilla, meat and licorice but well integrated. Very polished.' JvH; 'Juicy cherry notes, with intense sweetness and firm tannins. Cedar, tobacco chocolate. Great complexity.' ALM|
|94||Ortega Ezquerro||Ortega Ezquerro Reserva DOC Rioja 2015||Reserva||Jeroboams Trade|
|Tertiary, savoury aromas with a spicy structure. Clear character, and original stylistically.' MR; 'High intensity on the nose, with strawberries, grenadine and red peppers. Good acidity.' AG; 'Cherries, vanilla and cloves with a fresh palate.' JvH|
|94||Bodegas Luis Canas||Luis Canas Reserva 2015||Reserva||Alliance Wine|
|Discreet nose, with red and black fruits and a long finish. Really enjoyable.' AG; 'A bit of a sweet-shop aroma, but this is very well balanced. An easy-drinking food wine.' MR; 'Balsamic, medicinal nose with prunes, strawberries and black cherry. Meaty and cedary with a long finish.' MS|
|94||La Rioja Alta||Viña Ardanza 2015||Reserva||Armit Wines|
|Really expressive and enjoyable nose. This combines fruit with tertiary notes really well!' AG; 'Blueberries, blackberries, liquorice and tobacco, this is really well balanced, with a long finish. Would be good in a preservation system.' MS; 'Well matured, well made and well structured!' MS|
|94||Viña Salceda||Viña Salceda Reserva 2017||Reserva||£21.99||Plums and green tobacco-leaf notes with firm tannins. A complex, elegant finish.' ALM; 'Strawberries, tobacco and cedar, but slightly green tannins for me.' MS; 'Strawberry coulis, cranberries and lots of fresh fruit. Complex and well-balanced.' JvH|
|93||Bodegas Zugober||Belezos Rioja Reserva 2016||Reserva||Corney & Barrow Price £13.19||Perfumed, juicy red and black berries with sweet spices and light savoury notes. Great complexity - this would be good for Group Dining.' ALM; 'Red cherries, blueberries and roses. This is intense, but fresh.' MS; 'Leather, star anise, strawberries and dill with refreshing acidity.' MR|
|93||Beronia||Beronia Reserva 198 Barricas 2011||Reserva||Gonzalez Byass Price £14.42||Balsamic nose with black pepper, strawberries, vanilla and cherries. Long finish.' MS; 'Black cherries with intense savoury notes and firm tannins.' ALM; 'Graphite, tobacco and garrigue. Savoury and refreshing.' MR|
|92||Marqués de Murrieta||Reserva 2017||Reserva||MMD Price £14.83||Brooding dark berries. Generous and chunky, with depth. One for big meaty matches.' RM; 'Bold, warm and fruit-forward, with a lingering spicy finish. Beefy.' MM; 'Heady dark chocolate and blueberry, but quite prominent oak handling.' JC|
|91||Bodegas Valenciso||Valenciso Reserva 2014||Reserva||Boutinot £13.50||Mascarpone cherries, raspberries, plums and sage. Sweet spices and coconut.' MW; 'Meaty, earthy roasted cocoa beans, but generous red and black fruit. This would be great with steak.' RM; 'Ripe fruit profile - plums and strawberry compote with fresh mint, nutmeg and baking spices.' BB|
|90||Bodegas Bilbainas||Viña Pomal 106 Barricas Rioja Reserva 2017||Reserva||Codorniu UK|
|Blackberries and black tea with gentle cedary notes. Good complexity.' ALM; 'Rerdcurrants, strawberries and oak. This has good acidity and is well-integrated.' JvH; 'Supple tannins, spice and sweetness. Great gastropub wine.' MR|
|90||C.V.N.E||Viña Real Reserva 2016||Reserva||Hatch Mansfield|
|Appealing nose. Fruit is ripe, but not too baked or extracted. Juicy palate, with racy acidity and firm tannins.' MM; 'Bright red cherries. Pleasant and pretty.' RM; 'Smoke, plums and dill. Well-rounded with good structure.' MW|
|90||C.V.N.E||Imperial Reserva 2017||Reserva||Hatch Mansfield|
|Richly oaked style, but there's a lovely freshness on the palate. Succulent fruit framed by smooth tannins.' JC; 'A ripe but fresh profile, with strawberry and plum tart and layers of mint and baking spices.' BB; 'Dark and savoury, concentrated fruit with lots of American oak influence. I'd like to see this age.' MW|
|88||Bodegas Bilbainas||Viña Pomal Rioja Reserva 2015||Reserva||Codorniu UK|
|Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries with fresh, sweet spices. This is very good for this price.' MS; 'Red cherries and cassis with gentle herbal aromas - spices and green tobacco Good for by the glass.' ALM|
|88||Bodegas Ondarre||Rioja Reserva 2017||Reserva||Hallgarten & Novum|
|Ripe, but fresh profile, with strawberries, plums and mint. Pleasant.' BB; 'Subtle aromas with some secondary notes and chalky tannins. Good fruit to oak ratio.' RM|
|88||Familia Torres||Altos Ibericos Rioja Reserva 2014||Reserva||Fells|
|Baked strawberries, toast and herbs - dill and mint. Bit too much oak on the finish.' MS; 'Sour cherries and strawberries with cinnamon. Quite pronounced oak but it delivers for the price.' MR|
|88||Bodegas de La Marquesa Valserrano||Valserrano Reserva 2016||Reserva||Davy's Wine Merchants |
|Intense flavours of red fruit - cherries, strawberries, cranberries - with a long finish.' MS; 'Juicy fruit and leather, with a herbaceous note. Ageworthy.' MR|
|85||Bodegas Olarra||Dehesa De Gazania Reserva 2017||Reserva||Majestic Wine|
|Up-front bright flavours. It's simple but well-defined.' JC; 'Over-ripe red fruits with smoky dried herbs like rosemary and nutmeg.' BB|
|85||La Rioja Alta||Viña Alberdi 2016||Reserva||Armit Wines|
|Strawberries, smoke, mushrooms and chocolate powder. Fresh, herbal and really expressive.' AG; 'Red and black fruit, pepper and licorice.' MS|
|85||Torre de Oña||Finca Martelo 2015||Reserva||Armit Wines|
|Woody lactones sit on top of the fruit. It feels over-ripe and tired.' JC; 'Dusty stewed fruits. More age here.' MW|
|84||C.V.N.E||Seleccion del Sumiller Reserva 2016||Reserva||Hatch Mansfield|
|Red fruits, cedar and cloves. It's oaky but well integrated.' AG; 'Red cherries and tobacco leaves. Quite grippy.' ALM|
|82||Bodegas Bilbainas||Ederra Rioja Reserva 2016||Reserva||Codorniu UK|
|Brambles, oak and a hint of bitterness.' JvH; 'Strawberries, red cherries, vanilla - maybe used oak chips?' MS|
|94||Bodega Contador||Benjamin Romeo La Cueva de Contador 2016||Generico||Oeno Group|
|Rich and decadent nose. Tannins are prominent, but extremely well formed. Needs time.' JC; 'Dense, chocolatey nose - meaty and complex, full of black fruits and tobacco. Like a black stallion - power and elegance.' MM; 'Ripe fruit, rose petals and pot pourri. Good quality.' BB|
|93||Lalomba||Lalomba Finca Valhonta 2017||Generico||Enotria&Coe|
|Red cherries, raspberries and cranberry tart.' MW; 'Harmonious, alluring and sultry. This is a top wine from a top producer with top quality fruit.' MM; 'Chocolate, dense fruit and grippy tannins. Hauntingly long finish.' RM|
|92||Ramón Bilbao||Limite Sur Ramón Bilbao 2017||Generico||Enotria&Coe|
|High-toned and mineral nose. Crisp red fruit. Subtle. The quality is evident.' JC; 'Juicy and appealing. There's a lot of definition to balance the generosity of the fruit.' MM; 'Juicy strawberry profile with mint and eucalyptus. Good quality. This would be good for Group Dining' BB|
|92||Ramón Bilbao||Rioja Mirto Ramón Bilbao 2015||Generico||Enotria&Coe|
|Complex wood oil and spice note with maturity on the palate. Complex and alluring.' JC; 'Smoky, meaty and earthy. A mix of fresh and dried fruits. Elegance, balance and complexity.' RM; 'Ripe fruit, herbs, cinnamon and nutmeg. Balanced, good quality wine.' BB|
|91||Bodega Contador||Benjamin Romeo Rioja Predicador 2019||Generico||Oeno Group|
|Prominent tannins, but a long finish of charming, bright fruit.' JC; 'A muscular but approachable body - it's firm but with an incredible finesse to it. Promising.' MM; 'Earthy hints, chalky tannins and chocolatey hints. It's chunky but would be great with food.' RM|
|90||Ramón Bilbao||Rioja Edicion Limitada Ramón Bilbao 2018||Generico||Enotria&Coe|
|Bold and generous with good structure. Fresh acidity, fine tannins and a long finish.' RM; 'Tangerine, tarragon, raspberries and cherries.' MW; 'Strawberry compote, rose petal and spices. Good quality.' BB|
|85||Bodegas Valenciso||Valenciso Cemento 2018||Generico||Boutinot|
|A ripe, juicy profile. Strawberry jam flavours, but fresh and balanced.' BB; 'Wild and slightly ferrous on the palate. A game, refreshing red.' MM|
|85||Abel Mendoza||Jarrarte Oak Aged 2018||Generico||Alliance Wine|
|Smoked meat, tarragon, bacon fat and cherries.' MW; 'Nice structure here, but the fruit is hollow and over-ripe.' RM|
The first thing to say about Rioja is that for a DO that is so predicated on reliability it’s a more varied region than you might think. There were big variations even within the Reserva category – from big, bright fruit-bombs to old-style quieter, more oxidative versions.
There were few wines that didn’t have at least one person who really liked them, so it’s worth taking a look at the tasting notes and seeing whether even lower-scoring wines might suit your (and your customers’) tastes.
Even so, just over half of the Reservas scored 90 points or higher, which was probably more than we would have expected.
There was a lot of good wine in the key £10-15 ex VAT area, and flashes of sheer class once you got over £20.
Interestingly, the Gran Reservas were a lot more consistent, clustering around the 90-point mark, with fewer of the highs or lows of the Reservas. Stylistically, they were rather more consistent, too; mostly fruitier than they would have been 20 years ago, but still with plenty of secondary and even tertiary characteristics.
So logically, Gran Reservas could be an area worthy of a bit of exploration. It’s a name people like, a style they understand and an accessible way of trading them up.
The Genericos were different beasts to both of these; scores (and prices) were generally higher, and there was more fruit, more ambition and a more evident modernity. These are a good category to cherry-pick flashes of innovation and class if you have either a wealthier or more engaged clientele, who are open to something less typical.
All in all, a stimulating tasting with far more quality wines than expected and some interesting variations in style to explore.
At the end of each tasting, we ask our judges to nominate their favourite wine.
It can be any price, any style. And it doesn’t matter how the rest of the tasters on the day rated it. It just has to be something that really spoke to them.
We do this because we know that as professional sommeliers you are always keen to know what your fellow members like. So read on to find out who liked what when it came to Rioja.
Bodegas Ondarre Rioja Reserva 2017 (92 points)
£10.69, Hallgarten & Novum
This shows a ripe but fresh profile – fresh strawberries, plums, fresh mint and rose petals. It’s quite a simple wine, but it’s meant to be – and it’s an absolute pleasure to drink.
Stylistically, I think this is spot on and it’s great value for money. I’d use this as my first-price by the glass wine.
La Rioja Alta Viña Arana 2014 (89 points)
£25, Armit Wines
There are subtle incense spices here and a lovely balance between spice, dried leaves and fresh red cherry fruit. Ample acidity frames this lighter style Gran Reserva, but it still has sufficient complexity to age.
It’s got great length and I think represents good value for money – not least in the way it shows its maturity.
I’d have this with roast game.
C.V.N.E. Imperial Gran Reserva 2012 (92 points)
£33.58, Hatch Mansfield
This is a really traditional Riojan Gran Reserva, with plenty of tertiary flavours, like mushrooms and cellar floor, along with smoky, savoury dried red fruits. It’s gorgeously old school – pure, elegant, assertive and paled from, I would guess, a top producer.
I’d have it with a risotto of mollejas (chicken gizzards) and trompettes de la mort.
Viña Salceda, Conde de la Salceda Reserva 2017 (96 points)
£25, Viña Salceda
This is an elegant combination of redcurrant and red cherry fruit, with a touch of cloves and fresh oak. It’s really elegant and charming, with plenty of concentration on the palate, but a softness too. There’s plenty of alcohol, but it’s really well integrated with a long finish. It’s outstanding.
This wine really seduced me – I kept wanting to go back to it. It would be great on a preservation system.
Andre Luis Martins
La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza 2015 (94 points)
£21.50, Armit Wines
There are charming red cherries here with sweet spices and dry tobacco leaf with firm but round tannins. The palate adds some balsamic, red plum and spice flavours. The finish is surprisingly powerful and very long.
Around the £20 mark, this is great value and would be excellent with a chargrilled T-bone or Sunday roast beef.
Lalomba Finca Valhonta 2017 (93 points)
£79.18, Enotria & Coe
This wine has everything: depth and complexity but also balance and concentration. There’s masterful winemaking here.
Chocolate, dense black fruit and full grippy tannins, but also fresh acidity and a hearteningly long finish, which is full of flavour: chocolate, coffee, herbs, meat, red and black fruit, pepper, nutmeg… it’s exceptional.
You could use this as a match for jamon iberico or game: venison or rabbit ragu with pappardelle.
Ortega Ezquerro Reserva DOC Rioja 2015 (94 points)
£15.08, Jeroboams Trade
To me, this wine offers something different stylistically. It has a savoury character – spicy and balsamic – with herbaceous tertiary notes of dill and garrigue.
It would be good to use in a wine-pairing menu or perhaps even by the glass.
Jan van Heesvelde
Viña Salceda, Conde de la Salceda Reserva 2017 (96 points)
£25, Viña Salceda
There’s lots of big coffee, toffee, fudge, vanilla and liquorice flavours in here but it’s all really well integrated. It’s a wine that has everything, though you’d probably need to decant it for a couple of hours. The price is high, but it’s justified. It’s a very polished wine.
This would be great after a barbecue.
La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza 2015 (94 points)
£21.50, Armit Wines
I nearly picked another wine here [La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva] but for £21 this wine has everything: primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. It has blueberries, blackberries, baked red fruit, liquorice, tobacco, black pepper, cedar and mushrooms, with a really long finish.
I’d serve it with fillet or sirloin steak and people would love it!
La Rioja Alta Viña Arana 2014 (89 points)
£25, Armit Wines
There is fruit here – cranberries and cherries – but a lot of other more subdued herb and hedgerow flavours, too – dill, sage and leaves – that I really liked.
I felt this was the most classic wine of the tasting, stylistically, and would be great on a preservation system.
The List Champions really set our Sommelier Collective Awards tastings apart from other competitions.
After the first round of judging, we look at scores, prices, tasting notes – and the suggestions of our tasters – to draw up a shortlist of wines to be considered for three key restaurant categories – By The Glass, Group Dining and Best for Preservation System.
These wines get retasted with these uses in mind, and the winners become our List Champions. We also give out Best in Class – for the wine with the highest overall average score – and Best Value.
These are helpful, practical awards – and a recognition that it’s not just about scores. Sometimes you need a wine in a particular style and at a particular price to really do a job for you.
Well done to the winners, and we know you will find these results useful.
Best in Class
Viña Salceda, Conde de la Salceda Reserva 2017
£25, Vina Salceda
Our Best in Class award goes to the wine with the best overall score from the tasting. This time we had two wines level on points, the Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva and the Conde de la Salceda Reserva.
In the end we awarded it to the latter by virtue of the fact that its lowest score was higher than that of the 904. Not one judge scored it below 94 points.
But both wines are exceptional – and very different in style. So probably both well worth a look!
‘Really charming nose of redcurrants and red cherries with a touch of cloves. Great concentration on the palate, but also softness. Outstanding wine.’ Alexia Gallouet
‘Lots of fruit, coffee, vanilla, meat and licorice but well integrated. Very polished.’ Jan van Heesvelde
‘Juicy cherry notes, with intense sweetness and firm tannins. Cedar, tobacco chocolate. Great complexity.’ Andre Luis Martins
Best Value for Money
Bodegas Olarra Dehesa de Gazania Gran Reserva 2011
£9.28, Majestic Trade
Our Value for Money award goes to the wine that delivers the most points for the money. Usually we use 90 points as a cut off, which, broadly speaking, is the level at which our tasters are moving into ‘I’d definitely like to list this’ territory.
The Olarra is a classic (and very mature) Gran Reserva style at the kind of price that puts it within the orbit of more or less any venue in the country. Incredible value.
‘Leather, baked fruit, strawberries, plums and cherries, with good balance.’ Maria Sobrino
‘Tobacco and red fruit. Rounded, with smooth tannins and great acidity.’ Merlin Ramos
‘Tobacco, balsamic and bitter chocolate with an elegant finish.’ Andre Luis Martins
Best for By The Glass
Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal 106 Barricas Rioja Reserva 2017
£10.92, Codorniu UK
Our By The Glass award is all about approachability – a wine that can be happily drunk on its own or with multiple types of food. Something that just about everyone will like, and which is easily affordable.
It’s a tricky slot to fill. We had a lot of wines put forward for this, but in the end, the Pomal ticked all the boxes. It was super-easy to drink, versatile and very well priced.
‘Blackberries and black tea with gentle cedary notes. Good complexity.’ Andre Luis Martins
‘Rerdcurrants, strawberries and oak. This has good acidity and is well-integrated.’ Jan van Heesvelde
‘Supple tannins, spice and sweetness. Great gastropub wine.’ Merlin Ramos
Best for Group Dining
Ortega Ezquerro Reserva DOC Rioja 2015
£15.08, Jeroboams Trade
Group Dining is not dissimilar in some ways to By The Glass. The wine needs to be representative of its style and it needs to be – for want of a better description – easy to like for large numbers of people.
But it also needs to be a bit more premium (and more obviously premium) and also more gastronomic, since it will be served with food. The Ortega Ezquerro ticked all those boxes really well.
‘Tertiary, savoury aromas with a spicy structure. Clear character, and original stylistically.’ Merlin Ramos
‘High intensity on the nose, with strawberries, grenadine and red peppers. Good acidity.’ Alexia Gallouet
‘Cherries, vanilla and cloves with a fresh palate.’ Jan van Heesvelde
Best for Preservation System
C.V.N.E. Imperial Gran Reserva 2012
£33.58, Hatch Mansfield
Price is not a factor when it comes to wines for the preservation system. Nor is typicity. Wines can be as unusual or expensive as they like – but they do need to be exceptional. And CVNE’s Imperial Gran Reserva was certainly that.
There were atypical Riojas in this tasting (look back through the tasting notes if you want to find one) – particularly in the Generico section. But this was a benchmark Gran Reserva – the kind of wine that you could put on a preservation system and still sell a lot of. Nobody who can afford it will dislike this wine.