Very cheap wines from most of the world’s major wine regions are invariably undrinkable. You’d be taking your life in your hands opening a bottle of Barolo, Bordeaux or red Burgundy for less than a tenner. But Rioja is rarely terrible, even when it’s sloshing around in the depths of wine’s bargain basement. This is a plus point in some ways but it also means that, in many people’s eyes, Rioja lacks gravitas.
In the public imagination, Rioja is marooned in the ‘good value’ category. But judging Rioja by its big-volume wines is like basing your assessment of Burgundy on its generic bottlings, with no thought given to the village wines or premiers or grands crus. Imagine Burgundy without Musigny, Chambertin, Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne. Would it be considered a great wine region based on the quality of its Bourgognes rouges and blancs? Obviously not.
There are plenty of world-class Riojas available, and from a variety of producers. Taste a mature Gran Reserva from a classic vintage like 1964 or 1970, and you are in the presence of something sublime, something that ages as well as any red wine on the planet. I’ve tasted vintages back to the 1870s at Marqués de Riscal that were still fresh and sprightly, fully the equivalent of a hallowed French wine. And yet the region as a whole doesn’t benefit from, or even trade on, its top end.
Some Riojas have already stepped on to the fine wine podium – Contador, Las Beatas and the top bottlings from Sierra Cantabria, Muga, López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta – but most remain comparative bargains. Convincing consumers to pay more won’t be easy, but it’s essential for the future of the region. Here are a dozen world-class Riojas – including three whites – that I believe fully deserve their spot at the top table.
Twelve of the best Riojas that money can buy
Top Rated Bottles
López de Heredia, Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva 2007
Pujanza, Añadas Frías Genérico 2016
Abel Mendoza, V Genérico 2018
La Rioja Alta, 890 Selección 98 Especial Gran Reserva 2005
Artuke, La Condenada Genérico 2017
Bodega Lanzaga, Las Beatas 2016
Castillo de Cuzcurrita, Tilo Genérico 2013
Marqués de Murrieta, Dalmau Reserva 2014
Muga, Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2011
Bodegas Exopto, El Espinal de Exopto Genérico 2017
Viñas Leizaola, El Sacramento Genérico 2014
Marqués de Riscal, Finca Torrea Genérico 2017
Why isn’t Rioja considered a fine wine?
Hugh Johnson on the ancient origins of Spanish wine
Life Lessons with La Rioja Alta’s winemaker Julio Sáenz
CVNE – a century and a half of aristocratic charm in Rioja
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