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.