Tue 19 Mar 2013

Rioja’s Different Styles: Tasting The Distinction


There is a sporadically told lowbrow joke that Rioja is the only wine true to its name (it puns on the pronunciation ‘reoccur’ and has to do with what happens when you drink too much of it…).

Yet styles of red Rioja have fragmented and diversified in recent decades. The more traditionally minded wines are still as they have always been, but they are now joined by fruitier, younger-drinking wines and chunkier, more modern-minded wines that spend less time in (generally newer) oak.

Acknowledging this, recent offers from The Society have grouped the Riojas into three broad categories devised by Spain buyer Pierre Mansour: traditional, modern classical and modern.

Tasting The Distinction
In an effort to show The Society’s Marketing department what these categories were about, and the differences between them, Pierre recently treated us to a quick blind tasting at Society HQ: three glasses of red wine were put in front of each of us and our impressions were invited. It occurred to me that members might be interested in them.

Wine One
Probably young, thoroughly tasty and very enjoyable, the first wine struck a lovely balance between plump, juicy red-fruit flavours and a stylish lick of vanilla from (presumably quite light) oak ageing. While ready to drink, it clearly had some time ahead of it. More or less everyone in the group seemed to enjoy it.
Identity: Muga Reserva, 2008 (£13.50 per bottle)
Style: Modern-classical
Though Muga itself is a very traditional bodega, this particular wine is a shining example of the ‘modern-classical’ style: these wines are imbued with some of the stuffing needed to develop in bottle, but their comparatively racy fruit flavours make them a delight to drink at all stages, as evinced by this relatively youthful but delicious wine.
Further drinking: For those wishing to explore other modern-classical Riojas, we recommend the wines of Contino.

The cask room at Muga

Wine Two
A markedly darker colour than the first wine and running a gamut of far blacker fruit flavours and more pronounced, polished oak. It was mouth-coating and chunky; a big-biceped wine whose somewhat dense tannins meant that it felt too young for drinking. Interestingly, many younger members of the department seemed to particularly like this one.
Identity: Roda Reserva, 2007 (c.£25, not currently available)
Style: Modern
Modern-style Rioja tends to be richer, smoother and darker-fruited, as was the case here. Aged in newer wood for less time, these often need considerable keeping as shown by this wine which, while a year older than the Muga, was clearly not yet ready to go, hence it not currently being for sale. There are, however, exceptions:
Further drinking: The youthful yet gorgeous Tobelos Reserva, 2008 (£19.50 per bottle) is conspicuously delicious to drink now and was the standout of a recent buying trip to the region.

Wine Three
When tilted to the light against the previous two wines’ respective red and purple colours, this wine was noticeably tawnier, with a colour perhaps best described as russet. Its perfume was sensational, ethereal even, far subtler than the previous two wines. Silky in texture with savoury sandalwood-like notes and medium in body, this was manifestly different from the previous, fruitier propositions. More so than the preceding wines, this is the sort of Rioja that would be used in wine schools to show what the region’s wine is classically thought of as. Lots of people picked this as their favourite including, it must be said, most of the elder members of the team!
Identity: La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial, 2001 (£18.50 per bottle)
Style: Traditional
Long cask ageing tends to make these wines ready to drink on release, as was the case here (though there is absolutely no hurry to drink this one!). Where wines one and two sang and shouted, this one whispered, relying on nicety and nuance more than brawn or berry fruit.
Further drinking: The Society’s Rioja (£6.95 per bottle) offers a taste of the traditional style at a friendly price; Viña Amézola Crianza, Rioja, 2006 (£10.50) is also highly recommended.

La Rioja Alta vineyards

Are you a Rioja traditionalist, modernist or modern-classicist?
This tasting showed that these three broad styles all have their merits and suit different audiences and contexts. Indeed, a few of the best bodegas have hedged their bets including wines that conform to each of the three respective categories in their portfolios.

It is savvy to be doing so; the problem, as often seems the case in wine, is communicating these differences to the people who might like them. This is, we hope, where The Society comes in.

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

Categories : Spain, Wine Tastings


  1. John McCarroll says:

    Really helpful to get the basics. Time to get tasting!

  2. Iris Lane says:

    Its a bit difficult to tell from the label which has been in the barrel for a long time, and how it will taste. Maybe the colour, but that is often different when in a glass. Age does not seem to be an accurate indicator. You didn’t mention how old the Society’s Rioja was?

    • Pierre Mansour says:

      Many thanks for your comment, Iris.

      There are clues on Rioja labels that indicate maturation time: these are joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva, all of which determine the minimum time the wine has spent in barrel and bottle before release. For further details, please refer to the How to Buy Rioja Guide at thewinesociety.com/howtobuy

      The current vintage of The Society’s Rioja is 2009: it spent around 24 months in barrel.

  3. henry kwok says:

    Love the Ardanza Reserva Especial 2001—a winner at such modest cost!
    Very glad your team sourced this for members—-mucho gracias!

  4. Phil Baker says:

    I remember the Federico Paternina Banda Azul of the 1970s which was a revelation. Inexpensive (especially at Augustus Barnet) and very mellow with a subtle and sophisticated flavour. It was definitely tawny in colour and just such so superior to anything else at the price at that time. I have not tasted a Rioja at a reasonable price like that since. What has the society that might compare?

    • I have asked about but unfortunately nobody seems to know the wine you describe. Sorry about that. From your description it sounds like a traditional style Rioja, I would therefore recommend that you try (if you haven’t already) The Society’s Rioja Crianza (SP7111) or Navajas Crianza (SP7961). I hope you enjoy them.

  5. Philip Boughen says:

    I found the Rioja article most interesting (as I do ‘Grapevine’ generally).
    I have some Muga 2007 Reserva and assumed this would be in the traditional style but as it’s matured in American and French wood it is obviously modern classical – as was the 2007 you tasted.
    So, I presume I need to look for American wood for the traditional style in future ?
    As I mentioned, the article proved most instructive and I would suggest tou provide a tasting of the three styles for members !!!!

  6. Peter Brennan says:

    I find these distinctions helpful, as I prefer traditional styles. (In my opinion, the relatively traditional white Rioja Crianza from Bodegas Navajas is one of the best value wines on the list).
    I wonder whether the Society might consider adopting these categories in other regions, such as Bordeaux, the Rhone and even Burgundy? The style of production is not always clear from the notes, and I would be encouraged to try more wines if there were greater clarity.

  7. Barrie Whatley says:

    A bit late for Phil Baker but I too remember Paternina Banda Azul. Indeed it was the wine that first gave me my liking for Rioja. Paternina Banda Azul is still available in most large Spanish supermarkets, but sadly it is a very poor reflection of what was produced in the 70’s and 80’s. I am very much in the traditional camp finding the more modern wines have moved towards French/New World tastes and lost what used to make rioja so special. If Phil ever drives to Spain he could pick up a case or two of Lagunilla Casa Del Comendador Crianza 2009. It’s at the cheap end, I got mine at about 7 Euros a bottle. On this year’s trip to Spain I’ll be dropping in at the Lagunilla Bodega in Cenicero to try the Casa del Comendador reserva and gran reserva.

  8. Martin Fenn-Smith says:

    Mention of the names Paternina Banda Azul and Lagunilla bring back wonderful memories of long-ago enjoyment of glasses of Rioja. I haven’t been able to look for wine in Spain for some years now but I shall make a point of taking time out to do so when I go back there this summer.

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