A Word From Our Wine Expert…
Many major reviewers have been releasing their “Best Of” and “Top” wines of the year lists over the past month. Fun as they may be to obsess over and reference, those lists are obviously subjective. While I have never been disappointed in a wine I’ve bought from one of these lists, there have been plenty of instances where I have vehemently disagreed with the rankings.
Below is my own list of noteworthy Riojas. I tasted a lot of Riojas in 2020, but the below bottles left the greatest impressions on me this year:
Marques de la Concordia is a 150-year-old Rioja mainstay based out of Haro – the heart of Rioja. Concordia produces wines that are honest reflections of what the region has to offer. This spirit and philosophy are perhaps best exemplified at the ownership’s organic farm outside Salamanca, where they also produce incredible cheese and balsamic vinegar, as well as cure their own jamon (from animals raised on their farm).
The Marques de la Concordia range offers consumers tremendous value, perhaps best exemplified in the Reserva. The Concordia Reserva has a flavor profile that sits right at the crossroads of youthful exuberance (fresh, ripe fruit tone) and slight development (edging into the leather/spice of traditional Rioja); cherry, cedar and peppercorn along with an elegant structure are woven into a seamless tapestry. Coming off back-to-back outstanding vintages (2014 and 2015, the latter of which received a 95-point rating from Decanter), this wine consistently over delivers and reminds me of what I love about Rioja.
2.) Finca Allende
Miguel Angel de Gregorio of Finca Allende produces a lineup of wines that mirror the different terroirs of his vineyards. It’s interesting to go through his wines – all made from the same grape variety (except the white) but each with a unique identity. He also produces the Finca Allende, which is a marriage of the best parts of each identity. While Miguel does not give his Riojas traditional age designations, the Finca Allende does get a considerable amount of seasoning before coming to market (current vintage is 2011). This makes for a complex, developed style of Rioja with loads of nuanced earth and spice. Despite its age, this wine has more life ahead of it than behind.
La Rioja Alta was my first eye-opening Rioja experience. When I initially tasted through the lineup with a colleague, I had the amazing realization of just how good a Rioja could be. I’ve been hooked ever since, and while all the wines in the La Rioja Alta range are great, the 904 is the best of the bunch. This mature Gran Reserva has an aromatic potpourri of dried citrus peels and cherry skins, with vanilla, clove, and cinnamon in the background – there’s a lot going on in the glass. A great wine, this 2005 vintage was Wine Enthusiast’s #1 Wine of the Year for 2016, and the quality has only improved since.
4.) Vallobera Graciano and Viura
(TIE): Rioja is a region defined by tradition. This leads to consistency and quality but it also limits innovation. Recently, however, certain producers have begun eschewing tradition in favor of experimentation. Some of the most impressive examples of this trailblazing spirit come from Vallobera in Laguardia. Vallobera produces a more traditional lineup of Rioja wines that are great, but they also bottle some wonderful single-varietal wines NOT made from Tempranillo, including a red from Graciano and a white from Viura. The Graciano is muscular and bold with notes that include black cherry, violets, graphite, anise and a slight herbaceousness; the Viura, in contrast, is very fruit-forward and primary, with ripe mandarin, mango and banana coming through. Both are indicative of the interesting things to come from Rioja.
Much like the La Rioja Alta 904, the Coto de Imaz is another textbook Gran Reserva. The Imaz has a completely different profile than the 904, however, with more generous ripe dark fruit (aided by a fraction of Graciano blended in) and less of a dried component. A different style from a world-class producer, the 2012 Coto de Imaz Gran Reserva was awarded 97 Points and Best in Show at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards as well as being ranked #9 on the Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Wines of 2020.
The vineyards of Federico Paternina are scattered throughout Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. The limited-production Paternina Seleccion Especial is made of Tempranillo from the best plots of those vineyards. Typically a single-varietal wine, grapes for the Seleccion are destemmed and micro-oxygenized prior to malolactic fermentation; the juice is then aged in American oak for 12 months. The result is a wine of immense character: with notes of red and black cherry, cocoa nib and cardamom. This limited-production wine is special.
The Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España – or “Cune” as it’s more colloquially known – is one of the iconic producers of Rioja. The winery has been in operation since the late 19th century and is today run by the 5th generation of the original founding family. Cune’s wines are synonymous with quality and its Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva bottlings are perennial staples on many critics’ top wine lists. The Reserva provides a bit more bang for your buck (it’s usually around half the price of the Gran Reserva) and is stunningly good. Made from some of the finest vineyards in Rioja Alta, the Reserva typically has a bit of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano in the blend to add depth and is a wine with substantial ageing potential.
8.) Muga Reserva
I visited Muga as part of a group trip around Rioja in 2019 and it was one of our more memorable stops. They rely solely on oak casks for the entirety of their production process at Muga (no stainless steel tanks) and subsequently are one of a handful of Spanish wineries who have an in-house cooperage to produce barrels. The wines from Muga are generally more modern in style, including their Reserva. Dark and dense with a fruit-forward, lush texture, the Muga Reserva is loaded with ripe red-to-black fruits complemented by slight anise and clove.
Any discussion of “interesting” or “impactful” wines from Rioja has to include Lopez de Heredia. The winery’s eccentric aura can be felt immediately inside the tasting room, where a massive Art Deco kiosk designed for the 1910 World’s Fair by founder Jose Lopez de Heredia takes up residence. Lopez is an old-school producer, from winemaking equipment and techniques down to the ancient mold that seemingly consumes its cellar – they even release wines far older than other producers (current vintage of the winery’s Tondonia Reserva white is 2008). These factors make for wines that are pretty, expressive, structure-driven and uniquely Lopez. The Cubillo is elegant and floral, with ripe red cherry and plum and silky tannins.
Faustino I is a wine that I did not understand when I began at Spec’s more than a decade ago. Through various tastings and vintages, it routinely came off to me as tired, overdeveloped and past its prime. This put me out of step with critics, because the Faustino I is lauded as an iconic Spanish wine. Somewhere along the way, either the wine itself changed or my tastes evolved, because I am now totally on board the Faustino I train. The past two vintages have both felt more balanced than before, striking a harmony between its developed leather, dried tobacco leaf and spice characteristics with a freshness of fruit that did not previously exist. I’m happy to have changed my mind on this one.
And that’s the list – these 11 wines will undoubtedly be the Riojas that stay with me from a memorable 2020. Everything mentioned is currently in stock, but some of these are a bit scarcer than others. If you have any questions about availability, please reach out to a wine associate at your neighborhood Spec’s and they can assist you in tracking down what you need.
Alan Dennis, Wine Buyer