Wine lovers of a certain age, like me, have long looked to Rioja for some of the world’s best values in serious red wine. Since quality in the region has never been higher and more widespread than it is today, we’re enjoying a selection like never before, and prices have mostly remained very fair—in fact, often ridiculously so—for the quality that’s delivered.
In recent months I tasted through hundreds of Riojas for my annual International Wine Cellar coverage of the best new wines from Spain, and have selected some of my favorites, all of them ready to drink now. But don’t be fooled by the accessible character of a well-made Rioja, as these wines can be among Spain’s most ageworthy. Usually dominated by the tempranillo variety, they possess the requisite acidity and tannins to reward patience but are rarely severe on release. The classic pairing for Rioja is lamb, but these wines do amazingly well with beef or even with richer birds, thanks to their lively acidity.
The 2008 Bodegas Muga Unfiltered Rioja Reserva ($25; Fine Estates from Spain) is an exotically perfumed, complex wine that offers an array of dark fruit and spice qualities, a supple texture and very soft tannins. Muga chose not to make their deluxe Prado Enea bottling in 2008 so all of the fruit that would normally have gone into that more expensive bottling is in this one.
I also recommend looking for the 2008 Granja Nuestra Senora de Remelluri Rioja ($38; De Maison Selections), which shows intense red fruit and floral character, with spicy overtones and an appealingly seamless texture. It has the tannins to age but they certainly do not get in the way of the wine’s expressive, sharply focused fruit.
Bodegas Pujanza (Grapes of Spain) is a highly regarded producer of expressive, fruit-driven wines, many of which are expensive. Their 2009 Rioja ($30) is a great introduction to their style. Offering plush, smoky dark fruit flavors and showing excellent depth, it also finishes with a tangy quality that keeps it lively and bright. Two thousand nine was a hot vintage, but this wine shows a vivacious character that’s rare for the year.
The 2005 Bodegas Beronia Rioja Gran Reserva ($32; San Francisco Wine Exchange) is aged for 24 months in French and American oak, which has imparted an exotic note to its sweet cherry and dark berry flavors. There’s a surprising vibrancy to the wine that belies its age, and just enough tannins to give it solid structural support. Decant it for an hour or so for maximum impact.
Marqués de Cáceres (Vineyard Brands) is a large Rioja producer whose wines are mostly intended for drinking on release. Their 2004 Rioja Gran Reserva ($30), from a great vintage in the Rioja region, was aged for 28 months in French oak and then held back in bottle for 4 years before being released. It’s one of the most successful wines I’ve had from Cáceres in a long time. It begins with a complex, fragrant bouquet of candied cherry and dark fruits, pipe tobacco and baking spices. It’s lush and expansive on the palate, then picks up a suave floral pastille nuance with air and finishes sweet and long, with fully integrated tannins.
A great wine for drinking during the upcoming holidays is the 2007 Bodegas y Vinedos del Marques de Vargas Rioja Reserva ($30; Steve Miles Selections), an assertively perfumed Rioja that offers lush dark fruit flavors, an exotic floral touch and impressive density. As deep and rich as this wine is, it’s also delicious right now, displaying the complexity that comes with some bottle age but still retaining a vibrant fruit character.