As modern Spanish wine continues to surprise us with its quality and innovation, it's easy to forget that its success was built on Rioja. Among my earliest love affairs with wine, I remember finding the Paternina Banda Azul at £2.99 a bottle in the Potters Bar Victoria Wine utterly irresistible. So much so that I used to drink good old Blue Stripe by the shedload thanks to Vicky Wine's 10 per cent case discount. What was so compelling was its smoothness of texture, its refreshing, medium-bodied fruitiness hinting at strawberry and cherry and always that seductive coating of vanilla and coconut derived from its stay in oak barrels; a legacy of the era when consumers looked to Rioja to fill the void left by the phylloxera louse that sucked Bordeaux vineyards dry in the 19th century. Those, as they say, were los días.
Maybe I lost a little of my enthusiasm for Rioja when Australian shiraz, Chilean merlot and Argentinian malbec took over as good value alternatives to the European classics. But competition from the New World and from within Spain itself has given this beautiful region on the southern side of the lofty Sierra Cantabria cause for reinvention.
On its own, or in blends with the local graciano, garnacha and mazuelo grapes, the early-ripening tempranillo grape is the mainstay of the region's reds, producing a broad palette of styles in which both youthful fruit and venerable maturity can be equally delicious. Add in a frame of mind that varies from the traditional in the wines of Tondonia, La Rioja Alta and Murrieta to the ultra-modern likes of Roda, Artadi and Allende, and today's Rioja is holding its head high.
As with Bordeaux, there's a wide range in value and it's still possible to find quality at under a tenner in wines like Baró* de Ley (see below), Sainsbury's 2005 Taste the Difference Rioja Reserva, £8.99, a wine with that typical veneer of vanilla and mature fruit, or the 2007 Rioja Perez Burton, £9.99, Marks & Spencer, the little master Telmo Rodriguez's glossy, strawberry and vanilla tempranillo with its soft leathery texture. For the extra shekel or two, the 2005 Baigorri Crianza, £10.34, bottle/case, M&S Direct, is a seductive blend of intense strawberry-fruit flavours that's youthfully sinewy in the modern vein. CVNE is another bodega on cracking form; try its 2006 CVNE Rioja Reserva, £11.15, Waitrose, a polished blend of succulent red cherry fruitiness lightly dusted with vanilla.
At recent tastings, I was as impressed by the black cherry and toasty oak veneer of the superb 2004 Ontañon Reserva, £19.95, Jeroboams shops, as the bright freshness and seductively spicy qualities of the classic 2005 Contino Rioja, £22, Marks & Spencer. These styles strike me as halfway between the new and the old Spain. In the former camp, for purity of fruit without the gameyness, a wine like Roda's 2006 Rioja Reserva, £24.99, Sainsbury's, displays its pristine cherry-fruit spiciness and concentration. If, on the other hand, you're old-school and love those mature, gamey qualities of traditional Rioja at its best, I doubt that you'll be disappointed with the fabulous 1999 Rioja Gran Reserva Imperial from CVNE, £25, buy 2 = £20, Majestic, whose mellow and spicy dark-berry fruits reminds one of sinking into a comforting leather sofa. For my review of white, rosé and red Rioja, see anthonyrosewine.com this Monday.