Rioja on a roll - Features - Food + Drink - The Independent

Rioja on a roll

Even so, "classic" riojas are now increasingly in the minority, as modern and avant-garde wines, made from grapes harvested when they're properly ripe, take over. In this traditional, red-dominated wine region of Spain, a fresh approach has been borrowed from the New World, emphasising the fruitier aspects of the tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano grapes. Another major improvement is in the all-important use of oak. Wines aren't left to loiter in oak barrels to become dried out and toothless. Stylish French oak is replacing the charry American oak barrels that impart such overpowering vanilla, coconut and bourbon whisky characters. Even the traditional hierarchy of joven (young), crianza, reserva and gran reserva is being given el heave-ho, with reserva now often the best of the range.

You wouldn't expect Spain's best-known wine region to pigeonhole itself into a single style or quality level any more than you'd expect Bordeaux to stop catering for a spectrum of palates and pockets. And fogeys can stay in the comfort zone that Perry calls "classic" (and others describe as simply "old-fashioned") while the rest of us enjoy the region's fruitier, less oak-dominated tempranillo et al. Having said that, there's not a lot to shout about for less than a fiver. At the tasting, I picked out the gluggy strawberry fruit of the 2003 Primi Rioja (£4.99, Morrisons) along with the vibrant berry fruitiness of the 2004 Vina Tobia Rioja Tinto (£4.99, Halifax Wine, 01422 256333; Premier Cru Fine Wine, 01943 877004).

In the modern vein, the 2003 Ostatu Crianza (£7.99, Genesis Wines, 020-7963 9060), is a better example of the new-wave trend towards crafted, ripe, strawberry fruit flavours. Similarly the 2002 Viña Herminia Excelsus (£8.99, Oddbins) is a blend of tempranillo and garnacha in almost equal parts that doesn't stint on sweet and spicy aromas while delivering plenty of opulent cherry fruitiness. Top quality kicks in at the level of the 2001 Finca Allende Tinto (around £17, Harvey Nichols, Booths supermarkets), 100 per cent tempranillo, whose fresh berry aromas lead to a concentrated tinto full of succulent mulberry fruit. Similarly succulent is the 2000 Valenciso Reserva Red (£15.99, Decanter Wines, 01372 376127), a fragrantly fruity rioja whose deft touch of oak brings a seamless expression of tempranillo.

Graciano is a high-quality grape that a few bodegas are bringing back into the mainstream. The peppery, almost Rhône-like 2001 Ijalba Graciano (£8.99, Vintage Roots, 0118-976 1999) is a good example. If you're still wavering between classic and modern, Radcliffe's 1998 Gran Reserva Bodegas Almenar (£11.99, Thresher, £7.99 each in a three-for-two offer), has the light smokiness of American oak and the juicy, smooth-textured style that says traditional without being stuck in the mud. As does the classy, vanilla-infused, textured fruit of the 2000 Muga Selección Especial Reserva (£15.99, or two for £12.79 each, Majestic).

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