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  • Writer's pictureClaire @ fromthegrapevine

Rioja tasting at Savernake Street

Following on from our Spanish and Portuguese wine tasting in the summer, we decided it would be enjoyable to spend more time focussing in on the wines of Rioja.

Rioja wine tasting header image

Rioja is a region in Spain nestled slightly inland between the Pyrenees mountains to the north, and the Cantabrian mountains to the west, that provide protection from the Atlantic weather. Rioja is subdivided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa, with wines labelled as Rioja allowed to take grapes from all three zones. The river Ebro winds its way right through the region, and Rioja is presumed to have got its name from the river Oja that has its home there. 85% of Rioja wines are red wines (tinto), but there are also rosé (rosado) and white (blanco) wines.

Wine One: Marqués de los ríos - Rioja Blanco - Morrisons The Best range £6

Our first wine is a budget priced white Rioja from Morrisons. Despite a hiccup involving the glass giving way when trying to wrestle with the screw cap, the tasters were impressed with the fruitiness of the wine. Whilst not being complex, they appreciated that it would be a good wine to serve at a summer bar-b-que.

The wine is a sub brand of the respected Baron de Ley, and suitable for vegetarians. It is a "Joven" wine, meaning that it is young with no requirement to spend any time ageing in barrels or bottle.

Rioja labelling made simple

The Rioja labelling is a colour coding system that helps consumers see whether the wine is "joven" (young), "crianza", which is wine aged for at least two years, at least one of which was in oak. Then there is Rioja "Reserva", which is aged for at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak. Finally, Rioja "Gran Reserva" wines have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in bottle. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not necessarily produced each year. On the back labels the four categories are colour coded as follows:

The four colours of Rioja labelling

If the Rioja label doesn't specify on the front, then it is likely that it is a "joven" wine and should still have the green square on the back of the bottle, with its "Cosecha" (Harvest) date.

Bottle of Cune blanco rioja

Wine Two: Cune blanco - Waitrose, £10.99

We tasted one more white, which was a small contrast to the first. From the respected Cune brand, which dates back in 1879 when it planted vines in the town of Haro on the far north west of La Rioja. The town is considered to be the original heart of Rioja, and has an annual wine festival each year. It was also (for trivia fans everywhere) the first town in Spain to install streetlights.

This wine is made from 100% viura grapes and benefits from vines that take advantage of the mountainous altitude, which gives the grapes more acidity, leading to freshness. However, unlike the first wine, this rioja blanco has spent its fermentation time (where the yeast turns the sugars into alcohol) in an American oak cask. Usually, fermentation is carried out in sealed stainless steel tanks, but the oak serves to round out the flavours a little. We could see that the Cune was fractionally more golden in colour from the oak, and the wine felt fuller in the mouth. It is a Decanter bronze award winner, but the guests were divided as to whether the price tag would put them off of buying it in the future.

Marques de Montino Rioja

Wine three - Marques de Montino, Sainsbury's £5

And so to the red wines for which Rioja is famous. Our first offering is a hand-crafted Rioja made

using traditional grape varieties and winemaking techniques.

It is an entry level budget wine, but our guests found this easy-drinking young or 'joven' wine to be fresh and juicy, bursting with flavours of strawberry and cherry.

Vegan wines - What does it mean?

Four of the six wines were suitable for vegans - Cune, Beronia and Baron de Ley - but not all shouted about it on their labels. Whether a wine is suitable for vegetarians or vegans depends usually on the fining agents that the wineries use. Fining agents remove proteins, yeast, and other organic particles which are in suspension during the making of the wine. The agents are added to the top of the vat and as it sinks down, the particles adhere to the agent, and are carried out of suspension.

Examples of animal products used as finings are gelatin, isinglass (derived from fish bladder), chitosan, casein and egg albumen. Bull's blood is also used in some Mediterranean countries but (as a legacy of BSE (mad cow disease)) is not allowed in the U.S. or the European Union. Of these, casein and albumen (deriving from milk protein and egg white respectively) may be considered acceptable for vegetarians, but not for vegans. As an alternative to animal products, bentonite, a clay mineral, can be used to clarify the wine.

We discussed whether the Spanish (being ardent lovers of meat products and bull fighting) might leave the vegan detail off their labels as it could potentially put off consumers!


Wine four - Beronia Rioja Crianza, Tesco £9 (Waitrose £11.79)

Beronia crianza rioja

Following the previous joven red wine, it was time to start tasting those with some ageing to their credentials. Beronia is a respectable brand and found in many of the supermarkets. "Crianza" means breeding in Spanish, but is also used in the sense of "growing up", which crianza wines are starting to do. The cherry red stamp on the back of the bottle ensures the wine has had a minimum of two years ageing - at least one year in oak and one year in the bottle. This particular Rioja is made with 91% tempranillo grapes (which provides the wines' high tannin levels) and has been aged in a mix of French and American oak barrels - each providing a different hint of spice to complement the wild, berry fruit.

Our wine tasters were impressed with this wine. It is perfect to accompany lamb and suitable for vegans.


Wine five - Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva, Waitrose, £12.25

The wines were getting older and more complex, with our next offering from 2014. A "reserva" wine from specialist Reserva bodega, Baron de Ley. The winery is set in a monastery that dates back to the 1500s and still uses its cellars to age the wines. The vines surround the monastery so that the grapes don't have to travel far before being turned into delicious wine.

Baron de Ley hails from Alta Rioja where the Atlantic climate provides more rain and warm summers, perfect for the early ripening tempranillo grape. Reserva wines have to be aged for a minimum of three years, at least one year of which is in oak. The guests could see the body was fuller and colour a little darker. The taste was of soft strawberry fruit flavours and nuances of spice from its ageing. This was a big hit with the tasters.

Cune Gran Reserva rioja

Wine six - Cune Gran Reserva, Tesco £13

Gran reserva wines have the highest level of ageing, and this 2012 from Cune (again) has already had a minimum of two years in oak and three in its bottle. Due to the high tannin and acidity in the wine, it would be suitable for further ageing in a cellar - up to 20 years, and some of the tasters thought perhaps this was being drunk a little too early. We discussed how "Reserva" and "Gran reserva" wines are not necessarily released every year - only the best harvests are used. For example, if the 2018 grapes don't result in wine with suitable qualities, only joven and crianza wines will be made.

The marketing blurb describes this wine as the "perfect balance between ripe black fruits and aromas that come from the oak ageing such as vanilla and toffee." However, the consensus thought that it was disappointing for a gran reserva, and would prefer to buy the reserva wine above.

After a cheeky port and some cheese and biscuits, we ended the evening with more knowledge and confidence of Rioja and its wines. The evening raised £80 for the Eastcott Community Association.

We look forward to returning to Savernake Street hall in 2019 with more wines!



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