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Winner Details

Spain: Rioja 

The usual powerhouse areas of Crianza and Reserva underwhelmed this year, but there were high quality nuggets in more unusual expressions

Rioja is one of ‘the biggies’ in the Sommelier Wine Awards, a category that gets a lot of submissions at every price level and in just about every style – including whites. The first ever blanco Gold last year (to Marqués de Cáceres’ Antea) seemed to spur on the bodegueros of Spain’s most famous region, and we got more entries, and more medals, than ever before.

Rioja is an area that has seen a huge stylistic shift. After a spell with cool-fermented, unoaked whites in the late 1990s, most of the wines here this year were oaked, but not oxidised. ‘This was fascinating and uplifting – there were some really good wines,’ said team leader Richard Bampfield MW, his gast clearly flabbered.

The Contino Blanco was a big hit – modern, food friendly and competing with Burgundy. Even if Hakkasan’s Gabor Foth did dryly admit that the consumer group white Riojas most appealed to was ‘visiting MWs’.

The medal-winning whites were all 2010 and 2011, which is significant. Both these vintages were classified ‘Excellent’ by the region’s Consejo, and came after a run of four less impressive vintages from 2006 to 2009.

This probably explains the differences in feedback between the flights of Crianzas and Reservas. The former had a fairly high percentage of 2010 and 2011s and were generally well received; the latter were mostly put together from the late noughties years and received a significant amount of criticism. Certainly, our tasters had to dig pretty deep to find medal winners, and a lot of wines perished en route.

The very cheapest end of Crianzas didn’t deliver. But once the wineries stopped trying to crop the hell out of their vines and get some concentration in there, our teams found what one taster called a ‘good solid core from £8 to £12 that delivered Rioja character’.

And these are, for sure, ideal for pubs, where customers respond to the region’s (not always merited) reputation for easy-drinking reliability. ‘There are a lot of New World wines on our pub list, so a well-priced Rioja makes a nice counterpoint,’ said Ubiquitous Chip’s Richard Masterson.

Interestingly, there was less discussion about the modern versus traditional styles of Rioja. With the exception of Gran Reservas, our tasters seem now to have accepted that the majority of Riojas are made in a much more fruit-driven style, and they didn’t have a problem with that.

What they did have a problem with is the lack of a sufficient step up in quality between Crianza and Reserva. In fact, some of the latter were cheaper than the former, suggesting that too often the difference between the two is simply time in barrel/bottle rather than enhanced quality of fruit.

All of which, perhaps, explains why four of the six medals this year went to less usual styles, with two terrific food-friendly Gracianos and a Gran Reserva joining the Contino Blanco on our Gold List. The 2005 Gran Reserva at £15 is excellent value from an excellent year: expressive, sweet, rounded and complex but still easy to drink.


CVNE, which was responsible for half of all Rioja’s places on the Gold List, including a Gran Reserva, a White and a Graciano

‘Rioja is a recognised brand name that people like and understand and can order without fear.’
Richard Masterson, Ubiquitous Chip

‘The Reservas were fairly modern Riojas – they didn’t show those old, oxidised characters, but the best did combine appealing fruit with mellow age.’ Gregg Lambert, Galvin La Chapelle

‘Rioja Crianza is a no-brainer, you know it will sell.’ Andrea Briccarello, Galvin Restaurants

Andrea Briccarello @briccarello Great start of the day with Champagne followed by a steady Rioja flight.