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Spain: Rioja 

The modern versus traditional debate rumbles on, but Rioja delivered an awful lot of really good wines this year across the price points 

Rioja seems to hit its straps in even-numbered years. No Golds in 2009, five in 2010, two last year and a whole stack of them in 2012. We could have had more, too. Our tasting teams would have put on 10 reds, and needed to be restrained by our Gold List co-ordinator, Hakkasan’s Christine Parkinson, who, with a tear in her eye, demoted a couple to Silver to avoid unnecessary duplication.

The result? A string of brilliant Silver-plus wines and a spread of genuinely excellent wines at all prices across the Gold List.

Well, not quite every price. You might notice that there’s nothing at the bottom end of the spectrum. That’s because, bar a handful of decent exceptions, such as the Silver Beronia Crianza, there were pretty thin pickings for our tasters under the £7 mark.

‘Most of the cheaper ones were just good enough to be House Wines,’ grumbled The Vineyard Group’s James Hocking, citing Brett, dirty barrels and clumsy tannin as common issues.

Moving up through the price points, though, brought questions of its own: namely, what do people expect from Rioja? Is it all oxidation, leather and American oak, or bright fruit, extraction and wines the colour of ruby port? While the tasters kicked out one wine for ‘tasting like a Malbec’, they were generally pretty tolerant of both expressions, and happy to give medals to all.

‘You need both styles on your list. Even if it’s not your taste, you have to have both for the different customers,’ said Marcus Wareing’s Michael Deschamps.

When it came to places on the Gold List, however, our tasters tended to veer away from bigger, sweeter fruit and towards wines that had a bit of that quintessential Riojan gentleness. ‘Rioja should be an easy option for customer and restaurateur alike, drinking now, with some age and development,’ said consultant Peter McCombie MW.

No coincidence, perhaps, that half of the Gold-Listed wines should be Reservas. It seems to be the level where Rioja can combine class, elegance and approachability at good prices. Though both traditionalists and modernists could take heart from these results, the former thanks to two Gran Reservas picking up Golds and two more getting Silver, the latter will doubtless point to a Gold for Lan’s Edicion Limitada and three good Silvers.

‘The Lan would sell as a fine wine to customers interested in quality at a higher price,’ said Galvin Bistrot de Luxe’s Ram Chhetri. ‘And it’s still good value, especially if you compare this with top Bordeaux.’

The category’s star Gold, interestingly, was the cheapest. The Berberana Viña Alarde Reserva 2006 was all that’s good about Rioja – ‘Elegance, concentration, typicity and fine, soft tannins,’ according to Bread Street Kitchen’s Nigel Lister – at a terrific price. No wonder it picked up a Food Match and also a By the Glass award as well as Gold.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was the appearance of a first-ever white Gold – to universal acclaim from the tasters. If there was general disappointment among the teams at the lack of old-style oxidation (and I think the on-trade may be rather out of step with customer tastes here) they were nonetheless impressed with this modern offering from Marqués de Cáceres.

‘This great-value white offers a point of difference for customers looking to explore white Rioja,’ said Chhetri. ‘It’s fresh and modern yet with a subtle hint of well-integrated oak giving some texture and food-friendly character. This shows what white Rioja can be.’

‘I was looking for elegance and drinkability; a meaty, savoury character, not cheap cherry and oak characters.’ Andrea Briccarello, Galvin La Chapelle