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Oak barrels are so important to the winemaking process at La Rioja Alta, the winery operates its own cooperage. Its historic cellar in Haro is home to more than 30,000 barrels.

Adrian Ruiz de Hierro

Rioja is Spain’s best-known wine region and a steady source of good to outstanding quality wines, but I’m not sure Canadian wine lovers are taking full advantage. So inclined are we to look to the French or Italian aisles of the liquor store or turn our heads toward flashy newcomers from California or Australia. The Spanish category has languished as a result.

The real attraction for Rioja’s noteworthy reserva and gran reserva reds is that you’re buying wines that have already been aged in the cellar. They’re hitting the market ready to drink, typically with silky and supple textures in addition to the mix of sweet red fruit, savoury and spicy aromas and flavours.

At a time when precious few wine consumers have the desire or ability to cellar wine, the capability of releasing wines when they are ready to drink should be a huge competitive advantage. Yet, attention continues to be paid to newly released reds, which are typically more concentrated and aggressively oaked, which means that on release they’re largely inaccessible. We keep consuming red wines that are not nearly ready.

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Regional winemaking rules declare gran reserva reds must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and in bottle for a further three years. As you can see from some of the wines reviewed this week, these conditions are merely minimums, and many wineries age their wines for much longer prior to release. The resulting red wines offer more complexity, in the form of developing mushroom, cured meat, vanilla and coconut notes, and smooth tannins that enhance their interest and drinkability.

These strike a winning balance between ripe fruit and fresh, nuanced complexity and character.

Another positive for Rioja’s wineries is the ability to blend different grape varieties, namely tempranillo and a host of native black grapes, from different vineyard areas and using differing winemaking techniques (notably for maturation in oak barrels), which means there’s a wide variety coming out of the region.

Depending on their house style and ambition, producers may aim to produce consistent products year after year or look to craft wines that represent the vintage. Big brands such as Beronia, Campo Viejo and Marqués de Riscal, who have long enjoyed support in Canadian markets, embrace blending to maintain consistency from vintage to vintage. Interest in more esoteric offerings from smaller players as well as more premium selections is slowly increasing. It’s wonderful to see the likes of Cune Gran Reserva 2012, La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva 2009 and R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva 2007 on the shelves to showcase the pleasures Rioja has to offer for current drinking.

Red wines from Rioja are able to compete successfully in terms of style, quality and price with any traditional or emerging wine region. Rich and flavourful, concentrated and complex, these wines check a lot of boxes and should command more interest and respect from consumers. Some favourites from the current Rioja release at LCBO Vintages are recommended here alongside some other bottles worthy of your attention.

Cune Gran Reserva 2012 (Spain)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $28.95

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An expressive and stylish red wine, this modern-style Rioja offers impressive character and a pleasingly smooth texture. Earthy and savoury notes add interest and complexity to the wine’s rich core of fruit. This is ready to drink and promises to develop in bottle over the next three to five years. Available in Ontario, various prices in Alberta, $39.99 in British Columbia.

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva 2009 (Spain)

SCORE: 94 PRICE: $54.95

An exciting and enjoyable modern style Rioja that’s reaching its peak. The mix of sweet fruit and spice aromas make an immediate impression, while the palate boasts terrific balance, complexity and length. Drink now to 2025. Available in Ontario.

R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva 2007 (Spain)

SCORE: 93 PRICE $48.95

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There’s a lot to like about this single vineyard Rioja produced by one of the region’s most coveted properties, Tondonia. Made in the estate’s traditional style, this complexity and cellar-worthy red is just starting to hit its stride. The ripe core of fruit gains interest from attractive savoury and oaky notes. Drink now to 2027. Available in Ontario.

Urbina Especial Reserva 1998 (Spain)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95

Any winery that likes to release its wines decades after they were made is worthy of our attention. But this complex red isn’t just notable because of its advanced age. It’s still showing attractive fruit along with the mix of tobacco, earthy and savoury notes that develop as red wines mature. Available in Ontario.

Villacreces Pruno 2016 (Spain)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.95

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This ripe, layered and complex red comes from a site neighbouring Vega Sicilia, the pioneering Ribera del Duero estate, roughly two hours north of Madrid. A blend of tempranillo with 10 per cent cabernet sauvignon, this is drinking nicely now and promises to develop through 2027. Available in Ontario.

CedarCreek Estate Winery Platinum Block 5 Chardonnay 2017 (Canada)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.99

The new vintage of CedarCreek’s top-of-the-line chardonnay shows a riper profile than recent releases. Winemaker Taylor Whelan has built pleasing complexity in this age-worthy white by blending across traditional and larger format French oak barrels. Drink now to 2024. Available from the winery through cedarcreek.bc.ca

Château des Charmes Cabernet Sauvignon St. David’s Bench Vineyard 2016 (Canada)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95

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Winemaker Amélie Boury is responsible for an extensive portfolio of quality estate wines from Château des Charmes in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is a classic expression of cabernet sauvignon, with solid structure, bright acidity and youthful tannins. The mix of dark fruit, savoury notes and oak spice is nicely integrated. Drink now to 2026. Available from the winery through chateaudescharmes.com

DeMorgenzon DMZ Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (South Africa)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95

This bright and zesty example of sauvignon blanc offers an intense mix of citrus and herbal notes as part of its mouthwatering character. It’s a terrifically bright and refreshing white that’s ready to drink. Available in Ontario.

Morandin Wines Sangreal Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 (Canada)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $35

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Prince Edward County’s Morandin opened with an impressive portfolio of wines across the range, with the real excitement coming from its own Sangreal Estate Vineyard. This is a complex and flavourful pinot noir that conveys that lighter and brighter County red wine character. Available from the winery through morandinwines.ca

Road 13 Vineyards 2018 Chip Off the Old Block Chenin Blanc (Canada)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.39

Made in a ripe and fruity style, this is a fresh and fun white that offers a mix of tree fruit flavours with floral and spice accents. A hint of sweetness helps to enhance its crowd-pleasing character. Available from the winery through road13vineyards.com

Rodney Strong Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (United States)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95

This fruity and fragrant sauvignon blanc offers a crowd-pleasing mix of tropical and citrus fruit, with a slight hint of vanilla from a portion that was fermented and aged in French oak barrels. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in British Columbia and $22.99 in Alberta.

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