It’s only Rioja and roll… but I like it!

This week, Times Drinks Editor James Viner uncorks a trio of flavourful wines from the famous Rioja, Spain’s leading fine wine region…


Located in northern Spain, Rioja DOC is Spain’s most famous wine region and runs for 100km of vinous diversity in a north-west to a south-east direction along the path of the River Ebro – the region is named after the río (river) Oja, one of the Ebro’s seven tributaries – reaching about 40km-wide in some areas.

Divided into three large zones, Rioja’s total hectarage is around 66,000ha (England and Wales have around just 4000ha). Around 340 million bottles, mainly red wines based chiefly on the early-ripening variety Tempranillo (the name derives from the Spanish temprano, meaning ‘early’) are sold annually. There’s even sparkling wine – Rioja was one of the few non-Catalan regions permitted when Cava DO was created.

Unlike their counterparts over the border in Bordeaux for example, Rioja wine producers release their wines only when they are ready to drink. UK sales are still strong and in 2021 reached 35 million litres out of 106 million litres exported worldwide (up from 2019’s 29 million according to data from Nielsen). Here are three top red and white options to try – I’ll leave ‘rosado’ wines for the summer (Muga’s 100% Garnacha ‘Flor de Muga’, available from Majestic, £19.99 is top-drawer). Now pour yourself some Rioja and enjoy. Salud!


  1. Must-try bargain supermarket own-label white Rioja

Specially Selected Rioja Blanco NV (£6.49, Aldi)

In recent years, sales of white Rioja have grown solidly as a percentage of wine sold in the UK, up from 8.7% in 2019 to 9.6% in 2021 (Rioja now produces 24 million litres of white wine, up from 21 million in 2018). However, only around 9 per cent of Rioja’s vines are light-skinned and Viura – the same grape as Macabeo in Catalonia’s Penedès – is unquestionably the most planted white variety. This one from Aldi ticks all the boxes for mid-week drinking. Gorgeous lightly barrel-aged, grilled almond and vanilla-scented giveaway non-vintage white Rioja, with terrific orchard fruit and excellent length. Another tiptop Aldi own label. For immediate drinking. Try it with chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce, tortilla or other savoury egg dishes.

If you’re a budget-minded drinker, then scoop up Tesco’s ridiculously good value, fruity and lightly vanilla-scented 2021 Marques de los Zancos Rioja Blanco (£5) instead. Lots to like here too.


  1. A discounted tip-top red Gran Reserva

El Piadoso Rioja Gran Reserva 2014, Bodegas Manzanos (£10 offer, down from £16.99 until January 1, Waitrose)

The regulations for red winemaking by the Rioja Consejo Regulador specify that only 225-litre barriques can be used. Rioja has the greatest number of barrels of any wine region in the world (around 1.3 million). Red Gran Reserva Riojas must be aged for at least five years (two of which must be in oak and the remaining three in bottles). At this price – it’s down from £16.99 to £10 between 30 November and 1 January – El Piadosa Rioja Gran Reserva, with its supple tannins, ripe black fruits and jolly, vanilla and spice pizzazz, is a serious steal. Pour it for a midweek treat or a special occasion dinner – it loves roast lamb. Great value on the £10 offer. If you want a bottle of festive bargain bubbly, nab the Boschendal Brut NV from South Africa, also down to £10 from £16.99 at Waitrose, until January 1.


  1. Aristocratic, delicate, ripe, refined and renowned Rioja classic

R. López de Heredia ‘Viña Tondonia’ Rioja Reserva 2010 (£26.99-£44, Majestic, Swig, Hedonism and Berry Bros & Rudd)

One of Rioja’s classics, this refined, beautifully crafted, deliciously complex, savoury Reserva is a good one for those who like a Rioja with secondary and tertiary characters resulting from six years’ ageing in Appalachian oak and then in the bottle: it tastes of wild strawberries, dried black and red fruits, with grains of black earth, vanilla, truffle, sea salt and incense. The wine’s name—Tondonia—refers to a meander, or bend, along the banks of the Ebro near the winery in the ‘Barrio de la Estación’ of Haro (the unofficial capital of Rioja) through which the old medieval road led to the Basque country. From a superb vintage, this vinous gem will age a treat. Majestic, which has a great deal, is currently on the last bottles of the fine 2009 vintage and will soon move on to the even better (with a textbook growing season) 2010. All in all, a seamless, silky and very fine wine from a cult bodega.

Follow James on Twitter @QuixoticWine

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