Decanter March

It’s a trying world out there at the moment. We salute anyone who made it through Dry January against the current backdrop (I finally cracked on the 23rd when faced by a just-too-tempting sample bottle).

If there is a bottle required to mark the end of January, we reckon we have it this month.

We’ve watched, awaited and prepared for this Friday with great anticipation. And, although we are a team that gets excited by wines quite easily, we are much excited.

Why so? For it is Rioja Friday, as happens every last Friday in January.

The March 2021 edition of Decanter - the traditional March 'Spanish Special' edition - targets its key panel review on Gran Reserva Rioja.

It identifies three Outstanding wines (ie that score 95 points or more). We offer two of these; both are eminently affordable and one comes in at a quite incredible £13.25 a bottle.

31st Jan - Alas, one of the red Riojas has now sold out with no more available. On the upside, the headliner and more affordable/popular option is still very much available!

11th Feb - We now also offer the 95-point white, single-vineyard Rioja that tops Tim Atkin MW's article on the new Rioja designations.

There’s a lot more detail below. Head straight to the icons and reviews below (click on these) if you don’t want all the pre-amble and scene-setting.


The wines featured this month in Decanter - and that we list - appear at the foot of this page. The reviews for each wine  (where we've been able to show them) appear on each product page.


The story

In a world of few (and ever fewer) absolutes, there is one racing certainty out there. That is, the huge popularity of excellent, well-priced Rioja with Exel customers.

We have been here before; exactly two years ago, we offered the daftly-well-priced panel-topper from an almost identical review. That wine, the Cerro Anon Gran Reserva, has gone on to become our best-ever-selling wine ever and remains hugely requested.

Indeed, part of the fascination now is that the new ~£13 topper is from the same producer as the Cerro Anon, Bodegas Olarra. Given that these panels are fully blind-tasted, that’s fine work by them.

It’s pretty clear why Rioja – especially Gran Reserva – remains so popular out there. As this review shows, you can snap up beautifully aged, glass-ready and crafted old Rioja for under £30 (and, incredibly, often under £15). You absolutely cannot buy aged Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barolo for £15, and, frankly, you’re only just getting started at £30. It’s essentially a matter of supply and demand: put simply, there is a lot more good Rioja to go around. Or, as one of the panel of this review put it, “It’s so thrilling to be able to have really genuinely quite affordable wines that are all about age. For someone who is fairly early in their journey of wine appreciation, and may not have a huge budget, I think there’s so much more reward in spending time getting to know the different producers, styles and vintages of Rioja than there is in trying to achieve the same, certainly in Burgundy or Bordeaux”.

That said, there’s not that much Gran Reserva made in relative terms. Of the 218 million litres of red Rioja produced in 2019, only 6.2 million litres were Gran Reserva; that’s under 3% of all red Rioja.


Gran Reservas – facts and musings

A quick reminder on just what a Gran Reserva (GR) is, and what it isn’t (with apologies to all those fully in-the-know; you are excused these paragraphs).

- It’s often thought that GR is a statement of quality, like Grand Cru and Premier Cru statements in France. It’s not.

- Strictly speaking, the GR is a statement of ageing/elevage before release from the producer.

- To whit, the Consejo Regulador – that's the rulemaker(s) – of Rioja define a GR as a wine of a great vintage that has been painstakingly aged for a total of 60 months [five years] with at least two years in oak barrels [of 225 litres] and two years in bottle”.

- That’s a minimum standard, of course. A few producers do produce to minimum oak time, also releasing wines as soon as they qualify for the category. Most do not. Some go far beyond both the barrel and release time minima. La Rioja Alta’s famed 890, for example, is barrel-aged for 6 years; its ‘current vintage’ is the 2005!

- Now, having said that GR is not a quality statement, there are two caveats:

o   A wine will struggle to make it through that 5 years before release without it using high-quality grapes and half-decent winemaking; and

o   GRs are (supposedly) only produced in top vintages, thereby creating some form of quality seal. In general, I’d say that holds, but I observe that there are, of late, definitely more GRs appearing on the market from more marginal vintages.

- What cannot be said is that GRs are definitionally the finest Riojas available. Time was, that probably was true. Nowadays, however, many Rioja producers are producing their finest and flagship wines in the unspecified, catch-all Cosecha category. Take Sierra Cantabria, for example: their GR is very fine indeed (as we shall see), but available at under £25. Their flagship wines, which work their way up from the San Vicente at ~£40 to the £100+ El Bosque and Amancio wines, all emerge under the Cosecha banner. We’ll be back to this point in just a moment.

- Grapes: are invariably mainly (80%) Tempranillo, but, technically, a whole raft of options can be used. The usual additionals to Tempranillo are

o   Mazuelo (aka Carignan/Cariñena) – used to add colour, tannin and all-round severity (rather like Petit Verdot in Bdx blends);

o   Garnacha (aka Grenache) – used to add fruit(iness), body, alcohol, smoothness and easy-drinkingness (Bdx equivalent: Merlot); and

o  Graciano – used to add aroma/perfume and elegance/finesse (Bdx equivalent: Cabernet Franc).

- Technically, you could make a GR from 100% Graciano or Mazuelo (say). But nobody does. At least, not yet. If you’re making a GR, you really want a mighty dollop of Tempranillo in there.

- That said, 100% Tempranillo GRs, while not unheard of, are comparatively rare. You need to get your Tempranillo absolutely spot-on in every regard (esp ripeness) to go 100% with it and then get it to age gracefully. It’s much easier - and arguably better - to adjust almost-perfect Tempranillo with those three seasoning grapes. 100% Tempranillo tends to be the preserve of those flagship Cosechas … and, of course, Ribera del Duero.

Oak and barrels: Rioja stills work with both American and French oak for its barrel ageing; many wines on test here see some combination of both oaks. Essentially, French oak is more finessed and adds pure(ish) vanilla tones; US oak is more rustic and tends towards coconut. US oak – which is seldom used except in Rioja – is cheaper and often (and increasingly) looked down upon. However, it’s worth saying that US oak really comes into its own when wines are long-aged in bottle, with that rusticity settling to a delicious smoothness. Hence, then, the continued prevalence of American oak in GRs.


Stylistics – new-wave and old-school

Back to one final key point we touched on above. Rioja (reds) have, in recent years, been dividing into two groups: the new-wave and the old-school. To over-emphasise the distinction, the former sets objectives of ripeness, plushness and immediacy; these are ‘Parker’-style, fruit-forward, more concentrated/intense and more New World in their approach. Old-school Rioja is more finessed, less extracted and lets time do the talking.

Typically, Gran Reservas have been the most old-school of all Rioja categories, with the revolution occurring more in other categories. However, there is an increasing incursion of new-wave values in some wines into the GR category. This is to the liking of some (personally, I'm all for it) but not others who see the last bastion of Rioja tradition now falling. This gets a mention here as this division sets the tone of the Decanter review.


The Decanter review - results

  • 61 Gran Reservas went under test.
  • The test – in the end – drew upon all vintages of Gran Reserva. They range here from 2001 to 2015.
  • The biggest single vintage in play was 2011 (25 of the wines tested).
  • That’s not surprising. The test was originally launched as 2011-only, but this brought forward fewer wines than Decanter wanted (for an authoritative review). So it was thrown open to more vintages. It’s surprising that a 2011-only review didn’t bring forward more samples; 2011 was a fine year in Rioja (officially rated with the highest accolade of ‘Excellent’ by the Consejo Regulador).
  • Often, when this happens, it boils my blood. It brings into the fray ‘library’ bottles - ie super-scarce supply in the producer’s own cellars - that are not (at all) commercially available. Those library bottles are best-in-a-generation wines that the producer knows will score well, submitted for test solely to radiate a glow across the other wines/vintages of that producer. The producer supplies, to Decanter, their importer/stockists – which Decanter might publish without a full check – knowing the wine is not available. However, it drives the intended buyer (be that you or me) quite mad when they find that these bottles have not been available for years.
  • Fortunately, it hasn’t happened much here. Nearly all the top wines can be tracked down (we tested that).
  • Three wines were rated at 95 points or above, thus being named as Outstanding. There were another 30 wines that score 90 or above (Highly Recommended).
  • Prices of the 90+pointers range from £12 to £200 a bottle; the average is hugely skewed by a couple of pricier bottles.
  • One of the Outstandings (our big shout this month) is almost the most affordable wine of the entire review at £13.25.


The stylistic slant of the results

This is quite important for would-be buyers. It’s to do with that new-wave vs old-school separation. The panel have very much plumped for old-schood GRs as their favoured wines. Maybe I’m being unfair, but one does pick up from their commentary that the panel rather believe that new-wave and Gran Reserva are mutually exclusive approaches. It accounts for a few Rioja classics taking a bit of a kicking (eg La Rioja Alta’s classic 904 scores 'just' 89 points).

Whether we should mention it or not, I’m not sure, but it relates. The fuller, blacker, riper style of the Cerro Anon GR 2011 – much beloved by Exel customers and the follow-on vintage to the smash hit of this same review in 2019 – also landed ‘just’ 89 points. Not many who buy it think it is not a markedly better wine than that!


The top wines

Enough pre-amble. Let’s tell you about the top wines. Our own tasting appears a little further down.

One of the three Outstandings (96 points) is from venerated producer Muga, being their Prado Enea GR from 2001. It’s a lovely wine, and the apotheosis of an old-school Gran Reserva, but generally only available in magnums at around £175 a pop. We’ve decided not to offer it: we find a very limited appetite for Rioja at this price point.

We have a strong association with Sierra Cantabria. We’ve been to see them in Rioja, they joined us in Perth for a tasting in 2018 and for an e-tasting last May. Their Garnacha Rioja did very well in the Affordable Rioja panel a year ago. And their Tempranillo-rich 2009 Gran Reserva – much loved at those above tastings – comes home in this review with 96 excellent points. We offer it at a very fine £23.95. It’s scored well (92 to 95 points) in other Decanter reviews in the last year or so; what appears to elevate it a little more is that the panel now feel it is in prime drinking condition, as the glowing review makes clear.  ** ALAS, NOW ALL SOLD OUT WITH NO MORE AVAILABLE. **

Note: There are only a few hundred bottles still available of this vintage (all gone in Spain); we have the vast majority of them. This wine will not be around a whole lot longer after this review!


Headline wine and Olarras compared

Here comes the real buzz and a wine that will challenge its stable-mate for popularity.

On a point less, on 95, is a true marvel at our price of £13.25 a bottle (£10+ less than the Sierra Cantab). Bodegas Olarra are the producer; that’s they of the previous Decanter smash hit Cerro Anon Gran Reserva (for other articles on this wine, see this one for the initial story and here for the follow-up vintage). That 2011 Cerro Anon is quite a full, ‘black’ wine, reflecting the warm conditions of that year. You might well expect another Olarra 2011 to be much the same.

But the new contender, the Laztana Gran Reserva 2011, is built differently. As Oscar Urrutia, Olarra's export manager told me, “Cerro Añon is intended to be an ‘updated’ version of a Rioja Gran Reserva, while Laztana’s style tries to get closer to a more Rioja-traditional concept of a Gran Reserva. This is what we intended to do with each one of them, or, if you will, each wine’s definition”.

Grapes for the Cerro Anon are mainly from cooler Rioja Alta. For the Laztana, they largely hail from Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja). The usual rule of thumb is that the latter is hotter, so you might expect the Laztana to be the bigger, bolder, riper wine. Thing is, the grapes for the Laztana are taken from a highish, cooler altitude, more than offsetting that regional effect.

So, it’s that new-wave/old-school thing again. The Laztana is decidedly old-school. More in our tasting below, but it’s redder, brighter, more elegant and finessed and less heavyweight than the Cerro Anon. Interpret this carefully: it is no less a wine; it just sets its dials to being a bit more classically Old World than does the Cerro Anon.

Here’s the Decanter review which waxes no less lyrically than for the Sierra Cantab:

Beyond these top two, we offer a fine selection of the Highly Recommendeds; you’ll find them all at the foot of this page.

Only just missing out on Outstanding status, landing 94 points, is the institution that is CVNE’s Imperial Gran Reserva 2012. It was also a Gold medal winner at DWWA20, along with this and this from CVNE, which also score well in this review.

For value picks, away from the big two, my pick of the bunch is the 91-point Ondarre 2011 (also an Olarra wine!).


Our tasting - the wines compared

Obviously, we check these ourselves. We know the reason you buy them is because Decanter say they're good. But that doesn't stop us having an opinion. Even the office cat (who somehow looks quite massive here) wants a look-in when it's Rioja Friday...

If you would rather listen than read, we've also recorded a pair of video tastings:

For the short-of-time and non-video-watchers, here are the key points:

  • They are both delicious and excellent wines.
  • Oak and fruit are beautifully balanced in both - the effect of the oak is subtle, and one more of ageing than flavour addition.
  • They are unquestionably old-school, lighter, elegant Gran Reservas on the palate: "strawberries and cream" all the way.
  • There's talk in those Decanter reviews - for both wines - of very ripe fruit and 'jamminess'. We'd say they've over-stated that. This is just classic solid Rioja ripeness; Barossa Shiraz 'wallop', it is not.
  • If you want a bigger, bolder Gran Reserva, stick with our old friend, the Cerro Anon. Or head down to a fruitier Reserva, where age is less at issue.
  • How do the two compare?
  • Overall, the two are very similar. As the second video tasting above reveals, I couldn't tell them apart. The price, the vintage, the regional derivation - these aspects may be diffrerent but the wines are two of a kind.
  • Forced to express the differences as I perceived them... The Sierra Cantabria was/is the more aromatic, the fresher, the brighter (with more prominent acidity and tannins) and the more red-fruity. The Laztana was/is a touch darker, blacker, plusher, fuller, broodier-and-moodier and more muted (that said, it opened up to a greater extent over time)... and yes, a bit "smoother".
  • Overall, you'd have to conclude that there is no 'quality penalty' in saving a tenner with the Laztana.


Availability and arrival

After a massive run on the intial, immediate stocks of the Olarra Laztana, plenty more is due to reach us around 24th Feb. Orders placed before then will be despatched as soon as we have it.

The Sierra Cantabria sold out after 48 hours, despite our having almost every last remaining UK bottle of it. There is no more at SC or in transit. We await news of the new vintage; this should be 2010 (and pretty spectacular as a result, we reckon).


Elsewhere in Decanter this month

We're really all about the Riojas this month. Tim Atkin MW discusses the new single-vineyard designations introduced to Rioja recently and how successful they are in a) creating a clearer hierarchy within the region and b) boosting the profile of the region (I've strong feelings on this but won't expound thiem here). He draws out his favourite single-vineyard Riojas, white and red, regardless of whether they have been subject to the new designations. Top of the whites - impressively landing 95 points/Outstanding - is the excellent-value ("one of Rioja's greatest bargains"Finca Alto Cantabria Alto (2019) from Bodegas Valdemar.

But beyond Rioja...

Decanter conclude their Affordable California article this month wth the whites and sparklings. Domaine Carneros's Avant Garde Pinot Noir proved duly popular last month; it is, alas, now all gone in the UK. Their Brut 2016 sparkling scores 91 points and comes, from us, much recommended. Its ripeness is most enticing (like Roederer's Quartet, perhaps even better). Pine Ridge's unusual Chenin/Viognier blend makes the frame on 90 points: it;s an intriguing mix of two very different - but complementary - varieties.

Cava gets a bad (and very unfair) rap these days; there are great attempts afoot to elevate the category to more rarified heights, and they come into focus this month. We offer one of the featured 'Super-Cavas' from esteemed producer Llopart. Technically now a Corpinnat, the Original 1887 Brut Nature 2009 scores a heady 97 points; we can't source that vintage (it's all gone in Spain, too), but offer the 2011.

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