Tasting T2.13 Spanish Rioja Red

The earliest written evidence of the grape in la Rioja dates back to 873. Vineyards occupied the landscape throughout the high Middle Ages, the 10th to 13th centuries.

Rioja is one of the best price quality ratio wine areas in the world.

The main grape varieties cultivated in the region are Tempranillo (87.5% of production), Garnacha Tinta (Grenache 7.5%) Mazuelo (also known as Carinena and Carignan 2%) and Graciano (2%), the last 1% made up of a few other permitted grape varieties.

Rioja has a specific ageing classification. The wines are often not released until years after these minimum ageing requirements.

A Crianza must be aged in oak Barrels and bottles for a minimum of 2 years from October 1st of the year of harvest. At least one of those years must be in the barrel.

A Reserva must be aged in oak barrels and bottles for a minimum of 3 years (as above) and still a minimum of 1 year in barrel.

A Gran Reserva must spend at least 2 years in oak barrels followed by at least 3 years in the bottle.

The barrel size is 225 litre.

The above ageing classification means that these types of Rioja have already spent time maturing before they can be made available for sale. This is just one reason why they represent excellent value for money.

Rioja wine can be made from grapes coming from La Rioja, Navarre and the Basque province of Alava. Rioja is then sub-divided into three famous zones, Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental (Formerly Rioja Baja) and Rioja Alavesa. Many wines have traditionally blended fruit from all of these three regions, however there is a growth now in single zone and even occasionally single estate wines.

Rioja Alta is to be found on the western side of the region. It has higher altitudes which means a shorter growing season. This in turn leads to bright fruit flavours and a lighter wine on the palate. This is regarded as the ‘old world’/traditional Rioja style.

Rioja Alavesa is within the Alava, Basque area on the northern bank of the river Ebro. It has a similar climate to Alta but produces wines with a fuller body and higher acidity.

Rioja Oriental has a strong Mediterranean climate influence. The hot dry and often drought like climate produces deeply coloured and alcoholic wines without much aroma or acidity. They are generally used as blending components with other areas of rioja.

In all there are about 16,500 vineyards which produce 3,170,000 hectoliters, making well over 400 million bottles per year.

The wineries are:

Vinedos del Contino

Part of CVNE, Cave Vinicola del Norte del Espana, which consists of four ‘main’ wineries, CVNE, Imperial, Vina Real and the single estate Contino.

Contino, the first "chateau" in Rioja, was first produced in 1973. Its wines are produced exclusively from the vineyards situated on its 62-hectare estate. The Contino vineyard surrounds an old manor house built on a meander of the Ebro River in Laserna, a small village in the municipality of Laguardia in the Rioja Alavesa region.

Bodega Contador

The Bodega Contador story starts in 1995 when Benjamin Romeo, winemaker and vine-grower, acquired a centuries old cave hewn into the rock beneath the Castle of San Vicente de la Sonsierra (Rioja). In 1996 he made the first vintage of his “La Cueva del Contador” wine and started to buy vineyards for his plan to become a “bodeguero” - a wine producer. Receiving a 100 point score from Robert Parker for the 2004 and 2005 vintages of his Contador wine (made in his parents garage).

He opened his architect designed, gravity-fed new winery in 2008.

La Rioja Alta

Founded in 1890 (commemorated by their wine Gran Reserva 890) and merged with the Ardanza winery in 1904 (commemorated by their wine Gran reserve 904). The other famous wines made by this estate commemorated in Ardanza and Vina Arana and Vina Alberdi. They also acquired Torre de Ona in 1995 where they make the Baron de Ona Reserva amongst others. 

Lopez de Heredia

For 145 years, four generations of the López de Heredia family have devoted themselves to producing exceptional and unique wines. Masterpieces which have achieved that which the founder of the company, Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta, defined in the late nineteenth century as the "Supreme Rioja". Vineyard care, a scrupulous selection of grapes, ageing in oak barrels in the heart of deep underground galleries, and the later ageing in bottles, all contribute to making these illustrious wines with their exceptional bouquet.

Bodegas Muga

A family business founded in 1932. It is located in the historic area of La Estacion in Haro. It is a marriage of tradition with modern and avant-garde techniques.

We have six wines today, two from la Rioja Alta and one each from the others. This tasting was done by David, Kim, Harry, Jenny, Luke and Tim (a very enthusiastic wine friend of ours).

1st up is:

Contino Reserva 2017

Produced from a variety of micro-vineyards in the area surrounding Viñedos del Contino with distinct soil types (alluvial, clay-limestone, saline and sandy).

85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

Nose: Medium red on first viewing. Cherries and blackberries were very clear on first smell. Kirsch and vanilla coming through nicely afterwards.

Palate: Cherries and blackberries followed on to the palate nicely with a warming sensation from the alcohol. A very smooth medium bodied wine with vanilla coming through on the end. Low acidity with low – moderate tannins. A short finish, showing us that this wine is perfectly ready to be drunk, could maybe last for another 2-3 years but I wouldn’t push the boat out. A beautiful start however!

Contador La Cueva del Contador 2017

Named after the centuries old caves (Cueva) set into the hillside below the castle of San Vincente north of the Ebro river. Aged for 19 months in new French oak before being bottled without fining or filtration.

94% Tempranillo, 3% Grenache, 3% Mazuela

Nose: Medium – Deep red on first viewing. Lots of powerful fruit immediately on the nose. Cherries, redcurrants and liquorice were very intense. Vanilla of course coming through once you move past the intense fruit.

Palate: Immediately we could all sense the warmth from the alcohol, this was not unpleasant at all. In fact it was very nice when interacting with the fresh red fruits from above. A medium bodied wine with moderate acidity and full tannins, very powerful tannins. A medium length finish showing that this wine could certainly go for a minimum of 4-5 years longer, certainly 7-8 years this could be ready to drink at perfect maturity.

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2011

A traditional style of Rioja, Elegant and refined is the house style. Matured in oak barrels for four years.

Tempranillo 89%, Graciano 11%

Nose: Medium red with red brick on the hue, clear sign of age! Farmyard, tobacco, stewed fruits. Boy did this wine not disappoint. So interesting! Extremely elegant and the tobacco was very powerful.

Palate: This was extremely different and interesting, I know I said it above but really this was wow. Tannins were perfectly integrated with the wine helping to open the wine sooner than we expected there were hints of vanilla but they were fading away quite quickly. The tertiary characteristics of tobacco, farmyard and stewed fruits were all that were left, but my word it was outstanding. Medium bodied with moderate acidity (still!!) low – moderate tannin and a medium – full length finish. This really was very different.

Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia 2008

Perhaps the most traditional of all Rioja’s. This was aged in barrels for six years and the wine is often not released until it is 10 years old.

Tempranillo 75%, Garnacho 15%, Graciano and Mazuelo 10%,

Nose: Medium red with red brick on the hue, again a clear sign of age! This wine was extremely brooding and dark in terms of aromas. Stewed fruits, black cherries almost Garrigue like from the southern Rhone.

Palate: On the palate again the intensity got the better of us for the first time. It was tough to get much more than cooked fruits as it was so brooding. However, after a bit of time, it became smooth and the cooked fruits and tannins had integrated very well. It was extremely tasty and became substantially better with food! Meduim – full bodied with low acidity, moderate tannins however extremely well integrated with the wine. A medium – full length finish, showing signs of ageing however still good for 4-6 years until decline starts to hit. 

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004

Very traditional in style, aromatic and relatively light-bodied, but from an excellent year and perfectly matured. Four years of ageing in oak barrels.

Tempranillo 90%, Graciano 10%

Nose: Medium red with red brick on the hue, all the age! Stewed fruits, cloves and spices. The nose was just fantastic in itself, you don’t need to drink this just smell it! Such intense aromas of the above mentioned characteristics.

Palate: Leather, vanilla, cooked fruits, sumptuous, easy, smooth, absolutely cracking. These were the exact words on my tasting note. This was truly extraordinary. Fantastically comforting and just an all-round beautiful wine. The tannins were perfectly integrated into the wine whilst still showing signs of more tannin to come with moderate acidity as well… this has the ability to continue to age and this is astounding. Medium bodied with a full finish, absolutely incredible. What a Rioja!

Bodegas Muga Torre Muga 2001

A modern-styled powerful Rioja. Full bodies, powerful and potent. Eighteen months of ageing in oak barrels.

Tempranillo in the main with small amounts of Mazuelo and Graciano

Nose: Medium red with red brick on the hue, hardly surprising now is it… cooked fruits, leather and vanilla. A beautiful wine that was extremely similar to the last one in all honesty. Absolutely cracking wine again. There were some very intense aromas of cedar, black cherry and spices. Smokey aroma as well coming through in the background.

Palate: Very rich and very smooth. This was truly unbeatable and realistically given the age and quality of the producer that should not be surprising. Intense, deep aromas of cooked fruits, pepper, vanilla. Beautifully harmonised with a medium body, moderate acidity, full tannin and a stonkingly long finish. This was borderline still youthful in some aspects and will be able to age for longer. Which realistically is incredible given it is 21 years of age. What an incredible wine to finish on and just superb.


This was a tasting that I honestly did not know what to expect. I have tasted and drunk Rioja for many years, as has my father, and it can both impress you and disappoint you within the space of two bottles. Such is the vast area that this wine region covers and the amount of bottles that are produced. One can sometimes find that there is so much choice that sifting through them could take years in all honesty. There are amazing Rioja’s out there that are not expensive (clearly the Crianza’s) and so lovely and easy to drink that you don’t need to spend loads of money. Admittedly this tasting did focus on the rather ‘higher’ end wines.  

There is a lot of enjoyment to be had with the ‘higher’ end of Rioja, as has been clearly suggested throughout this blog. The one thing I would say is that the older Rioja’s really are like nothing you will ever taste (in my opinion). Once the Gran Reservas hit a certain age the terroir of the region really does come into play and there is so much difference.

Finally we have the scores…

Contino Reserva 2017 – 88 Points

La Cueva del Contador 2017 – 89 Points

Gran Reserva 904 2011 – 90 Points

Vina Tondoni 2008 – 92 Points

Gran Reserva 904 2004 – 95 Points

Torre Muga 2001 – 97 Points

A nice slow move up the rankings on this tasting, starting with a very good wine and ending on an extraordinary wine. This was a fantastic tasting which ended perfectly.

A quick shout out to La Rioja Alta who have produced two wines in very different vintages that were in either the Outstanding or Extraordinary category. A true testament to their continued hard work.

Hope you enjoyed the read!

David & Harry

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