There has never been a better time to be a fan of Rioja wines. Whether they're modern, fruit-forward reds produced from a single vineyard or traditional Gran Reservas, mellow and regal after years in American oak, the wines of Rioja offer elegance at surprisingly affordable prices.
Tempranillo Rules Most Riojas are a blend of several grapes, but the single most important is Tempranillo. An early-ripening variety, Tempranillo is often grown alongside blending partners Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano, which is prized for its aromatics.
Geography Lesson Although there is a trend toward single-vineyard wines, most Riojas utilize grapes from three subdistricts: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta, at the high, western end of the Rioja valley, produces wines renowned for their elegance and structure; Alavesa, located north of the Ebro river, is known for producing deeper-colored, more powerful wines; Baja, at the valley's southern end, offers wines that generally have a higher proportion of Garnacha for body and richness.
Acting Their Age Most Riojas are defined by the way they are aged. Wines labeled Crianza must be aged at least two years, one of them in barrel. Reserva wines must be aged for a minimum of three years, one of them in barrel. Gran Reserva wines must be aged at least five years, with two of them spent in barrel.
10 Top Bottles
2000 Antaño Tempranillo ($6) This Rioja Altabased producer turns out well-made wines at great prices; this bright, lively bottling is the proof.
1999 Bodegas Bretón y Cía Loriñón Crianza ($11) Grace and finesse both define this appealing wine, crafted in an elegant, traditional style by talented winemaker Daniel Frías.
1998 El Coto de Rioja Crianza ($12) This soft, delicious, 100 percent Tempranillo is a best-selling restaurant wine in Spain. The winery is part of the Barón de Ley SA Group, a publicly traded company.
1997 Marqués de Griñon Crianza ($12) The Marqués de Griñon has been making wine in Rioja since 1994 with help from French superstar consultant Michel Rolland. Aged in new American oak, this red has seductive aromas of cherries and spice.
1997 Bodegas Martínez Bujanda Conde de Valdemar Reserva ($15) Family-owned Conde de Valdemar is Rioja's largest estate winery (1,000 acres), producing complex, impressive wines such as this for more than four generations.
1998 Muga Reserva ($17) Issac and Jorge Muga are dedicated traditionalists who use both French and American oak to craft subtle but deep-flavored wines like this Tempranillo blend.
1999 Artadi Viñas De Gain Crianza ($20) This impressive 100 percent Tempranillo, from old, low-yielding, high-altitude vineyards, is marked by powerful berry aromas and a lush, ripe texture.
1999 Remelluri ($28) This elegant yet earthy wine, made at Rioja's first single-estate winery, fills the glass with aromas and flavors of black fruit, allspice, toasted oak and tobacco.
1994 Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial ($40) Although this wine has spent an amazing 50 months in oak, its flavors remain delightfully youthful, framed by bright acidity and wonderfully soft tannins.
1996 Contino Reserva ($45) Balancing power and finesse, this rich, aromatic wine, made by Jess Madrazo (whose family has interests in top winery Cune), is the product of a single vineyard.