This Affordable Wine Is One of the Most Underrated in the World

Excellent Rioja Gran Reserva can be found for $30 or less—here are five bottles to look for.

Enjoying an older bottle of red usually requires either some serious money or the kind of patience that I just don't have.

Except when it comes to Rioja Gran Reserva.

Unlike the great wines of, say, Bordeaux or Barolo, which often need decades of rest before they're ready, Rioja Gran Reserva, from the Rioja region in northern Spain, generally bypasses that issue.

Rioja Wine Bottles
From left to right: Beronia; Campo Viejo; Bodegas LAN; La Antigua; Hacienda Lopez de Haro

Not that they're all at their peak as soon as they're released. Some of them, depending on the kind of barrels they've been aged in and the nature of the vintage and the blend, still need a few more years to absorb their oak; others are raring to go as soon as you pop the cork. Regardless, my tasting for this piece showed what fans of the style have known all along: Rioja Gran Reserva often acts like some sort of vinous crystal ball, offering a glimpse of what the future of the wine will hold, and usually without the necessity of aging it for any longer than the trip between the wine shop and the kitchen table.

Much of this has to do with the production regulations that producers of red Rioja Gran Reserva have to follow. According to the Consejo Regulador, the region's governing body, Gran Reserva "are wines of great vintages that have been painstakingly aged for a total of sixty months with at least two years in oak barrels and two years in the bottle." The majority of Rioja tends to be a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha, with Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturana Tinta also permitted. Exceptions, however, are increasingly available.

Even within those parameters, there is a remarkable range of stylistic expressions. Most producers lean heavily on American oak, but there are others who prefer to leverage wood from France and elsewhere. The ratio of new to used barrels is also important, as is the amount of time that a particular vintage is laid down in the producer's cellars, beyond the minimum, before being released. The terroir in which the grapes were grown is, as always, a key consideration as well.

Before delving into the highlights of my tasting for this piece, I have a quick word about the Rioja Reserva category, which have to be aged for at least three years, including 12 months in barrel and six months in bottle. Because they're released sooner than Gran Reservas, Rioja Reservas often need a bit more time to mature or, barring that, a healthy stint in a decanter.

The case can be made that Rioja Gran Reserva is one of the most underrated wines on the planet, and for the money, easily one of the best deals. I love Bordeaux, Barolo, Burgundy, and the other great, age-worthy wines that are the centerpieces of so many serious wine collections, but I have an increasingly hard time affording them.

Excellent Rioja Gran Reserva, on the other hand, can be found for $30 or less. Here are five of them within that price range, listed alphabetically. If you want to spend more, keep an eye out for the Gran Reservas of R. López de Heredia, Marqués de Riscal, and Bodegas Muga, which are reliably delicious, too.

2012 Campo Viejo Rioja Gran Reserva
Campo Viejo

2010 Beronia Rioja Gran Reserva ($30)

Dark and dense aromas of espresso, deeply roasted cacao nibs, and plum-spice cake set the stage for an equally ripe palate, where plums and blackberry liqueur are joined by notes reminiscent of fernet, charred mint leaf, balsamic reduction, black cardamom, and garam masala powder, as well as dark cherries and toasty oak notes with vanilla pod.

2011 Bodegas LAN Rioja Gran Reserva ($23)

A savory aroma of iron lends bass-note heft to crushed blackberries and spice cake. The palate is more sweetly generous with ripe fruit than expected, and all the more charming for it. Sweet spice, dried dates, and a balanced punch of acidity keep this fresh and propelled forward. Amazing value.

2012 Campo Viejo Rioja Gran Reserva ($25)

Aromas of warm spices, tobacco, blueberries, and plums precede a generous, mineral-tinged palate that washes over the tongue with coffee and gobs of ripe fruit—plums, dark cherries—and finishes with a whisper of lavender and dried violets.

2011 Hacienda Lopez de Haro Rioja Gran Reserva ($30)

Beautifully mature and spicy aromas of sandalwood, cedar, cigar tobacco, and a hint of drying cherries turn to a silky, energetic palate in which mint leaves and smoldering sage inform cherries, wild strawberries, black raspberries, and more of that sweet spice and tobacco from the nose.

2010 La Antigua Classico Rioja Gran Reserva ($25)

High-toned and spicy, with bright red cherries, cranberries, and wild strawberries joined by scrubby herbs and fresh-cracked green peppercorns. It all paves a path for a flower-tinged palate with loads of red berries, a hint of cherry coulis spooned onto crème brûlée, and a dash of carob and floral peppercorns on the finish. Energetic acidity and fantastic concentration.

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