Peter Ranscombe‘s “12 Wines of Christmas” reach their end with a look at traditional Rioja.
SO MUCH of my wine writing these days focuses on “the next big thing” – concerete eggs, clay amphorae, obscure varieties grown in unusual locations.
Sometimes it’s refreshing to slip back into the classics, and that’s exactly what happened during a recent online tasting with Rodolfo Bastida.
As chief winemaker, it’s Bastida’s job to make sure that the every bottle of crianza, reserva, and gran reserva from Spanish giant Ramón Bilbao turns out perfectly.
That level of consistency requires Bastida to know the characteristics that each vineyard – and even specific plots within individual vineyards – will bring to the final blends.
Ramón Bilbao’s crianza is made using grapes from throughout the Rioja region, while its reserva and gran reserva wines are produced from fruit grown in the Rioja Alta sub-region.
Tempranillo is the star of the show for crianza wines, while portions of graciano and mazuelo make their way into the blends for the reserva and gran reserva in certain years.
Vintage variation is also a major factor in Rioja – Bastida described 2017 as a “tough year”, with 30% of his crop being lost to frost and drought.
That lack of grapes meant the focus was solely on tempranillo, with no reserva or gran reserva being made during the year.
Climbing the ladder in style
Hitting the mark year after year also requires consistency in the winery, with all three wines aged in barrels made from oak grown in Missouri in the United States.
Like Bordeaux, Rioja is a wine in which oak places an important role, adding smoky aromas and vanilla flavours.
According to Rioja’s rules, red crianza wines are released when they’re three years old and must have spent at least one year in oak, with red reserva wines also hitting the market in their third year, having spent at least a year in oak and a miniumum of a further six months ageing in their bottles.
Red gran reserva wines must be at least five years old, with a minimum of two years in oak and two years in bottle.
That’s not to say that a gran reserva is “better” than a reserva just because it’s been aged for longer, or that a reserva is “better” than a crianza.
Instead, I tend to think about them as simply three different styles and tastes.
The younger crianza wines tend to be fruitier, with more obvious sweetness from the oak, while reserva and gran reserva wines have more savoury flavours, with the vanilla becoming more integrated and offering more cedar and cigar aromas.
The taste test
Those differences shine through in the glass, with Bastida’s Ramón Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2017 (£13.95, The Fine Wine Co) delivering cedar, milk chocolate, and vanilla from its time in oak, without masking its complex and concentrated raspberry, red cherry, blackberry, and blackcurrant jam flavours, nor its fresh acidity.
A 2019 barrel sample illustrated just how harmonious the 2017 had already become, with the younger wine – which will hit the market in 2022 or 2023 – displaying clawing tannins and tonnes and tonnes of smoke.
Much darker fruit aromas emerged from the Ramón Bilbao Rioja Reserva 2015 (£16.95, The Fine Wine Co), alongside toasty wood smoke and dark chocolate, before moving into brown sugar, plum, and even some prune on the palate already, alongside chewy tannins.
While the 2015 was 100% tempranillo, the 2018 reserva – also tasted as a barrel sample – featured 10% graciano and mazueo in the blend, with plenty of ripe and exciting black fruit flavours.
Bastida usually uses fruit from about ten vineyards to make the gran reserva, but the Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 2011 (£32.50, The Strong Water Co) featured just two sites, with his blend consisting of 90% tempranillo, 7% mazuelo and 3% graciano.
For a decade-old wine, there’s still so much freshness here, indicating how far it could still go before reaching full maturity – at the moment, it’s offering lovely cedar, dark chocolate, and the start of roast meat on the nose, with sweet vanilla, blackcurrant jam, and balsamic notes on the palate.
While the Ramón Bilbao label has won plaudits for its modern styles of wine, for me these traditonal Rioja bottles demonstrate the brand at its best.