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Rioja – Tiers of Joy

One of my frequent complaints is that so much wine is sold (and, thus, drunk) too soon.

I understand the economic imperatives behind that but it is sad to see well-made wine being served well before it is ready and without realising it full potential.

One notable exception, though, is in the best known reds of Rioja.  

There, a carefully controlled scheme ensures that a significant maturation period applies before the wine is released. 

Let’s look at the resulting tiers in more detail

The most “junior” wines to which these regulations apply is Crianza.

Here, the wines are matured for at least a year in oak and then enjoy a further year or more in bottle.

While this does not affect the wine's underlying youthfulness and vitality, it does soften the tannin and adds a handful of oak elements.

Now, moving up a step or two.

Next, comes Reserva which also has at least a year in oak – but gets a total of three years before release (as against crianza’s two).

That extra time means that more of the traditional oak derived flavours appear in the finished wine which is getting more mature anyway.

At the highest level, Gran Reserva, the aging requirement is for five years with at least two years in oak.

Greater smoothness is secured as a result – although the colour can often fade a bit – and more sophisticated oak influences emerge on the palate.

And a little footnote

Those aging processes obviously play a key role in the quality of the final wine.

Remember, though, that it is usually only options with the best potential anyway that get gran reserva treatment.

So, high quality – while not guaranteed – is more likely in wine with that classification.

I have taken a look at wines in these categories in major supermarkets and outline in this post, those I rated most highly.

As is normal here, pictures and hyperlinks are provided where possible to guide you straight to the right wine on shelf or web page.

First then the Crianza.

2020 Vinedos Barrihuelo Rioja Crianza, Taste the Difference (£8.50 at Sainsbury’s and 13.5% abv):

Crafted by the impressive Bodegas Muriel, this is predictably dark in colour but is only medium bodied in texture.

That foundation is neatly coupled with rose aromas and suggestions of cinnamon, herbs and caramel.

One impressive thing here is that the flavours are not only soft but offer strawberry and loganberry influences rather than darker fruits – something to watch out for in my book.  

Taking the next step up.

2019 Extra Special Rioja Reserva (£9 at Asda and 14%):

No mistaking whereabouts this option originates since it opens with absolutely classic Rioja aromas.

These are followed by slightly smoky blackberry and black cherry flavours with aniseed and cocoa elements lurking in the background.

What gives it high scores, though, is the balance it achieves – firm tannin is “neutralised” by good acidity while its underpinning richness has a contrasting mineral edge too.

There may be issues getting this online, but it is well worth seeking out in Asda’s bricks and mortar stores.

And for the final rung.

2016 Taste the Difference Rioja Gran Reserva, (£15 at Sainsbury’s and 14%):

Despite its aging there is still a dark colouration to this wine from the prestigious CVNE operation, and it is definitely softer (and slightly smoother) than the reservas I tried.

Its foundation is textured damson and cherry flavours with oaky aromas, clove, chocolate and rosemary constituents and gravelly minerality all in support.

For sure, the tannin is reasonably firm but that is suitably moderated by just the right amount of acidity.


Well-made crianza is a good way to enjoy the depth Rioja can provide combined with youthful energy and fruitiness – but you do need to be selective.

Gran reserva is certainly a softer, more integrated and slightly oakier all-round offering than its lower order companions but the price premium is significant.

Between the two comes reserva  which wins my vote in respect of value for money.

It takes an important step up in richness without losing vitality – and there are several reliable ones about.

Bear in mind, though, that the current Sainsbury’s “Buy Three” promotion means you can buy the Gran Reserva recommended here and two bottles of the selected Crianza and save 25% until 23 April.

There are other Crianza and Gran Reserva options (which were not tried in this exercise) that Sainsbury’s have on offer until the same date – but not, apparently, on the “Buy Three” mechanic.

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Carl Gladwell

Thank you, Brian. Informative and helpful guidance,as ever.

Rioja is, to my mind anyway, one of the best options for consistency and value in European reds.

Brian Elliott

Agree Carl, it is all those things, and its maturation provides longevity too. It is still good on Day Two (and beyond) if for some (unfathomable) reason it is not consumed in one sitting.

Alf King

Some Riojas are now sold as “Joven”. Do they undergo any maturation?

Brian Elliott

A very good question Alf., and I am indebted to the Wine Solutions website for this summary … “Joven wines are not required to be aged in any wood for red, rose or white [but] are however required to at the least be bottled and not sold until the subsequent year of the vintage.” See the full item on their site here.

Richard Wyndham

Joven (= young) is the base level with no maturation requirements.

In addition to Brian’s excellent tasting notes and suggestions, Lidl do a Cepa Lebrel Rioja Joven 2022 @ £4.69, which I enjoyed. The Cepa Lebrel Crianza 2021, is a clear step up and excellent at £5.99.

Agree with Carl, Rioja is a really safe choice for enjoyable, good value drinking.

Brian Elliott

Yes Richard, Lidl (and Aldi) both have good Rioja’s. To keep it manageable, I restricted myself to the so-called big four but, even then, the Tesco contingent were delayed in transit beyond the deadline.

Dave Cronin

Nice one Brian, Who doesn’t like Rioja! as Carl says definitely the best option for consistency and on the whole quality, but obviously, there are always exceptions. Not tasted the Barrihuelo for a while now but that Asda ‘Marques del Norte’ is excellent. Another very good Rioja and probably my favourite by far is Morrisons The best ‘Marques de los Rios’ Reserva. As much as I enjoy a good Gran Reserva my preference has always been a Reserva. Am I biased, you bet I am.

Brian Elliott

No shame in being biased Dave – especially when good quality Reserva is involved. I did assess that Morrisons Reserva side by side with the winning Asda one, but the latter was from 2019 while the Morrisons version was from 2018 – a cooler and less consistent year.

Paul Davies

I also really rate the Asda Rioja and enjoy a mellow,mature,consistently good Rioja.Unfortunately the young and middle aged do not choose Rioja.It seems that it has a whiff of the Garrick club about it with elderly men in leather armchairs in a wood panelled room smoking cigars!
Rioja is in decline and has real problems, too much wine,too few drinking it ,with huge unsold stocks.
Perhaps the future is going to be garnacha led with lighter fruitier wines and traditional rioja becoming an expensive niche product?

Chris Scott

Hi Brian, more of a Ribero man myself these days but that’s a different debate for a different day I guess…..
Always been a big fan of the M&S Classics Rioja, also available In a Magnum and Glorioso Rioja, think TWS might do this. Failing that it’s off to Lidl like previously mentioned.

Brian Elliott

Yes Chris., both of the examples you mention are indeed great options.

Richard Wyndham

Hi Brian,
Our local Asda is a bit of a trek, so rarely visit. However popped in this week to pick up your recent Pinot Noir recommendation. Whilst there had a good survey of their shelves. I picked out a 2023 Bordeaux Blanc – my thinking was the wine buyer must really like it, to stock such a currently unfashionable wine. It also had the grape mix on the label – not always a French trait! Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Colombard. I opened it last night and was impressed. A touch different, silky, good white fruits and with the SB restrained in the background. 11.5%, £6.
I then googled the wine, and discovered you recommended the 2021 vintage, in Nov 2023 – which then was SB and Semillon, only.
The Asda Rhone reds looked promising, any MidWeekers’ feedback on them would be of interest.

Brian Elliott

I will certainly try the latest vintage of the Bordeaux Blanc – and interesting to see colombard used. I know small quantities of it are grown in Bordeaux but it is more commonly associated with the SW France region (?Climate change?). Meanwhile MidWeekers do give Richard your thoughts on Asda Rhones.

Eddie Walker

Richard …Maybe try further south into Languedoc for Rhone red grape Syrah at Asda with Paul Mas offering that is usually £8.75 but down to £5.50.

Brian Elliott

Good call Eddie.

Richard Wyndham

Thanks Eddie, I’m a big fan of Paul Mas. That must have sold out, as I would have spotted and bought it. They did have his Merlot at full price. Must do a regular check on the Asda website.

Eddie Walker

Richard …I didn’t want to appear a killjoy telling you in one breath, then saying ”but you’ll be lucky!”. I had my last bottle last evening that I’d bought a while ago but I too have not been able to replace the Syrah from anywhere. Seems to go off the shelf rapidly every time, and I imagine even faster this time at this knockdown price.

These Paul Mas generics, and there’s a lot of them yeah, never seem to be stocked by any one supermarket-the entire range. I think the ‘Languedoc’ one was only available in Waitrose when I was in a store at Xmas, that I tried and really enjoyed. Asda don’t do it. Haven’t tried either the Merlot or Cabernet but can imagine they are rather decent. If we can have a deal more’s the better. Cheers.

Paul Davies

Famille Perrin Les Cardinaux Côtes du Rhône Villages 2021£11 Asda 14.5% Red wine is a reliable, gutsy, full on GSM cuvee.Spicy, peppery with an unexpected but welcome softness and freshness.Perhaps wait until Asda has an offer?

Richard Wyndham

Yes the Perrin wine caught my attention, and it was on offer at £9. Also a 2021 Vinsobros on offer at £8.75 – since found that Decanter gave this an excellent review for the 2020 vintage. I tend to take pictures of candidate wines on the shelf, to jog my memory for when 25% offers appear!
A wine that I periodically search for is Syrah les Espices from Domaine les Yeuses. Bought a bottle from Majestic a few years back, to make up a case. Forgot about it for a while, and when opened was a marvellous smooth elegant Syrah. Went straight back to Majestic and they were selling it off for just over £6! Bought the last 10 bottles, have just got one left – 2019 vintage. I rarely buy more than 1 or 2 bottles of the same wine, even if a stonking bargain – so many interesting wines to try! Can sometimes see it at a UK independent, but not cost effective to buy with shipping costs. Majestic don’t seem to stock it any more.

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