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Rioja – Tiers of Joy

See how crianza, reserva and gran reserva from Rioja compare in this latest post.

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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