A FRIEND rang me recently to say that he was off to a party celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Spanish wine company La Rioja Alta, and this led to my spending an hour or two looking into the background of the Rioja wine region.
There had been vineyards in the region since Roman times, but the international reputation of the wines did not come about until the second half of the 19th century. This was because the phylloxera louse had arrived in France, and was devastating the vineyards there. Merchants began to seek sources for their wines across the Pyrenees.
This led to the establishment of a number of bodegas, particularly in the town of Haro, close to the railway line to facilitate distribution. These included López de Herédia (1877), CVNE (1879), and La Rioja Alta (1895).
Then there is a gap of some 70 years, before a further wave of company creations. The first of the major newcomers was Marqués de Cáceres, established by the Forner family who had been in vinous exile in Bordeaux in the Franco era. There was also much investment by the big sherry houses, such as Domecq, and Gonzalez Byass.
For many years, however, legislation restricted the export of Rioja to companies of a certain size. The lifting of this restriction, and support in the forms of funds from the EU, has led to many growers’ establishing their own brands for the first time rather than selling their grapes, or wine, to the big merchants.
The range of Riojas on the British market is now vast, as are the prices, and, to a certain extent, the styles. Not only are there red, white, and rosé wines, but the reds can vary considerably, depending on the sub-region they come from, the time that they have aged, and whether they are based on the Tempranillo or the Garnacha grape.
Starting at the lower price end, I have enjoyed the Castillo de Albai Crianza 2012 from Lidl (£5.49), and I see that Aldi is offering a Baron Amarillo Reserva for £5.49, which has won awards in a number of competitions.
Majestic Wine Warehouse has a fine range of Riojas, and is currently promoting Viña Eguía Reserva 2010 at £7.86 if you buy two bottles. On the same basis they also have the traditional style Viña Pomal 2012 from Bodegas Bilbaínas for £7.86, and the truly outstanding Viña Ardanza Reserva 2005 from La Rioja Alta at £19. To make an impression at a party you could buy Marqués de Riscal Reserva 2005 at £28, but again you would have to buy two to get this price.
Laithwaites/Sunday Times Wine Club also offer a broad range of Riojas, and have a Best of Rioja selection, including Crianzas, Reservas and Gran Reservas, for £99.99 (case of 12). They also have a good relationship with Martinez Bujanda, one of my favourite producers. I would suggest either their Familia Martinez Bujanda Crianza 2013 (£8.99), or their single vineyard Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2007 (£21).
I am just sorry that I have not been invited to the Rioja Alta party.