Week 6: Rioja Roulette

Source: Ben Owen

Campo Viejo Rioja Reserva 2015
Tesco, £8.50 as tested

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Wine regions so acclaimed that they have turned into household names are few and far between. France alone boasts its fair share. The prestige factor means even those yet to drink their first glass will probably have heard of Champagne or Bordeaux, and quite probably Burgundy or Cotes du Rhone. Add to these Malborough Sauvignon Blancs as well as Italian Proseccos, and the short list is all but complete.

Just beneath this stratified air next comes a whole tranche of bottles whose names might ‘ring a bell’ to non-wine drinkers on seeing them lined up neatly on shelves, yet would be hard to actively recall in the moment of ordering a glass at the local bar. The popular-yet-not-quite-ubiquitous offerings of Chianti, California, the Loire valley and South Africa are all good examples, plus can represent exceptional value for money.

And then there is the difficult case of ranking the Spanish region Rioja.

In terms of credentials, the wines made within this legally-protected denominación de origen at least on paper seem to be up there with the greatest. Brits positively love the stuff and growers have cottoned on to this fact by flooding drinks aisles up and down our country with examples. Indeed, if you have had a bottle of Spanish red besides Weekend One’s Tarima, I would be willing to bet that it came from a vineyard in this north-easterly corner of Spain.

At its best, a Rioja’s immediate, spicy tones tickle the palate with a characteristic Iberic flair, before melting into a rich tang of red berries and sensual vanilla. As a perfect accompaniment to red meat and other bold dishes, the drink is at home both in the fine glassware of Madrid’s many restaurants, or on sale under the slightly less atmospheric lighting of Magdalen Street Tesco.

But the problem with Rioja is it is very rarely at its best. Buying a bottle is far too often a gamble, and the result can often leave a bitter taste: both literally in the mouth, and metaphorically, in your wallet.

A trio of causes is at fault. In first place, the region is particularly susceptible to yearly variations in the weather conditions needed for optimal grape growing. This means that the same Tempranillo vines yielding an exquisite, well-balanced offering one season could go on to produce a weedy, acidic, and gratuitously alcoholic one for the following year’s vintage.

Matters are only complicated by the different terroirs, or soils, present in the denominación. The gigantic boundaries defining what can be sold as Rioja have led to an equally gargantuan spread of disparate soil conditions, with huge consequences for flavour. We saw an identical thing in Weekend Three’s take on Southern French wines: the conclusions regarding a disappointing inconsistency are just as valid here.

To top it all off, there is also the question of price. Normally, it is to be expected that the more spent on a bottle, the better the quality – particularly in The Weekend Wine List’s price bracket. That said, I have tasted Riojas far more expensive than anything reviewed to date, and I can report that some have been truly and utterly rank. A bucket of Dulux paint would probably have gone down easier than a glass of the worst offenders.

Thankfully, months of trial and error on my behalf means this is a form of viticultural torture you can avoid. And for a good bottle costing less than £10, look no further than the iconic Campo Viejo Rioja Reserva 2015.

Alongside its counterpart Faustino, nothing says Spanish red to a British consumer quite like this brand. Clever marketing tricks have allowed the négociants at Campo Viejo to simplify an otherwise daunting decision-making process to one basic question: how much money do you want to spend?

The range kicks off with the yellow label Crianza. Avoid this one: having spent a mere six months in an oak cask, the expression simply has not had sufficient time to mellow out – a must for a blend as bold and as strong as Rioja. If you were to keep it in the cupboard for a year or two it might become drinkable, but I for one rarely purchase wines more than a couple of days in advance, let alone for Hilary Term 2022.

Things improve rapidly with the orange label Reserva, my pick of the bunch. Compared to the gold label, top of the line Gran Reserva, the lesser time spent ageing in cask and bottle does dial back the flavour gamut, but to most palates this will only be a marginal difference. Insofar as value for money is concerned, however, the Reserva is hands-down the winner.

So what does it taste like? Two words: very good… provided you know how to serve it. Open at least two hours before pouring so as to let the wine breathe, and stick to drinking it with a meal. For an aperitif, I would strongly recommend opting for something a bit lighter.

If you do follow these pointers, the Campo Viejo Reserva will reward you handsomely. Full-bodied, evocative and warming, the dark berries and woody undertones are punchy without becoming garish or unbalanced. Even its aroma reflects the complexity you would expect from an accomplished Rioja. The ripe alcohol back bite may be excessive for some, but as a testimony to the region’s style, Campo Viejo has carefully avoided almost all the usual pitfalls.

At £8.50, I am thoroughly impressed. Let’s just hope that next year’s vintage remains equally good.

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.