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It was not that long ago that, bar a few notable exceptions, I thought the wines of Rioja were a rather mediocre affair. Decent value. A safe bet. Solid, but rarely spectacular. A sort of C+ sort of a wine. If I was unfortunate enough to be looking at a rather ordinary wine list then I could take comfort in the fact that it was likely to have a decent, if not remarkable Rioja Crianza hovering somewhere between the Cotes du Rhone and the Chianti.  After all, who could really take exception to the vanilla hit of American oak and the red/black fruit juice of Tempranillo and other grapes. As a sort of raspberry ripple ice cream in a bottle experience, it was okay.

As a wine region Rioja has a history stretching back to Roman times but it did not really get going until the latter part of the 1800s when the parasite Phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Bordeaux. Consequently, the French needed somewhere else to practice their viticultural expertise and the British, as ever, needed something to drink. And so our relationship with the wines of Rioja was born.

        Rioja, with its three sub-regions of Rioja Alta (producing wines of great structure and ageability)  Rioja Alavesa (usually fresh with high acid) and Rioja Baja (where it is drier and warmer) offered a perfect remedy. The fruit was of reasonable quality and wines aged in oak barrels were in vogue. Nowadays permitted grape varieties for reds are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta. And for the whites: Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Turruntes, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo. The badges of Gran Reserva, Reserva, Crianza and Joven are still used yet viewed by many as not as important as they once were. Tasty grapes come first, not how long they have languished in a wooden barrel and it is the great terroirs that translate the personality of a grape to its maximum potential. The best wines of Rioja no longer taste of 'Rioja'. They taste of a vineyard, or a piece of land and the skillful touch of a winemaker with all this coming together to produce great wine. Here are a pair of excellent wines worth trying.

Abel Mendoza Jarrarte Crianza 2009 Rioja, Spain

From the municipality of San Vincente de la Sonsierra. Have you ever seen the face Randy Jackson makes when he likes a song on the US version of The X Factor? That is the face I am making now.  This wine is characterful, stylish and effortlessly delicious. A mature wine of this quality at the peak of its powers is a rare treat.

Luis Canas Blanco Barrel Fermented 2015 Rioja, Spain

This Viura Malvasia blend is a peek into the room of what modern white Rioja is capable of. Vibrant, polished, but with a bead of lemony acidity streaking through. Great value. 

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