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Wine: rioja, from young selección to gran reserva

How can you tell if a rioja is one of those full-on fruity numbers or a more mellow affair?
I was sitting next to a guy at a BYO supper club the other day. He opened his bottle of rioja, took a sip, pulled a face and said, "That's far too fruity." I had every sympathy – it's hard these days to know quite what to expect from rioja.
Traditionally, rioja was all about how long it had been aged. Young (joven) riojas, often labelled just tempranillo, were released early. Ones with a minimum of one year in oak are crianzas, those with at least three years' ageing, of which one must be in cask, were reservas and red riojas with two years in oak and three in bottle were gran reservas.
But since producers have been responding to competition from the new world – and a desire for Parker points – the picture is a lot more confusing. Some have dropped the gran reserva category altogether and have introduced younger bottlings – often labelled "selección" – that are far more fruity and full-on. Climate change has also played a part in raising alcohol levels.
The best clue is the way the bottle looks and feels. A heavy bottle with a contemporary label and recent vintage generally indicates a modern style. A more old-fashioned script and gold-wire-mesh cover? That's probably more traditional. There are exceptions, such as the incredibly lush Bodegas Palacio Glorioso Crianza 2008 (£7.95, the Wine Society; 13.5% abv), which you feel from the label could swing either way, but in this vintage at least is definitely in the super-fruity camp. (If you prefer more restraint, go for the 13% abv 2007 or the Wine Society's own-label Rioja Crianza 2007 – £6.95; 13.5% abv – which is made by the same bodega.)
Reservas can vary hugely in age and price, too. The beautifully poised, elegant Contino Reserva 2007 (£23, the Wine Society; 14% abv) outstrips the cost of many gran reservas, but is totally worth the money if you're a rioja fan (2007 in general is a good vintage to look out for, without the over-ripeness that sometimes accompanies vintages from hotter years).
If you like the added mellowness of the gran reserva style, Beronia makes one of the best-value examples for the quality I've come across: the most widely available is the Beronia 2005 (£16.95,; £18.95, Whalley Wine Shop; £19.50, Ocado; 14% abv) but there's still a bit of the superb 13.5% abv 2001 around, for instance at Amps Fine Wines (£20.80), which I'd snap up if you can. In fact, gran reservas are well worth scouring the shelves of small wine merchants for. There are bargains out there.
Fiona Beckett. The Guardian
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