While Spain's many wine regions are gaining in notoriety and popularity, Rioja is still its best known. The revolution in wine technology and vineyard management that has propelled Spanish wine in general has also helped keep Rioja at the forefront. Tempranillo is the red wine grape that rules here--an early ripening, thick-skinned variety that produces robust wines. It's the Iberian Peninsula's answer to cabernet sauvignon. Oak aging of at least one year in barrique bordelaise (59-gallon barrels) is required by law for wines labeled crianza or reserva. The process adds both structure and complexity to the wine. Here are the panel's top picks:
2006 Conde de Valdemar Rioja, Crianza, $14.99
Deep, dark red fruit aromas are colored by layers of caramel, coconut and a spicy bit of brett (the yeast that gives some Belgian beers their characteristic clove taste). Supple cherry and boysenberry fruit flavors up front mingle nicely with subtle plum, anise, earth, leather and oak. With some four years of bottle age, the tannins are well-resolved, resulting in an elegantly complex wine.
2007 Dominio de Ugarte Rioja, Reserva, $18.50
This wine opens with heady aromas that are a mix of cherry liqueur, toffee, hazelnut and licorice. This reserva fills the mouth with rich fruit flavors, where sweet berry plays against tart cherry. The finish is marked by creamy red fruits, mellow oak, light tannins and leather, with those flavors lingering on and on.
2009 Sierra Cantabria Rioja, $13.99
This wine leads off with smooth blueberry and raspberry aromas colored by earthy cedar, pecan, cassis, chocolate, cola and violet. There's a nice mellowness to the palate, where ripe berry fruit is balanced by bright acidity and backed by well-integrated, understated oak. Soft tannins and nutmeg come through on the persistent finish. This is a good value in a wine that should age gracefully for several years.