Leslie Williams looks at some perfect Christmas tipples.
Growing up in the midlands in the 1970s there was not a lot of wine consumed in our house except at Christmas or when the English cousins arrived in the summer — it was usually Blue Nun. However, my dad did occasionally buy red wine and that was almost always Rioja, a byword for quality then, as now.
Rioja 10X10 arrived in Dublin recently having been an annual feature of the London wine scene since 2015 where a panel of expert tasters blind-tasted several hundred wines and whittled them down to 100 with ten in each category from oaked and unoaked whites to crianzas, reservas, and non-Tempranillo reds. There was also ten selected from women winemakers, a worthy initiative and some of the best wines at the tasting.
Interestingly there were some white Tempranillo wines (a mutation of red Tempranillo) although I preferred the whites made with Garnacha Blanca and of course the always fascinating oaked versions such as Murrieta’s Capellania (€30 O’Briens).
Tasting the range of styles, from fully oaked to lightly oaked, was a good reminder of just how consistent the region is across the board although some producers do still rely a little too hard on oak for their flavours.
I was invited to Rioja in mid-October by Ramón Bilbao, one of the largest and best producers in the region. As well as tasting wines, I took some time observing the last grapes being harvested in some of their older cooler vineyards — 2018 seems likely to be a solid to excellent vintage
By coincidence a few weeks earlier, I had visited Ramón Bilbao’s estate in Rueda and was equally impressed by young winemaker Sara who was as passionate and focused as you could hope for — it showed in her wines.
Besides the wines recommended below I also like its Rueda Sauvignon Blanc which has sweet apple and citrus flavours, its floral red fruit flavoured Rosado (€15, Donnybrook Fair, Joyces), and RB Gran Reserva 2010 (Martins €30) which has mature oak aromas and fine concentration.
Mirto (€45) is one of RB’s showcase wines and worth splashing out on. Made from 80-90-year-old vines and aged in new French Oak barrels, it has gorgeous dark fruits lingering black cherry flavours.
Rondan Vendemia Seleccionada Crianza Rioja 2014 — €14.60
Stockist: Wines Direct Mullingar, Arnotts, www.winesdirect.ie
From Rioja Alta this is 90% Tempanillo and spends 17 months in cask.
Vanilla and toasted spices on the nose with a touch of stewed red fruits, bright and fruity on the palate with crunchy touches, good texture, and a solid blackberry and plum finish.
El Viaje de Ramon Verdejo, Ruedes, Spain — €14.99
Stockist: 1601 Kinsale, Joyces Galway, Kitty Kiernans, Rowan’s Rathfarnham, www.wineonline.ie
Ramón Bilbao’s Rueda project is overseen by Sara Bañuelos who has big ambitions for her wines, packing them with flavour. This has bright apple pie and lemon confit aromas with touches of bay leaf and jasmine, crisp and fresh with good citrus acidity and a bright, fresh finish.
Marqués de Cáceres Crianza, Rioja, Spain — €12
Stockist:Tesco and various indpendents
Tesco has this on special at the moment (it is around €16 elsewhere).
Cáceres makes classical and fairly archetypcal Rioja, watch also for its Rosado and excellent Excellens Cuvée Especial whch is supple and intense. This, meanwhile, has spice-tinged dark fruits with good concentration and characterful dark fruits.
Mar de Frades Albariño 2017, Rias Baixas, Spain — €19.99
Stockist: Next Door, Clontarf Wines, Jus de Vine, McHughs, Salthill Liquors, Donnybrook Fair.
From the colder Salnés sub-region of Rias Baixas in its distinctive blue bottle, this has always been a favourite of mine. Bright apricot and peach aromas with a hint of ozone, lemon-fresh and crisp on the palate. Once the wine is sufficiently chilled, a small boat will appear on the label.
Ramon Bilbao Reserva 2014, Rioja, Spain — €23.99
Stockist: Matsons, Ardkeen, Martins, Kellys, Salthill Liquors, Donnybrook Fair, www.wineonline.ie
Made from vines between 50 and 60 years old with a long maceration prior to fermentation and ageing in American oak, which gives a distinct vanilla and coconut aromas mixed with toasted spicy notes — bright and juicy with supple ripe black fruits, textured and complex.
Cruz de Alba Crianza 2015, Ribera del Duero, Spain — €18.99
Stockist: Martins, The Wine Well Dunboyne, Shiel’s Londis, Kellys, Cappagh Stores and Mcguires Daybreak Galway.
Ribera’s Tempranillo is a smaller clone of Tempranillo than used in Rioja and the extreme climate here gives denser fuller wines. This has mainly French oak ageing and has dark fruit aromas, bright and juicy with black cherry fruits on the palate, lingering, ripe and full.