Why you should be drinking Rioja, the Spanish answer to Bordeaux

There is quality to be found at remarkably reasonable prices, discovers Harry Eyres.

To say Rioja is Spain’s answer to Bordeaux is true, up to a point. Each is the leading fine red-wine producing region of its respective country. Rioja and Bordeaux are vast appellations, covering an enormous range of wines, from the most rarified to the everyday. Both use a mix of grape varieties and are known for the traditional elevage of red wines in small oak barrels (barriques/barricas).

‘Youthful in colour, quite rich and oaky on the nose (the Bodega Isidro Milagro uses a mix of French and American oak), warm, soft and full on the palate’

There are, however, big differences, as well as similarities: Rioja is mountainous, with vineyards as high as 3,280ft, whereas Bordeaux is largely flat, and Rioja still uses large quantities of American oak, as well as French.

Why you should be drinking it

Traditionally, a great advantage of Rioja is that the wines are released when ready for drinking. The ageing is done by the producer, not the buyer. For all the excitement around ‘new-style Rioja’, I feel this unique selling point isn’t one that should be abandoned lightly.

Vineyard at Elciego, Elciego, La Rioja Alavesa, Basque Country, Spain

Vineyard at Elciego, Elciego, La Rioja Alavesa, Basque Country, Spain

What to buy

I’m impressed by the quality the supermarket chain Lidl achieves at remarkably reasonable prices. Cepa Lebrel Rioja Crianza 2015 (£5.79; www.lidl.co.uk) is youthful in colour, quite rich and oaky on the nose (the Bodega Isidro Milagro uses a mix of French and American oak), warm, soft and full on the palate.

The Ramón Bilbao bodega, under the tutelage of its studious chief winemaker Rodolfo Bastida, is exploring the diversity of terroirs within Rioja to exciting effect. Viñedos de Altura 2016 (£15.46; www.winebuyers.com) comes from high-altitude vineyards, which lend freshness, but there’s also appealing, soft, strawberry-ish fruit. Ramón Bilbao Mirto 2014 (£49.50; www.greatwesternwine.co.uk) comes from a single high vineyard planted with 85-year-old Tempranillo vines and impresses with great freshness and purity of cool, dark berry fruit.