“Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read” – Francis Bacon.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat and there’s no wine as flexible with the varied foods of the season than Rioja, folks, so let’s take a seasonal look at our favourite Spaniard.

Rioja is the accidental love child of a vine disease, a bunch of travelling Bordeaux winemakers and oak barrels (all in all well worth an hour on Wikipedia).

Personally, I just love Tempranillo with its powerful yet restrained fruit and the way that it has some sort of affinity with oak that transforms it into a soft, creamy wine, and the more it gets the better it becomes.

Seriously, age in barrels is the key to Rioja for me so I tend to avoid the Jovens and Crianza styles and focus all my attention on the reservas and preferably the gran reservas, the latter of which spend upwards of two years sucking the goodness out of the oak before adding three years or so in the bottle prior to sale.

There is, of course, another main grape in the Rioja story and Grenache is her name but I tend to find the Riojas with more Grenache than Tempranillo are too fresh and lively for me, and way too alcoholic.

Gran Reserva Rioja is all about class and the smoothness of the palate and it’s incredibly flexible with food, but particularly goes with the richer gamier meats and the harder, aged cheeses. The wine seems to wrap itself around the food like an alcoholic velvet glove rather than overpowering it. Anyway, it’s close to Christmas folks, so trust me and aim high with Rioja even if it means taking the bus for a week or so rather than filling up the Jag and give all your attention to the Gran Reserva section of the wine shelf.


Azerbache Gran Reserva Rioja: Slightly restrained in an intriguing way on the nose with soft, intense creamy fruits on the palate. The finish is long and complex with hints of cedar boxes and vanilla. Richardson's of Whitehaven, £22.50.

Vina Marichalar Gran Reserva Rioja 2009: One of the most succulent Riojas on the market and from a cracking vintage. Smooth almost leathery fruit with lashings of vanilla and spice and a toasty finish. Quite delicious. Laithwaites Wines, £27.