Ranking wines during blind tastings can provide some eye-openers, to coin a phrase, particularly with wines from different vintages and a wide range of prices. One group in San Diego, the Carmel Valley Wine Club, held its 302d tasting recently featuring seven wines from Rioja and one from Ribera del Duero.

Bottle prices ranged from $15 to $156 and the vintages from 2004 to 2016. We tasted via Zoom, the seventh virtual tasting since the pandemic erupted, picking up the 1.5-ounce samples in advance in labeled and sealed containers (eight wines, A to H) from the organizer, Jerry Feitelson.

After some periods of silence during the first part of the tasting, banter scaled up as the 18 blind tasters completed their work. Votes were tallied using Zoom polling for first, second, third, or no vote on each wine. Tallies were completed in minutes and perfectly, which doesn’t always happen when tallying in person on a flip chart and tasters lose track of how often they voted or mix up their rankings.

This tasting proved once again that Spain offers some of the world’s greatest values in finely made, well-aged wines. For quick background, the official designations on the labels provide the aging categories:

  • Joven – These wines may or may not have spent some time in oak before being bottled in the year following the vintage, for immediate release.
  • Roble – These wines must spend some time in oak. The time in oak must be stated on label.
  • Crianza – Red wines must be aged for at least 24 months, of which 6 months are spent in small oak barrels.
  • Reserva – Wines from selected vats of the better vintages. Reds must be aged for at least 36 months, including at least 12 months in small oak barrels and the rest in bottle.
  • Gran Reserva – Wines only produced in exceptional vintages. In order to qualify as Gran Reserva, red wines must be aged for at least 60 months, of which at least 18 months in small oak barrels.

The group enjoyed five Gran Reservas and two Reservas. A $20 wine provided the best quality for price of the tasting. The results and notes:

First — 2011 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 Tinto Rioja, Labastida, La Rioja Alta, Spain, $69. Mid Ruby, brick edges; lightest color of the group; older earthy nose; red fruit, wood, mushrooms, cedar; mid acids and tannins; balanced; pronounced red fruit flavors; long multilayered finish. 17 UC Davis scale, 92 other scales. My first place. Group first place. 89% Tempranillo, 11% Graciano. 13.5% alcohol.

La Rioja Alta

Second – 2016 Bodegas Torre Muga Rioja, Haro, Rioja Alta, $90. Mid purple; red fruit, cherry nose; young, ripe grapes; mid soft body; red fruit on the palate; straight forward; slightly tannic and one dimensional; hot finish (14.5 alc.). 15.5-16/89-90 other scales. Second place group score. Youngest wine. 75% Tempranilo, 15% Mazuelo, 10% Graciano. 14.5% alcohol. Tie for 7th for TG.

Third Tie – 2007 Viñedos de Páganos El Puntido Gran Reserva,  Rioja, Laguardia, Spain, $55. Dark garnet; ripe grape nose; higher alcohol (14.5), prunes, cocoa, smoke; mid-plus body; layered; long full finish. 17. My second-place wine. Tied for number three for the group. Single vineyard. Trying to express the minerals of the region. Selected fruit. Low yielding vines. 14.5% alcohol.

Third Tie – 2004 CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja, Haro, Rioja Alta, Spain, $156 (most expensive wine of the night). Dark garnet, brick edges; red fruit nose; wood, cedar, earth; dry; mid plus acids; Full tannins; Mid to full body; tight; hot on the finish. 16.5/91. Group tie for third with wine G. 4th for TG. 13.5% alcohol. 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo. Was the number one in Wine Spectator Top 100 in 2013.

Fifth – 2014 La Rioja Alta Viña Arana Gran Reserva Rioja, Labastida, La Rioja Alta, Spain, $37. Mid purple, brick edges; big red fruit nose; pronounced; cedar, raspberries; mid-plus acids; mid plus tannins; some style; long semi hot finish. 16.5/91. 95% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano. 14.5% alcohol. 5th four group score. 3rd for TG.

Sixth – 2012 Bodegas Balbás Ardal Selección Especial Reserva Ribera del Duero, Castilla y León, La Horra, Burgos, Spain, $20. Mid ruby; young red fruit nose; cherries, cedar, wood; mid-plus acids; Mid-plus tannins; full bodied; seems younger? 16.5/91. 80% Tempranilo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged in French oak for 24 months. 6th for the group. Fifth for TG.14.5% alcohol. Best value (Costco).

Seventh – 2015 Cune Reserva Rioja, Haro, La Rioja Alta, $15. Mid Ruby; red fruit nose; secondary wood nose; stinky; some bacteriological problem (?); mid minus acids; mid tannins; fruity; one-dimensional; hard chewy finish. 15/88. 7th group score and 7th tie for TG. 14.5 alcohol.

Eighth – 2008 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva Rioja, Haro, Rioja Alta, Spain, $60. Mid brick; older; funky nose; bacteria, moldy wood, mushrooms, herbal undertones; light acids; light tannins; light to medium bodied; a little sour. 15/88. Last place for the group and TG. 13% alcohol. 75% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha, 5% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo.

Rioja Tasting