A rioja that delivers the whole package: delicious drinking, fantastically food friendly, an insanely good price and sustainable credentials.
From £10, €12, $15.99, 15.90 Swiss francs, CA$21.70, HK$240, SG$44
Years ago, when I was studying for the WSET diploma, I remember buying the Beronia riojas at each level because I'd been told that they were good benchmark riojas to learn from for the blind-tasting exams and because they were affordable. They became a bit of a house red for a couple of years. Then the exams were over and there were so many other wines to taste and before I knew it, I hadn't drunk a Beronia for more than 10 years.
An opportunity arose, however, to taste some old riojas with Beronia's winemaking director, Matías Calleja, on a Zoom call in December 2021. It was a privilege to taste Gran Reservas from 2001, 1994 and 1978, all still so complete and full of life, but the tasting also included their latest Reserva from the 2017 vintage. Despite the august company of much grander, older, and much more expensive wines, this modest £15 whippersnapper just shone.
My tasting note went:
'the fruit aromas on this wine are almost outrageously expressive – so intense yet so spunky that I wanted to laugh out loud on just one sniff of them! Ridiculously, deliciously jam-packed with this firework-flung handful of coruscatingly bright fruit that is simply irresistible. A Catherine-wheel of plums and damsons. Delicious peppery and fine-ground cumin spice. Blood orange and exploding with white pepper. … Tight, tight tannins but absolutely delicious. It would be incredibly difficult, having tasted this, to leave it in the rack long enough to age. Although Calleja assures us it will. VGV'
All of 93% of the blend comes from their oldest Tempranillo vines, with a small addition of 6% Graciano and 1% Mazuelo. The grapes were picked at the beginning of October and went through a short period of cold maceration before being fermented with periodic pumpovers. The wine spent 18 months in Beronia's unique 'Frenmerican' oak barrels that are custom-made with American oak staves and French oak ends. They believe that this unusual hybrid barrel format gives their riojas a unique Beronia signature. The wine was bottled in October 2020 and, as per Rioja Reserva regulations, the wine spent 18 months in bottle before being released to the market.
Beronia was founded in 1973 by a group of friends and was then bought in 1982 by González Byass. Matías Calleja also came to work at Beronia in 1982, and he's been making the wine there for 40 years. It's not what one would describe as a boutique wine producer – the company farms 900 ha (2,225 acres) of vineyard in Rioja Alta and 65 ha (160 acres) in Rueda. Production volumes are substantial. But quality is surprisingly high and, probably thanks in no small part to Calleja, the company has pioneering, innovative and visionary DNA.
They were the first wine producer in Europe to gain LEED certification, for their winery in Ollauri – LEED stands for Leader in Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Design, and it is a global certification granted by the US Green Building Council based on a set of ratings for design, construction, operation and maintenance of a building. The winery, built in 2018, is low-profile, sitting partly underground under a plant-covered roof which is integrated into the native flora of the environment to minimise the impact on the landscape. Designed to reduce energy consumption and noise pollution, it uses rainwater, geothermal temperature control, natural light and an efficient waste-management system.
They are also WfCP (Wineries for Climate Protection) certified, which is for the use of environmentally friendly processes throughout the production of wine, from vineyard to bottling. I noted that the bottles are laudably lightweight. While not all of their vineyards are certified organic (in part because they don't own all of them, although they work very closely with their growers), a number of them are certified and in every vineyard that is not, Calleja said that they their approach is always that of sustainable, environmentally friendly viticulture. Many of the vineyards are over 100 years old and on pre-phylloxera rootstocks.
Calleja also explained the reasoning behind their hybrid barrels, saying that 'this particular combination of French and American oak allows the wine to relax naturally'. He claims that American oak, with its looser grain, gives the wine strong 'sweet' notes (vanilla, sweet spice, coconut), whereas French oak with its finer grain is much more subtle and savoury (toast, nuttiness) and that it's the French oak that softens the tannins to silkiness. His belief is that the hybrid barrel format means that the integration of flavours from these two different oaks begins from the outset, mitigating the need to blend and 'marry' the wines after the first ageing process.
This every-box-ticked rioja can be bought in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and widely across the USA (AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, IL, MA, MI, NJ, NM, OR). In the UK, it's worth snapping it up from Waitrose, who have currently reduced the bottle price from £14.99 to £10. Sainsbury's, although they are not listed on Wine-Searcher, have it listed online for £12, reduced from £15; Ocado is selling it reduced from £16 to £13. The Drink Shop, Cheers Wine Merchants, The Oxford Wine Company and Majestic are all selling it for around £15 to £17.
Ferran writes in depth about how exciting rioja can be in his four-part series, Rioja's secret wines.