Rioja Gran Reserva: Expensive — But a Remarkable Value | David White

Each year, the wine world eagerly awaits Wine Spectator's "Top 100" list.

Each year, the wine world eagerly awaits Wine Spectator’s “Top 100” list.

Since 1988, the magazine’s editors have looked back over the wines they’ve reviewed over the previous 12 months to rank the 100 wines that most impress them “based on quality, value, availability, and excitement.”

This year, the competition was stiffer than ever; more than 20,000 wines vied for a spot on the coveted list. It’s no wonder why retailers and consumers alike have made a parlor game out of speculating which wine will land at the top.


This year’s highest honor went to the 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva from Cune, a fifth-generation, family-run winery in Rioja, Spain. This marked the first time that a Spanish wine came in first, so the news was celebrated across Spain. In the United States, the announcement helped bring attention to a region that’s been overlooked and undervalued for far too long.


Cune’s 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva isn’t cheap — it retails for around $60. But it still represents a remarkable value and helps demonstrate why smart wine consumers love Rioja.


Consider its age.


Few wine shops — and even fewer restaurants — offer aged wine. There are storage constraints, to be sure, but there’s also the fact that consumers have grown accustomed to young wines. It’s estimated that nine in 10 bottles are consumed within 24 hours of purchase. So vintners craft their bottlings with this statistic in mind, producing wines that are juicy and approachable from the get-go.


Once upon a time, though, wine consumers would have scoffed at such drinking habits. High-quality wines develop complexity in the bottle. The tannins soften, interesting aromas emerge, and flavors become more harmonious. That’s why, even today, most oenophiles insist on waiting about a decade before opening high-end wines from Bordeaux, Barolo, and other famous wine regions.


In Rioja, where reds typically consist of Tempranillo with a healthy dose of Grenache and a few other grapes, four different styles of wine are produced — and each comes with specific aging requirements.


A basic “Rioja” is typically released one year after harvest. A “Crianza” is aged for at least two years, with at least one full year in oak. A “Reserva” is aged for at least three years, with at least one full year in oak. A “Gran Reserva” — like Cune’s 2004 Imperial — is aged for at least five years, with two years in oak and three years in bottle.


Some producers go well beyond the official aging requirements, only releasing their wines when they’re ready. That’s why Cune’s “current” Gran Reserva is about ten years old. One of Rioja’s most established producers, Lopez de Heredia, only recently released its 1994 Gran Reserva!


Or consider the quality of Cune’s Gran Reserva.


Cune, like most producers in Rioja, only designates certain vintages the Gran Reserva designation. At Muga, another traditional producer in Rioja, the winemaker decided that 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2008 weren’t worthy of Gran Reserva status.


These wines are expensive, to be sure. One of my most memorable drinking experiences of the year was with La Rioja Alta’s 2001 Gran Reserva “904,” which cost about $50. A special-occasion wine, to be sure. But an incredibly compelling experience that could only be matched in Bordeaux or Napa by spending about three times as much — and waiting ten ormore years.


It’s no wonder why Cune’s 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva took home Wine Spectator’s top prize this year. When it comes to “quality, value, availability, and excitement,” Rioja leaves most regions in the dust.


David White is the founder and editor of, which was named “Best Overall Wine Blog” at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.

More in Life

Kiwanis honor four as Students of the Month

Members of the Buckley Kiwanis Club honored a trio of “Students of the Month” during an Nov. 16 gathering.

Blaine Larsen returns home for Dec. 2 concert

Blaine Larsen doesn’t perform much these days, instead spending his waking hours pursuing a higher calling.

Get your fill of winter activities on Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier’s landscape undergoes a dramatic transformation in winter.

Enumclaw, Buckley busy during the holidays

What’s going on during the holiday season on the Plateau? Here’s a list of activities you and your family may enjoy!

Bonney Lake, Sumner gear up for holiday festivities

Plateau holiday festivities are right around the corner.

Giving Trees help kids with Christmas

Nexus Youth And Families Enumclaw is asking local residents to help a child in need this Christmas by participating in the organization’s Giving Tree program.

Santa’s Mystery Brunch: An interactive family whodunit | Pierce County

At “Santa’s Mystery Brunch,” an interactive family whodunit, audience members become detectives to help solve who stole Santa’s magical bag filled with toys and presents.

Enumclaw’s ‘super’ trick or treat event | Slideshow

Check out photos from Enumclaw’s downtown Halloween event!

Fans of fire tower hosting open house

Boosters behind an effort to see a fire lookout tower installed atop Mount Peak are hosting a second public meeting, hoping to gauge public interest in the project.

Parks serves up annual Murder Mystery Dinner on Oct. 27 | Pierce County

For one night in October, the ever popular Murder Mystery Dinner returns to Chambers Creek Regional Park, which sets the stage for a fun, engaging and delicious evening.

Art display by local teachers, students

For the next month, the city of Enumclaw, 4Culture of King County and Arts Alive! will present an exhibition of current works by students of local art class teachers.

Surplus van benefits Enumclaw seniors

A surplus Metro Transit van was donated last week to the Enumclaw Senior Center to assist the facility in meeting a variety of transportation needs.