Generally speaking, it's wise to assume you're being swindled when someone claims that "less is more." However, this is often the case with the wines of Spain's Rioja region.
Rioja's reds are classified (and typically priced) according to a four-tier system based on how long the wines have been aged in oak casks and bottles. At the "bottom" of the scale is Joven, which gets little or no exposure to oak and is released very young, predominantly for local consumption. Next is Crianza, which is released in its third year, having spent a minimum of 12 months in oak casks. Bottlings designated Reserva are released in their fourth year and must have spent 12 months in Bordeaux-style barricas (tall wood barrels) and another 24 months in bottle. Finally--at the presumable top of the heap--come the Gran Reservas, which are released in their sixth year after a minimum of 24 months in oak and 36 months in bottle.
Most logical observers would guess that if Reserva is good, Gran Reserva must be better. But, in my experience, it just ain't so. My recent tastings showed once again that the best Reservas show more fruit, stronger structure, less oxidation and greater aging potential than all but a few Gran Reservas. With all this and generally lower prices to boot, I strongly recommend each of the following Reservas, which are listed in order of preference:
Bodegas Roda "Roda II" 1995 ($37.50): The softest, juiciest, most succulent wine of my recent tastings, with deeply flavored fruit of remarkable ripeness and depth. Very low in acidity, with extremely soft tannins and no notable oxidation, this may alarm traditionalists but will prove immensely appealing for those who care more about taste than typicality. (Franklin)
Finca Valpiedra (Martinez Buhanda) 1995 ($27): An exceptional wine that shows both very ripe, lush fruit and a firm structure that will permit a decade of improvement in the bottle. Strong and dark, with sweet, concentrated fruit beautifully balanced by a strong lashing of oak. (Washington Wholesale)
Domino de Conte 1995 ($36): More like a young Bordeaux than the Rioja Reservas of recent decades, with intense, tightly wound fruit, relatively high acidity, sturdy tannins and a notable dose of spicy new oak. Whereas most traditional Reservas and Gran Reservas are essentially mature when shipped, as a result of extended exposure to oxygen in casks, this wine is clearly intended to soften and develop in the bottle. (Franklin)
Marques de Riscal "Baron de Chirel" 1994 ($50): An excellent wine (as it bloody well should be given the price) with very dark, intense and concentrated fruit married effectively to abundant new oak. This single-vineyard bottling is certainly striking in both size and structure, but several more years in the bottle will be required to bring the impressive elements into harmony. It is noteworthy that the producer chose to bottle the flagship wine as a Reserva rather than a Gran Reserva. (Forman)
Bodegas Breton "Lorinon" Reserva 1995 ($21): A delicious wine at fair price, this is very juicy and soft, with succulent black cherry fruit that is framed by ample but well-measured wood. It shows exceptional balance and symmetry, with acidity, tannin and wood all serving to support--rather than obscure--the core of ripe fruit. (Franklin)
La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva 1990 ($25): A very fine, fully mature rendition of the traditional style. Highly complex, thanks to extended bottle aging, this shows a host of toasty, spicy, earthy complexities. The texture is silky and soft, and although the fruit has considerably less drive than in the top wines from my tastings, it is still readily evident and capable of holding on for several more years. (Forman)
Conde de Valdemar 1994 ($17): A superb wine with deliciously ripe, soft black cherry fruit augmented by alluring notes of spices and vanilla. The tannins are ample but ripe and very fine in grain, lending backbone without contributing an astringent feel. Ready to drink now, this will surely improve for another three or four years. (Washington Wholesale)
Faustino V 1995 ($14): Soft, suave and fruity, with creamy dark fruit and exceptionally silky tannins. With interesting nuances of spices, tobacco and vanilla, this is a very complete and convincing wine at a very attractive price. (Forman)
Campo Viejo Reserva 1994 ($14): Not quite as compelling as the remarkable 1990 Reserva (which was one of the best values on the market for the past two years), but this shows nicely concentrated fruit and a strong shot of wood. Another year in bottle should take the edge off the oak and turn this good wine into a very good one. (Forman)
Columnist Michael Franz will answer wine-related questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com