Binny's Blind Tasting Panel: Rioja Roundup The Panel Goes Crianza Crazy

The Binny’s Tasting Panel is at it again. This time we waded, blind, into a river of Rioja without any knowledge of vintage, producer, or price, freeing us from the baggage that comes along with knowing a wine’s identity. After tasting copious Crianzas and a raft of Reservas we noticed a clear pattern. Crianza is the sweet spot for price and quality. Many Reservas were excellent, in fact our two top scoring wines were Viña Ardanza Reserva from La Rioja Alta and Marques de Riscal Reserva. The next six top scorers, however, were all Crianzas and every one of them can be had for less than fifteen bucks. A remarkable statement about where real value resides in our vast Rioja selection.

Here are our top scoring Crianzas!

Cune Crianza 2019


This fresh young Crianza is full of red berry, plum and black cherry aromas that float from the glass, cradled in the telltale vanilla, coconut, and caramel scents of American oak. On the palate it displays the pleasant rusticity of old-school Rioja, all earthy herbs and fresh red fruits, that leads to surprisingly polished and supple tannins on the finish. Our veteran panel nodded knowingly when this wine was revealed to be from Cune, a producer with a nearly 150-year track record of quality. Pair with Spanish hams, chorizo, lomo and aged sheep milk cheeses. A benchmark Crianza.

Beronia Rioja Crianza 2019


A medium bodied beauty with a vibrant, youthful, cherry red hue. The nose is pretty, showing strawberry, tart cherry and fresh plum accented with savory herbs, sweet baking spices and a hint of licorice. A basketful of juicy red fruits, particularly strawberries, are the focus of this deliciously soft, elegant Crianza that finishes with just enough spicy, oaky tannin to keep it honest. Tasters thought this to be easygoing enough to sip on its own, but capable of complementing a wide array of tapas. Pinot noir fans, take note.

Faustino Crianza 2017


The value hits just keep coming with another traditionally styled wine. Here again, we see American oak aromas taking a starring role in the nose; this time really showing off fresh dill and spearmint along with richer, toastier notes. This all tempranillo Crianza is fuller bodied and shows more maturity than the others yet it retains an excellent freshness of red and black fruits and a zippy acidity. There is an exceptional concentration of ripe fruit flavors, rich, buttery oak and the lift of purple flowers on the palate. The finish is bright and long, with finely textured but firm tannins supporting persistent echos of mixed berries, vanilla, and barrel spice. Tasters put this squarely in the timeless classic camp. Try with roasted lamb.

Marqués de Cáceres Crianza 2019


The panel quickly picked up on a more modern approach here, noting the nuances of French oak and a deeper extraction of color and fruit. The reveal proved to align with expectations, as Caceres uses up to 60% French oak, some new, with the remainder being traditional American barrels. Hand harvested tempranillo, garnacha and graciano yield a deep violet tinged, ruby color, plum, blackberry, sloe, and black cherry fruit and a full, round, lush mouthfeel. This has a slightly earthy, nutty, leathery side along with toasty, cedary wood, clove and vanilla notes to complement the plump, fleshy fruit. Good acidity and well-integrated tannins keep the finish lively and velvety as the fruit slowly fades. The panel’s conclusion- If you are buying domestic Cabernet at this price, this is a great alternative.

Ramón Bilbao Crianza 2018


This was revealed to be our top scoring Crianza. The panel thought this a well-judged and expertly executed middle ground between traditional but restrained oak and modern, exuberant fruit. Deep red in color with a nose full of berries, tobacco, leather, black tea, cedar and spicy barrel notes. The palate is concentrated and intense with dark plum and blackberry fruit, yet the wine is balanced and medium bodied. All the aforementioned savory notes appear on the palate too, making for a ton of flavor impact without seeming heavy or overwrought. Tasters loved this juicy, layered expression of pure tempranillo saying it would pair with everything from roast chicken to fattier fish to red meat.

 Rioja Aging Classifications Explained

In 1980 Rioja began classifying wines as Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva based on the ageing they receive, both in barrel and bottle, before they are released for sale. The classification is a guarantee of the minimum amount of time the wine must be aged, however it is not a quality ranking, but a way to denote style. Although American oak has been, historically, the wood of choice for Rioja barrels, no requirement for origin, French, American or otherwise, is specified. The requirement is simply that they be oak barrels with a capacity of 225 liters. Note that many producers far exceed the minimum ageing for a given category, and others choose not to adhere to these ageing regimes and therefore cannot, or choose not, to label their wines in this fashion. These are the guidelines for red Rioja if they are to qualify for such designations.


A minimum of two years of aging. The wine must spend at least 12 months in barrel, while the remaining time may be bottle aging.


A minimum of three years of aging. The wine must spend at least one year in barrel, while the remaining time may be bottle aging.

Gran Reserva

A minimum of five years of aging. The wine must spend at least two years in barrel, while the remaining time may be bottle aging. 


Contributing Panelists:

  • Alicia Barrett, Wine Educator & Tasting Panel Chair
  • Todd Behrend, Wine Consultant, South Loop
  • Barbara Hermann, Wine Director & Buyer
  • Doug Jeffirs, Director of Wine Sales 
  • Bill Newton, Spanish Wine Buyer