Behind the label with Bodegas Mateos, Rioja Oriental

Formerly known as Rioja Baja, the most easterly sub-region of Rioja never seemed to carry much weight. The word “baja” translates as “lower” and the area was named as such because the altitude in that part of the Ebro Valley doesn’t quite reach the heights of siblings Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa to the west.

Quite unfairly, the general wine market seemed to correlate Rioja Baja as also meaning lower quality. As you’d imagine, the growers producing wines in the region weren’t enamored with this association and campaigned to change the name. In 2018 the Rioja Consejo Regulador granted their wish and the region shall henceforth be referred to as Rioja Oriental.

One such producer, Bodegas Mateos, work across four parcels of land at altitudes of between 375 and 650 metres above sea level. Like most of the region, special attention is given to their varieties of Tempranillo and Garnacha. They also cultivate Tempranillo Blanco, a mutation of the black grape variety that produces white wines rich in notes of candied citrus, stone fruits and has minerality in abundance.

The winery opened in 2000 but the family, now in their seventh generation, has been growing grapes in the region since 1886. Today they produce three ranges of wine. The Letargo range represents an homage to traditional styles of Rioja; these are fresh wines to be enjoyed in their youth. The Tio Martin range is a step up in price and complexity on the nose and the palate. You could call it a wine for the weekend.

Finally the Coleccion de Familia range represents the best the winery has to offer. Winemaker Mateo Ruiz produces wines, which seek to express the winery’s individual parcels, their aspects, soil types and conditions at harvest. Across each range, the winemaking sets itself apart from other Rioja producers by relying less on the use of oak and focusing more on how best to demonstrate the quality of fruit produced by the estate.

It’s this final point, which came across strongly when we tasted through the range with Laura Hoyos, Export Manager and Mateo Ruiz himself. What came across, even more so, was a team in Bodegos Mateos having a lot of fun, who take pride in what they do and who have a clear idea about the styles of wine they want to make.

#1 Letargo Rioja Blanco 2020 – £9.99

Fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures (between 8˚C and 12˚C) to enhance acidity and purity of fruit, this pure Tempranillo Blanco is crisp and refreshing. There’s a lovely intensity of flavour to this wine despite the lower price point and notes of peach and apricot which carry through the nose and palate onto the finish.

#2 La Mateo Coleccion de Familia Tempranillo Blanco 2018 – £26.99

Produced from the world’s first Tempranillo Blanco vines (the first vintage was released in 2015), fermentation starts in stainless steel but then moves to a combination of French and American oak to add depth and character. Matured on its lees for nine months in seasoned barrels, there’s little hint of oak on the nose or palate of this wine. Instead you get toasted almonds, honeyed citrus, red apple and elderflower.

On the palate the wine feels full-bodied with a rich, weighty texture underscored by and intense lemon tart character that persists through to the finish, which lingers with a tingle of acidity.

#3 Letargo Rioja Tempranillo 2020 – £9.99

The only red in the collection made from 100% Tempranillo, this one could be described as the ultimate Tuesday night wine. About 20% barrel aged wine is added to the blend to soften tannins and integrate the fruit. With notes of sweet cherry, liquorice and blackberry on the nose, the palate is bright, fresh and fruit forward with rich, but not overpowering tannins.

#4 Letargo Rioja Crianza 2018 – £11.99

Twelve months in the barrel plus a further eight to twelve in bottle adds depth and complexity to this wine. The Letargo Crianza matures in 50% French and 50% American oak barrels in their second or third fills so as not to overwhelm the wine inside. This is a blend of predominantly Tempranillo but there’s also Garnacha and a small amount of Graciano to add notes of ripe strawberry as well as a touch of darker fruit to the flavour profile. This wine is rich and complex, again with less of the classic vanilla and coconut you’d expect from this style of wine.

#5 Letargo Rioja Reserva 2016 – £15.99

Again this wine blends Garnacha and Graciano to a blend characterized by the bright cherry and sour raspberry notes of Tempranillo. This time however there’s more Garnacha and extended ageing has started to soften the fruits so there’s much more of a stewed character to the nose and palate. With extended ageing (this time sixteen months in oak) comes more tertiary characteristics of leather and tobacco.

#6 Tio Martin Rioja Crianza 2018 – £17.49

This range is named after a famous Bon Vivant close to the hearts of the Bodegas Mateos winemakers. It represents a bolder and more complex style of wine when compared to the previous wines on this list. The Crianza carries a more intense expression of oak and the use of Mazuelo (AKA Carignan) in the blend adds notes of ripe black fruit. This one has much more by way of vanilla, toffee and coconut on the nose to balance the higher intensity of fruit.

#7 La Vanidosa Garnacha N1 2018 – £19.99

Translating to “The Vain One”, La Vanidosa stands aside from the rest of the range as a special project designed to showcase the potential of Garnacha as a varietal wine. Mateo discussed the particular strain of Garnacha as one his grandfather singled out as being particularly fantastic. The vines are thirty years old and produce wines with an intense concentration of red fruit.

The nose is filled with strawberry compote and toffee notes from oak. The palate is rich and full but acidity is high and contributes a freshness and minerality. The tannins seem to build as you work your way through this wine although they remain lusciously smooth throughout. The finish is long and intense with hints of muscovado sugar at the back end.

#8 La Mateo Coleccion de Familia Vendima 2017 – £26.99

Fourteen months in new oak in a combination of French and American barrels, this wine expresses all the classic notes of coconut, dill and cloves we’ve come to expect from the region of Rioja. The fruit however, is not lost in the mix and you’re once again left with an intensely flavoured and complex Tempranillo forward wine. This time the fruit veers towards cassis rather than red fruit, possibly due to the age of the vines.

#9 La Mateo Coleccion de Familia Parcelas Singulares 2016 – £39.99

Parcelas Singulares focuses on individual plots of land within the estate. These are plots with the best quality soils, situated at higher altitudes and producing wines with greater freshness and acidity. The wine spends eighteen months in oak and a further eighteen months in bottle before release. It’s designed to compete directly with the best the region has to offer while, at the same time, maintaining an emphasis on expression of fruit.

We recommend decanting this wine for forty-five minutes (at least) before consumption. Even then it packs an absolute wallop. Notes of coconut, blueberry, plum, leather, tobacco, sweet cherry and almonds on the nose give way to a palate of bold ripe fruit, cheek coating tannins and racy acidity. The intensity of flavour persists all the way through to the finish.

#10 La Mateo Coleccion de Familia Garnacha Cepas Viejas 2017 – £42.99

Produced from vines of eighty plus years old, this is the pinnacle of Bodegas Mateos winemaking. This is 100% Garnacha designed to demonstrate the potential of Rioja Oriental as a region. This is an earthy style of Garnacha, heavier, more intense with fantastic concentration.

Bright cassis, blackberry and black plum are at the forefront. Notes of coconut from oak are more restrained and serve to balance the intensity of fruit. Bespoke toasting at the cooperage and a controlled fifteen months in new French oak has really helped to develop the complexity here. The palate is more raisined than the nose with overripe plum and sultana facing off against that familiar leather and tobacco. A wonderful wine to end our tasting.