With the holidays fast approaching, this is the time of the year when most of us begin to look for wines that are a cut above our average, wines that deliver something special yet hopefully do not break the bank while doing so. There are many possible routes to take, but Rioja Reserva offers a unique opportunity to bring that something special to the table.

There is no place else in the world where you can find wines like these. The wines of Rioja are aged for you at the winery and then put on sale when they are ready to drink. As if that in and of itself isn’t reason enough to buy more Rioja Reserva, there is also the quality, which is pretty amazing at these price points.

You might be surprised to see me recommend Reservas instead of the more prestigious and arguably better Gran Reservas of Rioja, but I do so with good reason. The Gran Reservas are more expensive and the flavors attained by even more extended wood aging might not be ideal for all palates. On the other hand, Rioja Reserva brings together a lovely mix of rich, vibrant fruit, plenty of spicy oak notes, and the incipient flavors and silky textures of extended aging.

If you want to check out the difference between the classifications of Rioja, we have a nifty guide that you can find here. I’ve got two dozen notes on some of the top Rioja Reservas all lined up here, ready to go for this holiday season. The styles range from very modern to decidedly traditional. While I tend to prefer the traditional style of Rioja, this wide range of styles means that there’s a great Rioja Reserva for almost every meal you have planned this holiday season. I wish to encourage you all to try a variety of these wines. Some are such great values that it would be a shame to ignore them solely because of some rather vague notion of modern or traditional styling.

Consider the possibilities. Traditional Rioja, lighter in texture and higher in acid, is ideal for accompanying foods that are subtle yet rich. Anything from prime rib to roast duck and even a hearty, spiced turkey with smoked paprika and chorizo stuffing would be an ideal foil for a wine that’s showing off pale red fruit, orange rind and sandalwood notes.

On the other hand, some of these modern interpretations of Rioja absolutely shine with something intense and rich, like a grilled rib eye or hearty stew.

This adaptability and food friendliness of Rioja is just another reason to explore these wines. And yet, there is one final reason: they are being discovered.

I know, we all know about Rioja in one way or another, but what I am finding is that as wine lovers get priced out of some of their favorite wines like Barolo, Bordeaux and Burgundy, they are rediscovering the top wines of Rioja. In spite of rather formidable production numbers, I’ve watched the price of Rioja steadily climb over the past few years and the market for aged wines is just about ready to explode!

Wine image via ShutterstockNow is still a great time to get into Rioja and bargains still abound, particularly if you search through the Reserva wines while leaving the trophy hunters to fend for themselves among the Gran Reservas!

2001 Hermanos Pecina Vendimia Seleccionada Reserva $45

Dense and rich on the nose, this shows intense aromas of cut fruit, a big tobacco note, cut fresh plums, flowers, fresh herbal undertones, parchment, lots of fennel and a top note of rose petal. Very smooth yet powerfully built in the mouth with velvety rich, dark plummy fruit accented by a little bit of spice. This feels very luxurious and is packed with black cherry fruit that extends deep into a finish flecked with tobacco and dry mineral spice tones. The tannins here are supple yet packed in. The fruit makes this an excellent bet for the cellar. 93pts

2005 Miguel Merino Reserva $40

American oak, leather, barnyard and a little cured meat with a hint of pepper greet the nose. Vanilla, incipient tobacco notes, a little cinnamon and some balsamic accents frame this complex bouquet. Upon entry, a gentle huckleberry tone is wrapped in soft tannins and a sweet, gentle disposition until the tannins build on the palate. In fact, this is packed with tannins, yet it retains a supple, soft feel on the mid-palate, which is rich with dark berry fruit and some huckleberry accents. The tannins extend through the finish, which shows an interesting combination of supple fruit and firm structure. Some coffee cream on the finish leads to a bright finale of sweet/tart cranberry fruit. 92pts

2004 Ontanon Reserva $24

This is playing coy right now with the nose alternating between being a bit dumb and effusively pouring forth herb-, earth- and ash-accented black fruits wrapped in well measured oak. Super polished on entry, this has a lovely earthy and lightly leathery tinge to the early cherry fruit of the palate. The wine gains light herb and spice notes on the mid-palate. Invisible tannins offer sufficient support to allow this to fill the mouth yet the zesty acidity keeps it lively and fresh. The fruit turns redder in the mouth with hints of red apple peels and strawberries on the back end that come with sandy soil tones and a hint of minerality. The finish is classic Rioja: cherry and vanilla, bright with a light astringency, and long but not heavy. This is rather refined Rioja. 91pts

2004 Fernandez de Pierola Reserva $25

This is very complex on the nose with layers of tobacco, crème caramel, white pepper, cardamom, dried raspberries, old tea, dried spices and a nice low note of cinnamon-dusted dried fruit. There’s plenty of fruit on the palate with good depth. This is lively in the mouth with peppery spice accents. High toned and elegant, this is traditionally styled with a well integrated structure that turns really bright and nicely vibrant on the palate and extends through a long zesty, salted plum fruit and peppery finish. 91pts

2007 Sierra Cantabria Reserva $27

Sweet leather and vanilla notes greet the nose followed by soil tones, hints of smoldering herbs and fine dried raspberry fruit with a hint of wild mushroom. This is broad and just a touch soft on entry but the acidity kicks in to add a lovely brightness here and serve as the tent pole that supports the fairly transparent, earthy and lightly herbal red berry fruit. The tannins are very nicely polished in the mouth yet offer fairly firm support right through the long, clear and lightly spicy cherry and cranberry finish. This is really refreshing and bright in the mouth. A pretty classic example of its type and a lovely food wine. 91pts

2004 Vina Ardanza Reserva $30

A bit tight on the nose with subtle notions of spicy wild berry fruits and dusty, dry leather. A little lactic, this shows some raw wood qualities on the nose, as well. The wine is almost velvety on entry and is totally integrated if a bit tight, with some early blueberry fruit and layered wood spice accents. There is lovely purity to the fruit that leads to the finish, showing off nuttiness, juicy plum fruit and delicate shavings of cinnamon. This remains a little tight but it is already delicious and oh so drinkable. 91pts

2001 Hermanos Pecina Reserva $32

A bit of pronounced oak greets the nose with supporting aromas of mineral, game, dried berry fruit, dried spices, tar and a little tobacco and ash. In the mouth, this has lovely, bright acidity. The fruit shows a touch of dried fruit character with flavors of orchard fruits, cherry and a hint of juniper spice. This is a little leafy on the back end with the acid popping again on the finish. Dusty, dry tannins support a hint of truffle on the finish along with a little blueberry compote. Complex and youthful, should improve. 91pts

1995 Ontanon Reserva Privada $50

Fairly intense on the nose with an emerging complexity of green coffee, tobacco ash and roasted herb that frames the slightly medicinal-scented black cherry fruit with a light licorice top note. Smooth, supple and fairly rich in the mouth, the wine has early medicinal and vitamin edges to the black berry fruit that drifts across the palate. This is showing early signs of maturity yet remains fresh and bright in the mouth. Poppy and watermelon seed notes accent the wonderfully pure and clean core of blackish fruit. This behaves much like classic Rioja, yet it is perfectly clean and perhaps a touch denser. This really does a fine job of blurring the lines between new and old with its elegance, though it does fall a bit short on the finish. 91pts

2007 Izadi Reserva $20

Fresh cherry fruit on the nose is well balanced by vanilla and oak spice notes as well as a hint of pink peppercorn and lingonberry fruit. There are nice suggestions of tar, mint and a little rust. Perhaps a touch soft in the mouth and decidedly fruity, this has a lovely core of wiry tannins and a nice, almost medicinal edge to the transparent mid-palate. There is a huge rush of raspberry liqueur fruit on the long finish with nice, gentle suggestions of spices on the finale and a return of raspberry fruit. This is modern but shows its fruit very well. 90pts

2006 Ramon Bilbao Reserva $20

This is a little ashy on the nose with hints of arugula, blood and carob adding gentle complexity to the nose. The aromas are more savory than fruity but there is a base of raspberry/blackberry fruit here along with well-balanced briary oak. This is easy to drink texturally but it has the same savory, arugula-like flavors on the palate adding compelling complexity to the round yet nervous wine. There are subtle layers of flavor here. It is a little nutty, a little meaty, but then mineral and taut with a hint of rust coming out on the back end with raspberry fruit, licorice and spiky little tannins. The finish is long and zingy with lovely layering of subtle savory and fruity flavors and just a hint of heat on the finale. This is really attractive. It is not rustic but not modernly smooth either, with a mouthfeel that is zesty, sapid and refreshing. Serve this with red meat like lamb. 90pts

2006 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal Reserva $20

Leather, game and rust greet the nose with a classic Rioja profile. This is not particularly fruit-driven, instead recalling the winery and the land. Air brings out more smoky, herby notes along with a base of cranberry fruit. Smooth and polished on entry, another quintessential attribute of Rioja Reserva, this has wispy tannins and juicy acidity that make the texture a near perfect blend of brightness and a firm base. There’s more fruit on the palate. Raspberry and strawberry tones with earth, rust and herb flavors are topped with a light lashing of vanilla. The lovely finish is slightly astringent, slightly austere, long and savory. This is how I prefer my Rioja, a bit rustic! 90pts

2005 Valdelana Reserva $20

Pencil lead pops on the leafy nose with hints of toast, violet and blackberry fruit. On entry, this shows a subtle and elegant character that is followed by a fairly strong vanilla note. This turns rather decisively fruit-driven with small wild berry fruit, very small black berry fruit, a hint of boysenberry, a little sausage, and a hint of juniper and fine spice notes. This is beautifully proportioned with faceted, transparent fruit on the palate. The finish shows nice persistence to the blackberry fruit but falls a little short. 90pts

2008 Sierra Cantabria Reserva Unica $28

This is smoky and nutty on the nose with aromas of medicinal herbs, dried meat and jerky. There are strong notes of coffee bean and some floral top notes from oak. On entry, this is rich and smooth with fine acids though it turns a bit matte in the mouth. There’s nice fruit here along with nice cut. Sweetness of wood appears on the mid-palate, accenting the nice, wild plum fruitiness of the wine. The finish is a bit dry, woody and spicy, with a hint of Mexican chocolate. Ultimately, this is very good but it is in a dense and chunky style. 90pts

2004 La Rioja Alta Vina Arana Reserva $30

Deep leather, white flower, subtle orange peel and sour red cherries greet the nose with hints of tobacco, ash, vanilla, dill and spicy wood making for a beautiful perfume. There’s a hint of early wood sweetness here, yet this is soft and elegant in the mouth. The red fruits are accented by bright acidity and lovely polished tannins. A deep wild cherry fruit element on the back end turns into red cherry candy with vanilla and spice on the finish, where hints of austere tannins remain fully covered by the rich fruit. This should improve with a bit of age and should also have very broad appeal. 90pts

2005 Dinastia Vivanco Reserva $25

Plenty of toasty French oak on the nose is met with notes of dried herbs, fresh leather, tobacco, sweet dark berry fruit, cinnamon, licorice and seared beef. In the mouth, bright acids and nice firm tannins are buried in a core of sweet and sour Jolly Rancher grapy fruit with hints of pomegranate. A little black currant and some black plum notes pop on the finish, which shows a bit of sticky sweetness. A polished, modern and fruity style. 89pts

2005 Martinez Lacuesta Reserva $30

Sweet, nutty and licorice-scented American oak frames the raspberry jam aromas with hints of carob and limestone adding depth. This is both powerful and polished on entry with very fine, slightly angular tannins and firm acidity supporting the blackberry, raspberry and leather flavors. The tannins become more assertive on the back end and enhance the mineral notes that lead to the wild raspberry and gently wood spiced flavors of the moderately long finish. This has a lot going for it but it lacks a bit of focus and definition on the palate. 89pts

2004 Baigorri Reserva $40

This is super aromatic with spicy, toasty French oak notes on the nose along with vanilla, sandalwood, cherry licorice and a hint of citric green anise seed. Smooth, rich and just a touch soft in the mouth, this manages to retain a certain sense of delicacy even though it is fairly opulent and rich in the mouth. The tannins and acidity are totally covered by the fruit but with time you can sense their firmness. The flavors are marked by dark and spiced oak over earthy black berry fruit. The finish is all structure at this point, with a shading of black cherry sticking to the structure. This is quite a powerful wine that shows just a hint of heat on the finish. If you like powerful wine, this might be for you. 89pts

2007 LAN Reserva $18

Licorice, root vegetables and plenty of toasty oak sweetness on the nose are joined by wild cherry, rhubarb, pencil lead and a fair veneer of spicy oak and vanilla. This is softer on the palate with round tannins in an easy drinking style. It delivers plenty of black cherry, black currant fruit, a little vein of black spice and herb. Smooth and polished, it shifts to more of a black berry flavor on the back end and long finish, with acidity and wood tannin becoming more obvious. 88pts

2008 Muga Reserva Unfiltered $25

Sweet on the nose with a really engaging blend of wood spice, herb, leather, light barnyard and fruit notes that recall candied black cherries and blackberry pie. This has really nice aromatic intensity and complexity. Smooth on entry, this shows a light edge of acidity and lightly splintery wood tannins on the tongue, but they just add a youthful impression to the fruity palate that follows the nose with flavors of blackberry and wild blackberry. The wood spice adds nice detail on the back end with a slightly chewy feel and suggestion of astringency on the moderately long finish. This shows a little brett on the nose and the finish, but it is currently well within reason. 88pts

2008 Bodegas Luis Alegre Parcela n.5 $40

Violets and purple fruit fight for attention on the nose against vanilla and creamy oak. The fruit and floral notes do seem to be winning this battle, gaining green anise seed and fennel notes with air. Very smooth and polished on entry, this is still a bit tight. Medium bodied and a bit low on the palate, the wine has a certain aromatic freshness to this that comes out with air. That freshness highlights the spicy fennel notes and taut core of transparent if dark cherry/berry fruit. Very refined. I have no experience with this producer so I am hesitant to predict where this might go, but it has excellent balance, complexity and freshness of flavor. It needs a bit more intensity, but I think that will come. A conservative bottling. 88pts

2005 Bodegas Riojanas Vina Albina Reserva $20

Earthy on the nose with low notes of leafy greens and carob under tobacco, roast beef and spicy red fruit, all topped with a light vanilla top note. A touch soft in the mouth, this spreads out across the palate like cashmere. Wonderfully ripe, lush tannins are wrapped in a nice layer of sweet blackberry and strawberry fruit. The acidity makes itself known on the back end along with a little earthy detail and well-judged but obvious nutty oak. There’s a hint of herb on the back end that adds some complexity to the finish, which really shines. Lightly leathery dried cherry fruit recedes to expose grippy tannins that offer a nice, drying contrast to the sweet lushness of the palate. This offers more of a textural experience than a flavor experience and as such should prove to be wildly successful. 87pts

2006 Valdelana Reserva $20

Fine French oak lends the nose a cognac, butterscotch and spicy oak tone over light red fruits. This is medium bodied in the mouth with sweetness on entry from the oak that is followed by nice, bright acids. A zesty edge to the fruit straddles the red, black fruit border. There’s a bit of plum skin and some blackberry fruit in a very well balanced package. This shows off firm tannins on the finish, which has decent length but does show a fair amount of lingering oak influence. 87pts

2004 Bodegas Altanza Seleccion Especial Reserva $36

This smells very oaky and charred on the nose with sour black fruit aromas and accents of green herbs, orange peel and dried pork. Taut on entry, this is very nicely put together. The wine is medium bodied with a nice, early rush of mulberry fruit that is followed by bright, juicy acidity and polished tannins. Sweet tea-inflected sour black cherry, blackberry fruit with a watermelon seed note, and some spicy oak hints on the back end pop on the finish along with the tea notes. This shows a bit of heat on the finish and while it has a great texture, it’s a little anonymous at the same time. Many people will love this modern Rioja, but I’m not sure. Tasted blind, I would say this is Rioja.  87pts

2006 Conde de Valdemar Reserva $22

Sharp wood greets the nose, which is nicely focused with small, wild strawberry fruit and a little tobacco. This is a bit high toned, lean and crisp in the mouth with a focused, elegant feel showing off fine tannins and a nice brightness. While retaining good tension in the mouth, this lacks a little follow through and drops off on the palate. Very front-loaded with somewhat tarry fruit, which is sort of a suggestion through the modest finish. 86pts

2007 Finca Nueva $24

A little tight on the nose with fine oak accents to the vanilla-, cinnamon- and pencil lead-dusted taut black fruit. Nicely focused in the mouth, this does show a fair amount of sweet, black fruit. There’s a little hollowness on the mid-palate followed by nice wood spice notes and a faint hint of herb that accents the black cherry fruit. This is lightly chewy in the mouth and the finish is fairly tannic and spicy from the wood. Ends with licorice and toast notes over a base of persistent black cherry fruit and a hint of heat on the finale. 86pts

2005 Faustino V Reserva $20

Dark and earthy on the nose with notes of caramel, tobacco, cocoa, leather and chalk over roasted fruit. Smooth on entry with acidity that is just a touch low by Rioja standards, this is smooth and silky with flavors that are a bit simple. The texture will be very appealing to a broad range of consumers as will the simple vanilla, cherry and toast flavors, but this lacks complexity and detail for me. Ends rather abruptly with a leather, almond and cherry pit finale and dry tannins. 85pts

2008 Bodegas Luis Alegre Reserva $24

This is subtle and refined on the nose, full of seedy spicy notes and wrapped in vanilla, tobacco and oak aromas over a bed of dandelion-tinged earthy black fruit. Soft and smooth on entry, this is almost tender in the mouth with a delicate feel. There’s some nice acidity here and spicy wood flavors early on. Soft tannins support black cherry and blackberry flavors on the mid-palate. It’s very easy to drink and enjoy with cherry pit flavors on the back end and through the modest finish, but this strikes me as a Rioja with training wheels. 85pts