If ever there were any doubts about the high level of quality among today's Rioja, this tasting dispelled them. Across the board, these Spanish reds were very good to excellent with a tie for first place and only two points separating first from fourth. The range of the top wines was remarkably varied, from a $10.99 2003 Crianza to a $24 1999 Reserva. Here are the panel's four favorite Rioja:

2003 Conde de Valdemar Crianza, $10.99

By definition, a Rioja Crianza must be aged a minimum of two years, one of which is in oak. The Valdemar spent nine months in stainless-steel tanks with an additional 16 months in oak. The resulting wine offers ripe cherry aromas with a light hit of raisin. Full, round fruit flavors mark the palate with a light kiss of oak and very fine tannins. This one turns a bit meaty on the lingering finish with more complexity than the typical Crianza.

2001 El Meson Reserva, $14.99

This classic Rioja Reserva comes from an exceptional vintage. Dried fruit aromas of berry and plum mix nicely with undertones of cedar and leather. The flavors coat the mouth in a medley of berry and cherry fruit with touches of anise, creamy mocha and spice. Light cedar comes through on a finish that goes on and on. This is an exceptional buy for a wine of this quality and character.

2003 Ramo Bilbao Tempranillo, Limited Edition, $20

If by limited one means just 604 barrels (about 15,000 cases), then this one qualifies. However, the rich aromas of cherry liqueur, ripe berry and dried plum with a nice hint of sandalwood certainly aren't limited. Nor are the flavors that pack a real punch with big berry and cherry fruit playing against dark chocolate. An intriguing touch of mineral adds interest on the velvety finish and helped make this one of my favorites.

1999 Solar de Randez Reserva, $24

Nice earthy fruit aromas highlight this elegantly structured wine. It's silky smooth in the mouth with notes of leather and fresh tobacco backing the still lively berry fruit flavors and shows remarkable depth while the mostly resolved tannins still come through on the finish. It's drinking beautifully now as it approaches the peak of maturity, but this wine has a lot of years left before it will begin its slow fade.

This week's panel: David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op Wine Shop; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Kyle Mahler, Bardenay; Michael Molinengo, Idaho Wine Merchant.

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