In Search of Greatness: An Old Rioja Tasting

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Long ageability is a necessary condition for greatness in wine. A defensible proposition, but is it enough for a wine to taste good when old or does time only manifest as beauty when that age reveals more than what came before. Seeking great old wine is a challenging and expensive passion. It is easy to be seduced by age only to find a wine tired, unexciting or off kilter in some way or another. Such meandering is also more often than not a melancholic journey of seeking to recreate one uplifting and elusive moment. Romanticism and nostalgia are not always kind.

Yet, the passionate (and fortunate) keep uncovering rocks in search of a rare vinous chrysalis. This is all the more challenging in B.C.’s market where auctions are illegal and it is near impossible to buy old wine from a retailer or importer. It is also challenging if you don’t have the cash to lay down on serious bottles of Barolo, Hermitage, Bordeaux or Burgundy. How can an ordinary person ever get to experience truly great old wine with such barriers?

Sometimes it is the raggedy but dogged regions and producers that go perennially unnoticed that offer the answer to such dilemmas. At a recent tasting of old Rioja hosted by Rasoul a few wine geeks and professionals set out to discover whether this is indeed the case.

Our group tasted through a range of wines between 10-35 years old from a variety of producers (though the arch-traditionalist Lopez de Heredia made more than one appearance), and in the process made some surprising discoveries. We also debated the importance of terroir to wine and to Rioja in particular, and the challenges of selling whacky and off the beaten track wines to consumers.

Rioja Geography

Rioja spans a considerable divide of climates and geographies, ranging from the very cool regions in the northwest (Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa) where grapes struggle to ripen to the eastern portion of the valley (Rioja Baja), in which ripening is rarely a problem due to its far warmer climate (as moderated by the Mediterranean). Historically, Rioja Alta has held more prestige and as such has a higher density of plantings. This also means that Rioja Alta is home to many of the traditional bodegas in Rioja, including Marques de Murrieta, Cune, Muga, and Lopez de Heredia. The soils in Rioja are predominantly limestone and clay.

Grapes are important in this part of Spain. Tempranillo for reds and Malvasia and Viura for whites are all resistant to oxidation, which makes them an ideal base for the traditional long ageing in old oak barrels. Tempranillo is a plush and easy drinking grape with low tannins and approachable fruit. This is a grape with similar appeal to Pinot Noir in many ways and in good wines can be downright sexy. Complimentary varieties include Mazuelo (Carignan) for colour and acid, Garnacha for roundness and Graciano (acid, aroma and spice).

Style or Site

Rioja started, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, as a reject (substitute) of Bordeaux. As phylloxera devastated the Bordeaux Vineyards in the 19th century, many winemakers moved to Spain, where the louse had yet to reach, to make wine. They brought with them classic Bordeaux techniques such as barrel aging, which in Spain adopted in its own way when the unique character of American Oak rather then French Oak ultimately became the wood of choice.

Rioja is also a paradox in terms of aged wines. Wines pre-dating the 1970’s were likely made in a more quick drinking fruity style. In the 1970’s and after the style changed to more age worthy wines as bodegas took control over production from the growers who supplied the grapes. The top wineries also changed technique, moving from quick fermentations to extended fermentations seeking to extract flavour and tannin from the traditional Tempranillo.

Since the 1970’s Rioja has taken a decidedly modernist path. Producers are increasingly converting to French oak and greater extraction. This means that traditional Rioja is losing its place. If you consider that much of traditional Rioja was simplistically delicious but never great this is not a surprising turn of events. However, the best traditional Riojas were exceptional offerings and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find this style expressed to its fullest.

All this is preview to our debate about style versus site in Rioja. It is rare to find single vineyard wines here. The tradition had always been for the big houses to buy grapes from growers and blend them into the particular style of wine they wanted to express. I know from personal experience that Maria Lopez de Heredia has a philosophy of house style that she thinks predominates over any particular terroir. That said, there are a few single vineyard wines being made in Rioja. The question is, is this the path to go?

Our tasting group debated whether terroir was really the point in Rioja, or even for the majority of wines in the world. Terry Threlfall from Hawksworth argued that only really Burgundy offered an authentic experience of terroir. I countered with Cote-Rotie as an example, but I do think Terry’s point is well taken. There are few regions in the world where terroir truly expresses itself. In many cases, what is more interesting is whether the wine is good, unique and expressive.

In Rioja, the debate is much more between oak and grape. How much oak is appropriate? French or American? For ages American Oak has been the signature of Rioja and the vanillan flavours of that oak have become a signature for the region. What was amazing, however, is that in the best wines this oak influence ultimately integrates with the fruit if you have the patience to wait for 30 years before drinking. When you taste a wine that has finally shed its makeup and become, even if for a brief moment, the sexy beautiful self it was destined to be, well then you start to understand Rioja.

Expanding the Novice Palate…

Of course, as the wine flowed and discussion grew, I had to raise a few contentious questions, one of which was how Sommeliers in this city approach selling great but geeky wine to average customers at their restaurants. This fascinating discussion moved from Jake’s recounting of an experience with giving Pinot Lovers the natural wine producer COS to drink with stunning results and shocked faces to Terry’s experiences dialing things back with certain customers and understanding their palates.

The consensus seemed to be that selling challenging wines like old Rioja was all about reading your customer and providing an experience that both appeases their expectations but also challenges them in the right ways. That said, old Rioja might not be for everyone, but if you are adventurous and looking for something exciting (at a reasonable price I might add), then these wines should very much be on your radar.

The Wines

Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva 1991 Blanco: Sweetish, almond, vanilla and slightly oxidative. This is a briney wine but is also very rich and oaky on the Palate. Rasoul commented that if it weren’t for the brine he would never have pegged this as Rioja. I loved how this was a lot less old school than expected and how it retained awesome youtfulness and, ultimately, extreme delicousness. Excellent.

Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva 81 Blanco: Nuts, nuts and more. Like an Italian hazlenut pudding this is ridiculously delicious wine, and shockingly defies its age and its oxidation. Expose wine to experience and challenge when young and it seems they grow old with grace and fortiude. Absolute brilliance. Excellent to Excellent+.

Marques de Murrieta Gran Reserva Especial Castillo d’Ygay 2001: This wine surprised me. One of my two contributions, I expected it to be far more elegant and expressive but I think it was in an awkward stage of its development. This was a little stewy and definitely had volatile acidity. That said, it was clear to me at least that this would develop into an outstanding wine. In our group I noted that there had been some debate about this wine with some World of Fine Wine reviewers giving it very poor scores but some other critics, such as the Wine Doctor, saying that this wine simply does not come into its own until 20 years after harvest. I only wish I had one more bottle to test it out. Brought back from my trip to Spain last year. Very Good.

Casa Ferrerhina Reserva Especial 2001: My attempt at fooling the group, this Portuguese blend (including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinto Roriz (Tempranillo)) was easily detectable as not Rioja. That said, this is from a very traditional producer and is the second wine to the famous Barca Vehla (a property that was ultimately sold by the family and as such is no longer available). I thought this was classically Portuguese. Lots of acid, but big rich fruit (which would likely mellow with time) that had a uniqueness unlike many wines from the region. I still think it needs more time to integrate, but it was fun to taste. Very Good+.

Vina Real Cosecha 1976: Hands down the wine of the tasting. Herbs and flowers became lush seductive fruit not unlike a top of the line Pinot Noir. This was in a very good place and was the first bottle to go (never surprising). Terry called this “graceful” and I would wholeheartedly agree. Excellent+. (Rasoul’s contribution)

Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia Cosecha 1991: Jake’s wine. Smelled like carrots and parsnips fresh out of the garden, but in a glorious way. Dirt, high acid but also clean, chalky and leafy but calmer and more intellectual than the 76 Real. I thought this was fantastic wine. Excellent.

Finca Valpiedra Reserva 1997: This, with the next wine, is a perfect example of how cheapish Rioja (around $30 at purchase) can become compelling with age, and all without laying out a serious amount of money. A littel poopy to begin, this ultimately become plum fruit, plush and with a medium bodied finish. The spicyness came out with air and I actually think this will improve with time. Very Good+.

Remirez de Ganuza Reserva 1996: This was like drinking baby Bordeaux. While quite bretty upon first opening, this blew off and the wine became structured. I ultimately rated this as Good to Very Good. But there were quite a few tasters who though this wine had serious complexity and I think that is a fair comment.

Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Gran Reserva 1981: Yet another Grand cru from Lopez de Heredia. This shone with a pretty and fruity nose and an easy silky palate. The tannins and acid still predominated somewhat and I think this was perhaps opened not at its ideal point. Nonetheless, clearly an excellent wine. Very Good+.

Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Cosecha 1976: Basically the second most exciting wine of the tasting, this was elegant and silky and complete. Great length and prettiness. Something worth contemplated over a very long evening. Excellent.

Conclusion

Rioja, the scrappy underdog, has shown itself to be worth watching. While a few at the tasting were skeptical of how well these wines would show, it was clear that it is not only possible to find ageability and quality in Rioja but also greatness. Yes, the best of these wines can be truly great, much like Burgundy or Piedmont. That not too many take Rioja seriously, well that’s all the more reason to buy these at the exceptionally fair prices for which they currently retail. What a great tasting.

Posted in: Features, Tastings

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