It was with real anticipation that I looked forward to my first MS wine tasting of the year. It was a full house for the event, and as customary, DB – a very knowledgeable member – supplied us with some excellent notes to presage the tasting, and added to my own slim knowledge of Rioja:
“What we think of today as traditional Rioja wine is in fact the product of a dramatic mid-19th century vinous revolution. Before then, Riojan wine was mainly a rustic version of carbonic maceration. Whole bunches were fermented in stone lagares and often foot trodden. The wine was stored in large well used wooden casks and only bottled as it was sold. It was cheap and easy to sell. In 1785/86, Manuel Quintano went to Bordeaux and learned how they did it up there. He brought some barrels back to Rioja, made his wine a la bordelaise, and put it on the market for a higher price. The uproar forced him to cease and desist. Quality winemaking was seen as a novelty and it would be 1858 before the next chap tried it again. But by then, the situation was dramatically different and massive change was underway…
In the 1860s, France was hit first by phylloxera and then by mildew imported on American rootstock designed to solve the phylloxera problem. Bordeaux growers, seeing their sources of fruit dying, travelled south looking for alternatives and rediscovered the vineyards of Rioja. Within a few years, several Riojans had been to Bordeaux and learned their ways, and several Bordelaise had settled in Rioja which together transformed the industry. As the “methode Bordelaise” took hold quality quickly improved and Rioja’s reputation grew so much that a lot of Spain joined the revolution. Grapes were fermented in large oak vats and aged in 225lt barrels. Unlike Bordeaux, however, the Riojans continued to store their wines in those same barrels until the wine was needed in the market rather than bottling them at the appropriate time in the wines’ development, and storing them in bottle in cellar. This practice led to inevitable long storage of wines in barrels, not always for the better. American wood was preferred as it imparted what many thought of as a complementary sweet vanillan touch to the robust flavours of the raw wine. A down-side of not bottling the wines until they were sold was several bottlings and much variation. “Vintage” was a concept not expressed.
While the world waited for Bordeaux to recover, they discovered this new-found substitute.
Many of today’s “old traditional” companies were established over that period. Unfotunately Phylloxera finally hit Spain in the 1890s and by 1901 most of the vineyards were dead. By then, Bordeaux was back and the French had gone home. It took a decade for Rioja to recover.
It was not until 1926 that the Consejo Regulador was established. By then, Rioja’s style had pretty well defined itself and the Consejo largely legislated this into place. The most predominant variety was Garnacha, then Tempranillo with Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano in lesser quantities. Later, Tempranillo gradually assumed the dominant position it holds today. The French had tried to introduce Bordeaux varieties but experience showed them to be less productive than native varieties and they never made the mainstream. The vineyard area was also pretty well defined although it did (rather inconveniently) cross some important political boundaries. Best vineyards were on slopes and the grapes were dry farmed. There was consensus on what an ambitious bodega needed to offer to the market: a Crianza, Reserva and a Gran Reserva although young, lighter, fruity wines for immediate drinking were still allowed.
Crianza: A minimum of two years’ageing with at least one year in oak.
Reserva: A total of three years’ ageing including at least one year in oak
Gran Reserva: At least two years in oak followed by at least three more in bottle.
In practice, many of the classic old wines received more than the minimums defined above. Some famous old Gran Reservas routinely received five to twelve years in oak. Releasing a wine as much as twenty years after its harvest was hardly rare.
These classifications clearly emphasised the ageing process but placed little constraint on such things as cepage, labelling laws, definition of “vintage”, and gradations of quality of the wine itself. However there is an implied quality measure particularly for Gran Reserva. Obviously, if you are planning on subjecting fruit to the ravages of several years in oak, it must be of the highest quality in order to integrate with the vanillan, the wood tannins, oxidation, and potential bacterial spoilage and/or brett that linger in old wood. This means a very low cropping level in order to give density and concentration, ripeness to preserve flavour, and acid to keep the wine “alive”. This was going to be costly. The fruit would be grown at uneconomic yields, capital would be tied up for several years, and the risk of spoilage somewhere along this lengthy process all meant the wine was going to be expensive when released, so in order to preserve its value, there could not be much of it available at any one time. In Spain, wine was considered a relatively cheap commodity with only a very small “fine wine “market. So, when a Gran Reserva appeared, by definition it had to be of the very best quality. That meant that serious bodegas produced Gran Reservas only in the very best years.
Unfortunately, some later-day Riojans just didn’t get this. In the 1960s and 1970s there was an explosion in plantings and new companies which lead to inevitable shortcuts. High yields, expansion into unsuitable areas, use of young vines and higher production clones, proved to be a recipe for disaster when coupled with extensive ageing in American wood. Even shorter times in oak could not help thin wine. Gran Reservas were being made almost every year and were relatively affordable. A huge amount of mediocre wine was made which came close to destroying the reputation Rioja had built since the 1860-1870 revolution.
It was the old original bodegas who performed the best during this time of mediocrity as they had never stopped making improvements when required. Contrary to some of their reputations as being the most conservative and traditional, quietly and gradually over the years they had renewed their vineyards, cleared out their cellars, educated their staff, introduced technology as appropriate and vastly improved hygiene. They introduced modern techniques to improve their wines without betraying their Riojan authenticity, and without massive sudden change. The Gran Reservas are dense yet not over-coloured, they smell of leather, oranges, autumn flowers and not coconut. They are concentrated and long and exhibit no bacterial/bretty undertones, nor reek of old wood. They are works of beauty that demonstrate the outstanding quality of their fruit and the care and attention it has received.
We will be tasting wines from several vintages: 1994, 1995, 2001, 2004, 2005. Every year, the Consejo publishes an official rating of the latest vintage. While this is hardly the most rigorous of references it is interesting to note that since 1960, the Consejo has awarded itself a rating of “Excellent” only eight times. All the vintages we shall taste are among those eight.
So to the wines:
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 2004
CVNE was founded in 1879 during the peak of the boom. The company was considered one of the more forward looking from its startling original, innovative cellars to its emphasis on bottling wines mostly for export. Still owned by its founding family, CUNE (as it was re-named for ease of reference) has always moved with the times quietly modernising the traditional. For a very long time, its top labels have been Vina Real and Imperial. (CUNE’s other company Contino has always been a separate entity). Imperial took its name from the imperial pint bottle which was used for the English market. But it has evolved to much more than that now. The vineyards, once head pruned, are now trained a la bordelaise, use of Tempranillo has markedly increased, and 30% of barrel stock is French. Once, the Gran Reserva was aged in wood for 10-12 years; nowadays, 3-4 is the norm. The 2004 we shall taste was Wine Spectator’s 2013 Wine of the Year. It is 85% Tempranillo, was grown mostly from a single vineyard near Haro in the Rioja Alta, bottled in October 2008 and released in 2012.
Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2005
Muga was founded in 1932 and has always been a classic illustration of Rioja’s relationship with oak. Muga has spent a huge amount of time and effort over many decades in pursuit of the right mix for each wine, and do all their own cooperage (which is a huge enterprise in its own right).
They use three different types of French oak as well as American, Hungarian and Russian. I have read one report which claims there is no stainless steel at Muga at all. While Muga has long been considered one of the more traditional bodegas, they have in fact been among the leaders in searching for more modern expressions of the classical styles. These have been very successful for them but they maintain that the very classical Prado Enea Gran Reserva is their flagship. The wine is 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. It was fermented with natural yeasts in large oak vats, aged for one year in 16,000lt casks, then three years in barrel, egg white fined, bottled then held back for a further three years before release.
La Rioja Alta
In the boom years, many French investors built wineries in Haro. Albert Vignier was one of them. In 1890 he sold to a group of five Spanish families who began making wines in the Bordeaux style. A year later, they changed the company’s name to La Rioja Alta. In 1904, they substantially expanded their holdings. Today, while a publicly traded company, the fifth generation of those families is fully engaged. The company enjoys a reputation of one of the very few who fastidiously pursue “traditional” Rioja but there have been several updates over the years and experimentation is ongoing. In 2012, the company Chair acknowledged that pure tradition had become a trap “I think that 20 years ago our wines were too evolved, too mature when they were released. Now we are trying to avoid that.” In 1995, they returned to the practice of building their own barrels. All wood comes from the US. Later, they retired their very old wooden fermenters and introduced stainless steel. While most of La Rioja Alta’s wines are named after the original five families’ vineyards, (Arana, Ardanza etc) the Grand Reservas are named 890 and 904 being shortened expressions of what they believe were the two most critical years in their history, 1890 and 1904. These are the two La Rioja Alta wines we will taste:
Gran Reserva 904 2001 90% Tempranillo 10% Graciano. Four years in four year old US oak, bottled June 2006, released 2012.
Gran Reserva 890 2001 95% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano, 2% Mazuelo. Six years in 20% new, 80% four year old US wood. Bottled March 2008, released 2014.
Both wines draw their fruit from the same vineyards with minor differences in selection. The 890 is considered to be their flagship and only appears 3-4 times a decade on average.
Lopez de Heredia
Founded in 1877 and still owned by the same family. Widely thought of today as the most traditional bodega of all but in the beginning, Don Rafael Lopez was very modern–almost radical-as he resolutely set out to create a Bordeaux chateau in Rioja. He put in an enormous amount of energy in establishing the cellars and vineyards needed to achieve his vision. Having thus set their course, the family has fastidiously kept to it “not deviating an inch from these ways” but always with a long term attitude of gradual, incremental improvement.
The early focus was on the vineyards and their replanting after phylloxera. Some of these went on to become some of Spain’s most revered sites. Tondonia, for example, on the south bank of the Ebro river, became so famous that for decades the word Tondonia formed part of the company’s name. Other sites such as Bosconia, Cubillo, Zaconia and Gravonia had lesser but just as intense followings. From this focus on site arose the policy of producing single vineyard wines which, to this day, aim to replicate the style of the site while suppressing “vintage irregularities”. For decades, no vintage information was given on the label although the duration of ageing quite often was, for example “ano”. Today, vintages are displayed but are not emphasised; “we produce Tondonia – not Tondonia 2000 or Tondonia 2001.”
Of course, as wine laws have evolved Heredia’s ability to “correct” their wines each year to produce the desired style and suppress the effects of vintage, are much reduced. They would say, however, that as the sites have matured, and been managed by the same custodians the same way for so long, radical intervention is never needed. Some reviewers disagree explain that differences become quite clear the longer you age your bottles.
We will be tasting their top two wines:
Tondonia Gran Reserva 1994 – Tondonia was and still is the flagship wine, made in a Bordeaux style and presented in a Bordeaux bottle. 75% Tempranillo 15% Garnacha 5% Graciano 5% Mazuelo. Gobelet trained. 10 years in barrel, released in 2010. 18,000 bottles made. The current release is the 1995.
Bosconia Gran Reserva 1995 – Once, Bosconia included some Pinot Noir and was a softer style, and was thus and still is released in a Burgundy bottle. Today, more Tempranillo is used and Bosconia is sometimes thought to be the stronger of the two. 80% Tempranillo 15% Garnacha, the rest Graciano and Mazuelo. Gobelet trained . 10 years in barrel, ten years in bottle. 8,500 bottles made. This is the current release.
So there you are. This is a stunning set of one of the world’s most unique wine styles. While they may look conservative alongside some of the Riojas the Magnum Society has enjoyed in recent years, just remember that these wines were actually born out of revolution. They were very radical once; now they are “century-old modern.”.
…Then on to the tasting itself, with all the wines customarily served blind:
Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva 1994 – This wine presented tawny crimson red. Delicate, raisin-y and savoury and meaty bouquet. Lovely.Fresh and bracing, lean yet sweet, sweet with food, long, some heat on the finish, fruit falling away. Ready to drink now. I scored this Silver.
Side Note: A few years back I managed to secure a dinner reservation for two at Ferran Adria’s restaurant el bulli. Unfortunately, before we could get to Spain to experience his cuisine, my wife announced that she wanted us to separate. We therefore cancelled all the flights flights, holiday bookings etc, and I gifted my ‘like-gold-dust’ reservation to a work colleague who was travelling to Spain around that time, who in turn gifted me a bottle of Tondonia GR 1995 when he returned. Like the meal I missed out on, the wine was very nice.
Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia Gran Reserva 1995 – This wine presented tawny red. Angular, earthy and lightly scented nose, with mushrooms, cardboard box, and emergent sweetness. Fresh again on the palate, with bracing bright acid and fruit intensity. Sweet. Harmonious texture and flavour. A very nice wine. I scored this Gold.
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 2001 – Dark plummy red. This quickly became my favourity. Very arresting on the nose. Sweet ripe fruit, vanilla, and orange peel. Yum. Sweet on entry, and delicious to taste. Mouthwatering, crunchy, salty and long, long. Some way off being ‘joined-up’ but showing huge promise for future development. I scored this Gold and my WOTN.
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2001 – Dark red, tending brick. Sweet, powerful and dense ripe fruit and cassis characters on the nose. Broody, and with thickness. Intense sweet fruit flavours, with vanilla and fresh acidity. Delicious and balanced.Unfolding fruit and flavour. Improved with food. Heaps of length. I scored this Gold.
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 – Bright dark plum. Bright and rich fruit aroma. Soapy and spicy, a bit repressed and broody. Deep and smooth rich fruit to drink. Big and soft, with great fruit weight. Significant tannins, creamy, with bitter chocolate. Mouthfilling and integrated. I got better in the glass as the evening progressed. I scored this Gold, and this wine was second top score across the attendees.
Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2005 – Deep dark plum. A gorgeous nose – complete, rich, broody, sweetly fruited, with cloves and spice. To taste, I saw an intense, powerful wine with heaps of flavour. Big plum flavours, impressive, with a strong line of acidity. Youthful, supple and lip-smaking. Long. I scored this Gold, and this wine was second top score across the attendees.
This was another hugely successful, enjoyable and educational tasting for me. In summary, these wines could be described as ‘monsters’. DB was of the opinion that only the two Lopez de Heredia wines were anywhere near ready to drink, and all the others had at least five more years in front of them before they would start showing the character that graces good Gran Riservas. I saw strong acidity and freshness across the flight, and wonderful purity of fruit intensity and flavour. Effortless wines.
I didn’t finish my glasses, so I sealed them with cling film, and took them home to have another look. Just delicious they were. Flavoursome and long. If this is what GRs are all about, then count me in for more. With power and fruit and aroma, they kick it in so many ways. Very, very fine wines, these Riojas!
Side Note: On the strength of this tasting, I took along a bottle of Muga Prado Enea Gran Riserva 2006 with me to share over a pot luck dinner with friends and fellow cyclists competing in the just-completed Kaikoura 170km Coastal Classic cycle event. While not ready, we all enjoyed the quality and special character of this great and delicious wine.