Parallel Paths: The Classic Reds of La Rioja Alta

Parallel Paths: The Classic Reds of La Rioja Alta

Posted on Jul, 31. 2012 by

Categories: Wine

As Spain has gone from “big wine drinker but not big wine exporter” to “one of the hottest wine producers on the international market” in the past 15 years or so, it’s been fascinating to watch the stylistic evolution of various subregions and producers. Some producers have fully embraced the broad-stroke “international palate” of drink-now unctuousness and accessibility, while a select few have remained steadfast in the ways of old (growing traditional wines that reflect both generations of hands worked to the bone and the unique terroir of their homeland). As you might expect, we seek out the latter whenever possible.

Rioja is perhaps the most well-known red producer of Spain to outsiders, and with good reason: it often produces wines of power, stoicism and brooding depth. What most don’t know is that there are several regions within ‘La Rioja’, producing rather unique styles of wine. Rioja Baja has a very Mediterranean climate and produces perhaps the most familiar Riojas: jammy, rich reds with low acidity and a big punch. The other two subregions, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, do not see the kind of ripeness of Baja, and thus typically produce wines with much more expressiveness, balance and classicity.

La Rioja Alta (taking its name from its subregion) is the old guard, a house in production since 1890, farming some of the most hallowed ground in one of the oldest recognized wine-producing regions in the world. This is not a position to be taken lightly.  In fact, it appears to be the basic framework of their decision-making.  The longevity of the house and traditional style of the wines is a welcome reminder of good stewardship — a thing done well and carefully tended, to be handed down through the generations. With this very long view, and the massive storage cellar it requires, there is no pressure to create wines to be sold immediately after bottling.  After all, when you’ve been making wine for 120 hundred years, something in the cellar will always be drinking well, which means in the most basic sense, you can always play for time, allowing barrel and bottle age to reveal the true character of the wine.

This is rare, and to be celebrated – this is La Rioja Alta.

We tasted three of their current releases, side by side, and were astounded that these wines are not only available to us with such provenance and age, but also at prices that defy all known convention. These are three brothers, of different eras but aging side by side, and their parallel paths are compelling to drink in – coming from the same estate, the same basic styles of winemaking, but from different sites, different growing seasons, and different blending choices. You owe it to yourself to get at least one of each of these:

  • 2005 Rioja Vina Alberdi [$16.83-Grand Cru,  $17.63-Premier Cru] – the house’s basic rendition of Tempranillo from Rioja:  robust, still muscular, balancing a very Old World style with vibrant fruit and the youthful edges of American oak.  There’s an electricity to it, as it shows off its youth, without being nervy or anxious.  Just more energy than one would expect, crafted in an expert manner.  This wine takes me back to a long sliver of a bar in 1990s New York called ‘Enya’ where on Tuesday nights, traditional Spanish Flamenco dancers stomped and clapped amongst the tightly packed bohemian crowd, mesmerized by guitar and long skirts and boot heels — the whole affair coming to crescendo in one sudden unforgettable flourish of jet black hair and red carnations.

Dark red. Redcurrant, dried cherry and vanillin oak on the nose, with a smoky mineral quality in the background. Lively red fruit and rose pastille flavors are complemented by sweet vanilla bean and cola nuances. The oakiness fades away on the long finish, which is juicy, expansive and seamless. This wine’s lively acidity makes it refreshing and easy to drink now, but it really deserves patience.” 90 points Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar 

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  • 2001 Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva Especial – “Reserva Especial” and “Gran Reserva” are, like vintage Porto or Champagne, relatively rare designations in Rioja – even more so at the hands of La Rioja Alta. To wit: the 2001 Reserva Especial is only the third time, ever, that the house has issued this crowning label; the last time this wine was made was in 1973! Suffice it to say that you’re getting something very special here. Tempranillo and Garnacha aged in what is perceptibly slightly finer American oak.  Gorgeous fruit on the nose, tempered nicely by vanilla and baking spices, with a dark, brooding palate of berries, chocolates and peppered spice.  Eleven years after vintage, still young, still showing the tannic structure and bite that belies its long future development.  There is unreal depth after it has time to breath, showing off a brightness and brooding darkness at the same time. Full-bodied in the same way Ali was a heavyweight; a showoff, but never without the pedigree to back it all up. You really must drink some of this to understand what genius this estate (and region) is capable of.

“The current release is the 2001 Reserva Especial, a deeply colored wine with a lovely perfume of cinnamon, lavender, incense, balsamic, and black cherry. Medium-bodied, velvety-textured, and already complex, it will continue to evolve for another 5-10 years and offer a drinking window extending from 2016 to 2036. For those seeking immediate gratification, it has the virtue of being approachable now.” The Wine Advocate, 94 Points 

“Deep red. Sexy, intensely perfumed bouquet of ripe raspberry and cherry with suggestions of potpourri, sandalwood and vanilla. Shows more power and darker fruits on the palate, picking up a touch of singed plum that adds a serious quality to the sweet black raspberry and cherry flavors without costing the wine any of its vibrancy. The long, sweet finish hangs on with very good tenacity.” Stephen Tanzer, 92 Points

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  • 1998 Rioja Gran Reserva 904 [39.59-Grand Cru,  $41.39-Premier Cru] – Simply having a wine with this kind of (graceful) age available to us 14 years later, I consider to be a privilege. Soft, subtle and with an understated elegance;  clearly at peak and showing a beautiful, dense tapestry of secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors melding seamlessly with acids and tannin.  Fascinatingly light-bodied and elegant, with a touch of raisiny sap, and brickish signs of pristine age.  The wine oozes old-world ruggedness, red rocks and hot sun and sparse underbrush, all background players to the gnarly old Tempranillo vines just effortlessly doing what they were meant to do.  I would imagine that this wine flows when a prized daughter of La Rioja Alta marries well.

“Beautiful cigar box, orange peel, clove and rose aromas draw you into this mature, supple red, which shows pronounced acidity and dried citrus, tobacco and spice flavors. A bit lean, a reflection of the vintage, but a lovely example of the traditional style. Drink now.” Wine Spectator, 90 Points

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