I’ve written here a number of times about the unique beauty and mature flavors of aged wines. Once they have a few decades on them, older Bordeaux, California Cabernets from the ‘50s to early ‘80s, old traditional Barolos, mature Burgundies and Rhones, if they have structure and good acidity, basically converge into very similar, aged delights. They put on complex, mature flavors of cigar box, tobacco, leather and truffle. Their acidity allows them to remain lively on the palate while their tannic structure—once very firm and now resolved into something rounded and elegant–makes their taste linger a long time. It took just a few experiences with wines like these to totally hook me on the world of fine wine.
Unfortunately, another thing older vintages of wines like these have in common are incredibly high prices. Those of us who weren’t provident enough to be buying and laying them down in our cellars a few decades back are looking at having to pay hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars for the privilege of tasting them now. That’s because some of these wines, especially in Burgundy and Barolo, were made in very small quantities to begin with, and they are now sought after by increasing numbers of fine wine consumers worldwide, including China’s burgeoning new market.
There is, however, one last value area remaining for those of us looking for our aged red wine fix without having to pay exorbitant prices. A region that has long made high quality, ageworthy wines that, with a few decades on them, are very reminiscent of fine old Barolos and Bordeaux is Rioja—Spain’s illustrious red wine producing region.
Older vintages of Rioja are, unfortunately, fairly scarce in the U.S. When they can be found, however, they tend to still be quite reasonable in price compared to other traditional style wines of a similar era, like Burgundies and Barolo. And if Mannie Berk’s Rare Wine Co. has anything to do with it, these wines are likely to become a little more accessible in the U.S.
Last week I attended the third of three terrific dinners devoted to older Riojas from traditional producers organized over the past year by Rare Wine Co. in San Francisco. We convened at Piperade, a Basque restaurant which has terrific food and great wine service. Unlike the last two dinners, though, which Mannie put together with single bottles he’d collected here and there over several years, this one featured wines he’d been able to buy by the multiple caseload from a couple of restaurants in Spain on recent trips there. As a result, Rare Wine Co. will shortly have some of these wines available to buy, at remarkably low prices—i.e., mostly from $40 to $95.
These wines are very representative of the best of traditional Rioja. They are all from longtime producers who were making traditional style Rioja at least through the 1970s—with long macerations and fermentations in neutral oak, and then long aging in American oak barrels plus additional bottle aging before release. All the producers represented are still in existence, but while some, like La Rioja Alta and Bilbainas, remain focused on making traditional style wines, others have switched in recent decades to more modern-style wines, with less barrel aging.
Most of the wines were Reservas—wines that were typically the flagship wines from that producer—and some were Gran Reservas, from particularly good vintages and aged even longer than the Reservas. They also came from years that, except for one, had been designated as either very good or excellent by Rioja’s regulatory body, the Consejo Regulador de Rioja. Our oldest wines were from 1950, while the youngest came from the two best vintages of the ‘90s—1994 and 1995. The wines had also been stored properly, at cold temperatures and with proper humidity, by the sources from which Mannie obtained them.
The quality of this spectrum of mature and maturing traditional Rioja was pretty spectacular. None of the wines were faulty and all showed great complexity, on the nose and palate, with plenty of acidity and structure to enable them to continue aging for decades more.
Tempranillo–the great black grape which is usually blended with small amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan) and/or Graciano in traditional Riojas—can age at a ridiculously slow pace. It’s therefore the ideal grape for wines like these that were made to set aside for decades to develop that marvelous patina of aged flavors that great red wines are capable of.
My very favorite wines of the tasting came from three traditional producers who have continued to produce traditional style wines: Bodegas Bilbainas, Bodegas Riojanas and Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España—abbreviated to CVNE, but known simply as Cune by most Rioja lovers.
Five great traditional style Riojas from 1994
There are about a dozen wineries in Rioja that can trace their origins back to the mid- to late-1800s, when French wine producers came to the region in search of wines to meet customer demands when their own stocks were depleted by the scourge of phylloxera. Bodegas Bilbainas is one of the oldest, having been established in 1859 by the French company Savignon Frères et Cie. After phylloxera was controlled in France by the grafting of vitis vinifera wine grapes onto phylloxera-resistant American hybrid rootstock, the French company sold to a group of businessmen from Bilbao in 1901. Their wines were terrific through the 1960s, but fell greatly in quality in the mid-‘70s and ‘80s. In the early 1990s, a neighboring company tried to buy them, which led the owners to hire renowned winemaker José Hidalgo to greatly improve the quality of their wines. The investment required to upgrade the vineyards and facilities proved costly, however, leading the owners to sell to the Cordoníu Group in 1997.
The winery’s great vineyard is Viña Pomal. Viña Zaco was another traditional label of theirs which has been changed in recent years to an international style wine. We had very good samples of each of these two wines—a 1955 Viña Pomal Reserva Especial and a Viña Zaco from the year widely considered to have been Rioja’s “vintage of the century”—1964. The latter was particularly glorious, with rich, dried berry, black fruit, licorice and spice flavors. It should go another couple decades at least.
Like many traditional Rioja producers, Bilbainas has typically produced not one but two top wines—one that is more powerful and hearty in style, and one that is more elegant, delicate and, for lack of a better word “Burgundian” in character. Confusingly, most traditional producers tend to bottle their bigger, more powerful wine in a Burgundy style bottle, with sloping shoulders, and their more Burgundian style wine in the square shoulder bottle typical of Bordeaux. For Bilbainas, the more robust wine was the Viña Pomal, in a Burgundy style bottle. The Viña Zaco, the more delicate wine of the two, got the Bordeaux packaging.
Bodegas Riojanas was founded in 1890 and the descendants of its founders, the Artacho and Frias families, have remained in charge despite complex transactions over the years that included a sale and repurchase from a bank. They ultimately turned it into a publicly traded company on the Madrid stock exchange in 1997. This winery currently controls over 740 acres, most of which is planted to Tempranillo, but with a larger proportion devoted to Graciano and Mazuelo than most other Rioja producers.
The Monte Real is Bilbainas’s classic, beefy Rioja, exclusively made from Tempranillo from their Cenicero Vineyard. It comes in a Burgundy style bottle, naturally. Their more delicate wine is the Viña Albina, sourced from limestone vineyards, and seeing less skin maceration than the Monte Real. It comes in a Bordeaux style bottle. Our samples of these were from 1987, a very good vintage, and both were showing characteristic tobacco, cedar, baked plum and cigar box flavors. The Viña Albina had a slight edge for me, owing to its elegance and ethereal nose, but both should go for decades yet to come. Rare Wine Co. has the Viña Albina priced at $40 and the Monte Real for $47.50.-
Cune was founded in 1879 and is currently run by descendants of its founding family, Victor and María Urrutia. The family owns 590 acres of vineyards, but also buys grapes for some of its production. One of their very top bottlings since the 1920s is the Imperial, and we had three brilliant examples of this wine in our tasting: the 1991 Imperial Reserva, the 1994 Imperial Gran Reserva and the 1995 Imperial Reserva. This wine is based on two-thirds grapes from Rioja’s Alta region—the coldest of Rioja’s three regions, and the one from which its highest acid and most ageworthy grapes tend to come—and one-third from the Alavesa region. Dating back to the early ‘90s at least, this wine has consisted of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graziano and 5% Mazuelo. All three of our samples of this wine were complex, delicious and reminiscent of similarly ageworthy traditional Barolos. All three should continue to age beautifully for at least a few decades yet. And Rare Wine Co. will be offering them for $40 to $55, depending on the vintage—i.e., little more than current vintages of these wines are going for.
The greatest wine of all in the tasting for me was another Cune bottling, the 1950 Viña Real Reserva Especial. It was complex and hedonistic, with flavors that included dried berry, licorice, cigar box and dried cherry, and a remarkably long finish. This bottling is the reverse of the Imperial, using one-third Rioja Alta grapes and two-thirds from the Alavesa region. It is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo, and it tends to be more powerful and higher in alcohol than the Imperial. Following the traditional pattern, the Viña Real, which is typically capable of aging even longer than the Imperial, comes in the Burgundy style bottle while the Imperial gets the Bordeaux shaped packaging.
Even though 1950 was not a top year according to the Consejo, Cune, which has its own quality rating for each of its vintages, felt that the grapes going into this bottling were deserving of an “Especial” label, which is reserved for particularly good grapes from especially good vintages.
For my complete tasting notes on the 18 wines we tasted over dinner, and more background on the other traditional producers represented in the tasting, see below.
Representing the excellent 1995 vintage, we had a Cune Imperial Reserva and a Vina Ardanza Reserva from La Rioja Alta.
La Rioja Alta is one of Rioja’s most traditional wineries still remaining, and I got to visit them on my Rioja trip this past June. It was founded by five wine growing families in 1890. They have other stockholders today, but the five original families remain in control. They believe in American oak, and import the wood from the U.S. and dry it and make their own barrels. The Vina Ardanza bottling, which is named for one of the winery’s founding families and which comes in a Burgundy shaped bottle, was created in 1942 and originally aged in oak 42 months, though this has now been cut to 36 months. It contains 20% Garnacha.
- 1995 La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Ardanza Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium red violet color; lovely, tart cherry, cedar, cigar box, dried cherry nose; tasty, youthful, elegant, classic, tart cranberry, tart cherry, cedar palate with medium acidity; good now and should go 15-20 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1995 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Imperial Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Dark red violet color; maturing, cedar, tea, dried cherry, tart strawberry nose; tasty, youthful, tart cherry, tart red fruit palate with medium acidity; needs 2 more years and should go 25 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
1994 was a particularly good vintage, so it was wonderful to have five examples from that year. Besides the Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real and one of our Cune Imperials, the flight included another La Rioja Alta bottling, the 904, and wines from Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta.
The 904 was originally called 1904, which was a great vintage and also the date La Rioja Alta merged with the winery of one of its founding families, Bodega Ardanza. They had to drop the “1” from 1904 after stricter labeling requirements regarding the identification of vintages went into effect. It is typically 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano. It is aged four years in barrel and thought to be the longest-lived wine they make. They also make a Gran Reserva 890 (started with the 1890 vintage, of course) which is their top of the line, made in exceptional vintages.
Marqués de Murrieta is the oldest Rioja producer of all. Luciano Murrieta founded the winery in 1852, while still engaged in a military career. He was part of a wealthy Spanish-Bolivian family. He got left behind in his native Peru when his parents fled the country after Simon Bolívar’s victory there. At age two, he was sent to live in London. During his military career, he spent time in exile again in London, and also made long trips to Bordeaux to learn about winemaking there. In the 1870s, King Amadeo I granted him the title of Marquis of Murrieta and he purchased the Finca Ygay, which had first been planted in 1825.
When the phylloxera crisis hit France, he was in a position to capitalize on the shortage of French wine. Since he had no children, the company passed on his death to another branch of the family. After some years of decline, the company was bought by another aristocrat, Vicente Cebrián-Sagarriga, Conde de Creixell, in 1983. The member of the family in charge of the company since 1996 has been Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga. The winemaker since 2000 is María Vargas.
Unlike most of the other great Rioja producers, they only use estate-grown grapes, from their 750-acre Finca Ygay. According to The Finest Wines of Rioja, this vineyard, whose sites vary, generally has “warm, alluvial, sedimentary soils with excellent draining capacity” yielding grapes “rich in coloring matter and sugar, which accounts for the traditional Murrieta character: fat, highly pigmented and slightly higher in alcohol.” Also unlike some of the other great Rioja producers, Murrieta generally made only one top wine, the Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial. It’s made only with Tempranillo and Mazuelo, from old vines in the steepest portions of Finca Ygay. I’ve had several vintages of this going back to the late 1940s, and it ages at a glacial pace, still showing a remarkable amount of fruit, suggesting cherry and raspberry liqueur, decades after the vintage.
Marqués de Riscal was founded in 1858 in Elciego by Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga. They own 500 hectares of vines and control another 985 hectares. They have a collection of bottles in what’s called the Cathedral that includes every vintage going back to 1862.
- 1994 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Medium red violet color; maturing, mushroom, dill, savory, dried cherry nose; tasty, silky textured, maturing, tart black fruit with subtle spices, dried berry, orange spice, oak spice palate with medium acidity; should go 25+ years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1994 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color; spicy, cherry, dried cherry, plum nose; maturing, tart cherry, tart red fruit, hibiscus palate with medium acidity; should go 25+ years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 1994 Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Reserva Ygay – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color; maturing, dried cherry, floral, raspberry, black raspberry dill, vanilla oak nose; tasty, rich fruit, tart cherry, tart raspberry, strawberry puree, dill palate with less acidity than other traditional Riojas; should go 30 years; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1994 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904 – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium red violet color; maturing, tobacco, cigar box, licorice nose; tasty, maturing, cigar box, tobacco, dried cherry, sandalwood palate with firm, sweet tannins; should go 15+ year; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)
- 1994 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking dark ruby color; appealing, lifted, cedar, dried cherry, floral, black raspberry nose; tasty, rich, youthful, cherry, tart black raspberry palate with firm, sweet tannins; should go 40 years; long finish (94 pts.)
- 1991 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricking medium dark red violet color; mature, cigar box, spice, cedar, baked plum, anise nose; tasty, maturing, spicy, dried berry, baked plum, dried orange palate with firm tannins and medium acidity; should go 30+ years; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1991 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Imperial Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium dark red violet color; mature, lovely, Barolo-like, dried berry, dried cherry, spice box nose; tasty, maturing, delicate, dried cherry, dried berry, strawberry, delightfully spicy palate with medium acidity; should go 30+ years; long finish (94 pts.)
- 1987 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium red violet color with pale meniscus; mature, elegant, mushroom, tobacco, baked plum, ethereal nose; tasty, youthful yet, baked plum, fig, cedar, cigar box palate with medium acidity; should go 30 years; long finish (95 pts.)
- 1987 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium red violet color; tart plum, cedar, light tobacco nose; tasty, poised, cigar box, light tobacco, cedar, dried cherry, tart plum, spice palate; should go 25 years; medium-plus finish (94 pts.)
- 1982 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Viña Real Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color; mature, earthy, tobacco, mushroom nose; mature, cigar box, black tobacco, cedar palate; should go 10+ years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
Federico Paternina is now under co-ownership with Franco-Espanolas, one of my favorite traditional houses. They were founded in 1896. In 1922 Paternina took over the bodegas of the Catholic Farming Syndicate Co-operative in Haro. In 1984, the company was taken over by Riojan entrepreneur Marcos Eguizábal Ramírez. In extensive caves in Ollaluri, they have some wonderful old stocks of wine. Unlike some older houses, they are very much keeping to traditional styles. The winemaker since 1988, Carlos Estecha, whom I met in Rioja, is very much a traditionalist.
- 1970 Federico Paternina Rioja vina vial – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricked medium red violet color; appealing, mature, cigar box, tart plum, dried fig nose; mature, cigar box, dried fig, anise palate; should go 10+ years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
Gomez Cruzada was founded in 1886 by the Duke of Moctezuma. The winery was acquired in 1916 by D. Ángel and D. Jesús Gómez Cruzado. The Honorable, their traditional high end bottling, is currently 100% Tempranilo, aged in new French oak. I’m sure it was all American oak back in 1964.
- 1964 Gomez Cruzado Rioja Gran Reserva Honorable – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricked medium dark red violet color; mature, tobacco, cigar box, cedar, dried black fruit, honeyed nose; mature, dried cherry, dried currant, tart black fruit palate with medium acidity; should go 7-8 years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1964 Bodegas Bilbainas Rioja Viña Zaco – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color; appealing, mature, baked plum, licorice, dried berry nose; tasty, rich, dried berry, baked black fruit, licorice, spice, fig palate; should go 20+ years; long finish 94+ points (94 pts.)
Besides the Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal and Cune Viña Real in our last flight, we had a 1950 Gran Reserva from Berberana. Berberana was founded in 1877. Spanish entrepreneur Don Melquiades Entrena acquired the brand in 1975 and invested a lot in marketing. They now claim to be Spain’s bestselling brand worldwide. I’ve tried some of their current releases, which are decent if not exciting.
- 1955 Bodegas Bilbainas Rioja Viña Pomal Reserva Especial – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricked dark red violet color; redolent, appealing, cigar box, dried fig, black tobacco nose; tasty, mature, tart black fruit, cigar box, dried fig palate; should go 8-10 years; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1950 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Viña Real Reserva Especial – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricked medium dark red violet color; appealing, rich, cigar box, licorice, dried berry, lavender, dried cherry nose; very tasty, rich, youthful, dried berry, cigar box, dried cherry palate with sweet tannins and grip; long finish (97 pts.)
- 1950 Berberana Rioja Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricked medium red violet color with pale meniscus; very mature, mushroom, dried orange, cranberry nose; mature, dried orange, dried cherry, cranberry, dill palate with medium acidity; could go 8+ years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)