Mature Riojas 1956-1976: López de Heredia, Cune, Franco-Españolas, Riojanas

Rare Wine Co.’s Mannie Berk

MATURE RIOJAS 1956-1976: LÓPEZ DE HEREDIA, CUNE, FRANCO-ESPAÑOLAS, RIOJANAS – Contigo Restaurant, San Francisco, California (6/1/2011)

I really enjoy Rare Wine Co.’s occasional wine dinners, and am glad they’ve started doing more of them in recent years. Mannie Berk, the founder and owner of RWC, usually presides, and he knows how the typically older wines served at these dinners should be handled (e.g., vintage Madeiras, decant and air for a day or two to eliminate bottle stink; old Barolos, decant for three to four hours, both for bottle stink and to give those firm tannins a proper airing; old Riojas, decant for sediment and return immediately to bottle). He also picks great venues for the tastings, which proceed in a logical order, accompanied by informative comments. This time we had the benefit, as we did at the old Barolo tasting in January, of wine writer John Gilman’s presence, as well as Mannie’s knowledgeable comments. Contigo is a very good Catalan tapas restaurant, and our covered patio space for this dinner and the excellent food paired very well with our wines.

Most wine geeks have heard of and tasted López de Heredia’s traditional style, long barrel and bottle aged Riojas. Many in the U.S. seem to have the impression that López de Heredia is unique in producing wines of this style, apparently imagining that their techniques and aging philosophy happened in a vacuum. Mannie reminded us that there were a number of other Rioja producers that evolved at the same time and participated in creating what became Rioja’s winemaking tradition. Some of those producers are no longer in business but a few are. From the late 1800s through the 1970s, they followed much the same winemaking and elevage processes that López de Heredia does, but they haven’t received the same recognition in our contemporary market that López de Heredia has. Of the other producers in our line up, the only one I’d really tried before, besides López de Heredia was C.V.N.E., or Cune as it is popularly known. It was therefore a real treat to try very mature Riojas from these other traditional producers, and to compare them across vintages and cuvée style.

In his introductory remarks at the tasting, Mannie acknowledged that the tasting was a bit of a departure for RWC, in that they hadn’t done a tasting focused on traditional Riojas before, but that “philosophically,” the wines fit in well with the kinds of artisanal, traditional, “wines of place” tastings–of old Barolos, Barbarescos, vintage Madeiras–that RWC has become known for. Mannie has known the López de Heredia family for about 15 years, and RWC was responsible for some of the earliest offerings and promotion of their re-released wines in the U.S. The ’42 and ’47 vintages they offered back then have, Mannie estimated, quintupled in price. López is rather unique in having stayed with the traditional style into current times, while other producers, who followed the same philosophy into the 1970s, have experimented with or changed over to more modern techniques, aimed at more accessible wines at an earlier stage.

Mannie reminded us that the Rioja traditions owe a lot to phylloxera, and the devastation of the prime vineyards of France beginning in the late 1860s, that led top producers from Bordeaux and elsewhere to seek other sources of grapes from areas that weren’t yet experiencing the same level of devastation as France was. (Phylloxera didn’t hit Rioja until 1899.) Because northern Spain is relatively close to Bordeaux, grapes from this area were shipped during those years to Bordeaux. Bordelais winemakers and merchants around this time also helped establish new wineries, known as “bodegas,” including López de Heredia, Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE) and Bodegas Franco-Españolas. Bordeaux had a world market by this time, and the most sophisticated winemaking techniques, while Spain was a relative backwater. The French introduced the 225 liter barrique barrel at this time, and advised on planting vineyards. Unlike the model in France, especially Burgundy, the producers in Rioja were very large companies, with hundreds of planted hectares. Their production was at almost an “industrial” level, as compared to France. What is impressive is how they were able to make such good wines on such a large scale, wines that Mannie insisted “have really stood the test of time.”

Despite the Bordelais involvement, the oak used in Rioja has traditionally been American oak, generally from older barrels, or barrels that have been air dried for some years. In recent years, that has begun to change, with a number of Rioja producers using a mix of American and French oak, or even going to all French oak, which has altered the flavor profile of the wines. The long aged top Rioja cuvées have very well integrated oak, but the impact of the sweet, often dill-flavored American oak is part of the signature of these older wines.

Mannie pointed out that another distinctive aspect of the Rioja tradition is that almost every major producer had not one, but two, principal cuvées. One of them is an elegant style, while the other tends to be bigger, richer and beefier. For López de Heredia, the more elegant wine is the Tondonia, with the Viña Bosconia playing the bigger, richer role. For Cune, the more elegant styled wine is the Imperial, with the Viña Real being the bigger, beefier wine. Rather confusingly, the more elegant cuvées tend to be bottled in square shouldered Bordeaux styled bottles, while the bigger, richer ones are typically issued in Burgundy style bottles. In this tasting, we got to try mature versions of both cuvées of most these producers.

The WOTN for me, and apparently all the other attendees, was the 1959 Bodegas Unidas Rioja Fuenmayor Gran Reserva. It was stunning and surprisingly youthful, very much in the model of Marqués de Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay, which wasn’t represented in our tasting. My other top wines of the evening were the 1964 Franco-Españolas Excelso Gran Reserva and the 1976 López de Heredia Gran Reserva Viña Bosconia, which was also the only one of the following wines that I’d tried before. For more detail on the wines and producers, see the flight summaries below.

Sparkling starter

We started with the latest sparkling wine release for Huët, for which RWC became the American distributor last year. I found it good, if very youthful, although not as complex and minerally as the ’02 vintage.

  • 2005 Huët Vouvray Pétillant Brut – France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Vouvray Pétillant
    Light green tinged yellow color; tart apple, chalk, wet wool, tangy, tart lemon nose; tart apple, tangy, chalk, medium bodied palate with small bead, petillant; will go 7-plus years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)

1976 Flight

Idiazabal flan with fava beans, jamon iberico de bellota and mint

Bodegas Riojanas was founded in 1890, and still exists as a traditional house, with a lot of older vintages still for sale. Their more elegant offering has been the Viña Albina, with the Monte Real, which we had in this flight, being the bigger, beefier wine. The current version of the Monte Real on the market is 100% Tempranillo; I don’t know if the 1976 was all Tempranillo or not. Here it was up against López de Heredia’s bigger wine from the same vintage, the Bosconia, and Cune’s more elegant styled wine from the same vintage, the Imperial.

The Bosconia is made from a single 15 hectare vineyard, called El Bosque (much smaller than Tondonia Vineyard, which is over 100 hectares). It consists of 11 hectares of Tempranillo, two of Garnacha and one each of Mazuelo and Graciano. The Bosconia Gran Reserva is made only in exceptional years, from selected grapes, and is aged for eight to 10 years in American oak, and then another 10 years in bottle before release.

C.V.N.E., or Cune, was founded in 1879. I tasted some of their most recent offerings at the Rioja trade tasting I wrote about here, and they’re excellent. Recent vintages of their Imperial Gran Reserva, at least back to 1996, have consisted of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graziano and 5% Mazuelo. They are currently aged in a combination of French and American oak, as opposed to the exclusively American oak barrels that were used back in the ’70s. The Cune website gives ratings for Rioja vintages back to 1927 with up to five diamonds for the very best vintages. 1976 is assigned only three diamonds, whereas 1964, the focus of our penultimate flight, is given five diamonds. Nonetheless, 1976 was obviously a good vintage, and our best overall flight of the night. I slightly preferred the LdH Bosconia, which still has a long life ahead of it, but the Cune Imperial was also excellent.

  • 1976 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Bricked medium orange red color with tan meniscus; nice autumnal, light meat jus, baked tomato nose; tasty, mature, solid, sweet meat jus, tangy, autumnal palate with resolved tannins; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 1976 R. López de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Bosconia – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
    Bricked medium orange red color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; smoke, tart orange, autumnal nose; tasty, poised, tart currant, autumnal, mineral, tart orange palate with grip and depth; will go 15-20 more years; long finish (94 pts.)
  • 1976 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
    Bricked medium dark orange red color with pale meniscus; lovely, smoky, autumnal, roasted meat jus nose; rich but poised, autumnal, lightly smoky, light meat jus palate; should go 8-10 more years; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)

’75 and ’73 Flight

seared Atlantic scallops with morel mushrooms, asparagus, melted leeks and Tempranillo sauce

In this flight we had a crianza, a wine sold young and not intended for long aging, unlike the reservas and gran reservas. The fact that it had held up this long was remarkable, but it was the weakest wine of the night. The best wine of this flight was easily the Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina, which lived up to its billing as the more elegant cuvée produced by Bodegas Riojanas. Bodegas Riojanas currently controls over 300 hectares, most of which is planted to Tempranillo, but with a larger proportion devoted to Graciano and Mazuelo than most other Rioja producers. The 2004 version of the Viña Albina included 15% Mazuelo and 5% Graciano, and I’m guessing roughly the same proportions were included in the 1975 that we had. Franco-Españolas apparently no longer makes a Royal Gran Reserva, but their Bordón Gran Reserva is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano that is aged in American oak for 36 months, and then aged in bottle until “the desired bouquet is fully evident.”

  • 1975 Bodegas Bilbainas Rioja Crianza Viña Pomal – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
    Bricked medium orange red color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; lifted, chlorine, very tart cherry, dried cherry, blood orange nose; quite mature, a little maderized, autumnal, ginger cake palate; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 1975 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
    Bricked medium orange red color with 4 millimeter clear meniscus; earthy, roasted fish, autumnal, chicory nose; intriguing, complex, elegant, dried cherry, blood orange palate; long finish (93 pts.)
  • 1973 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Royal Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Bricked medium orange red color with 4 millimeter clear meniscus; mature, autumnal, walnut nose; rather oxidized, mature, walnut, orange, dried orange palate; medium finish (89 pts.)

1970 Flight

1970 appears to have been another very good, long lived vintage in Rioja, and the Cune site gives it four out of five diamonds. The Franco-Españolas bottling in this flight was the Cosecha Especial Bordón, another crianza wine that was made for early drinking. It was mature, but hanging in there–an impressive feat for a 40-year-old wine not marketed as being for long aging. It was the gran reservas, though, that showed their class and true ageworthiness. The Cune Viña Real, the bigger of Cune’s two top offerings, was the best in this flight, with decades more of life ahead of it. Viña Real is now the name of Cune’s second winery, based in Rioja Alavesa, as opposed to the original Cune, which is based in Rioja Alta. The Viña Real Gran Reservas, back to 1998 at least, have been comprised of 90-95% Tempranillo, with the rest being Graciano or a blend of Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuela. The Monte Real, the beefier offering from Bodegas Riojanas, was also very good, although drinking at or beyond its peak now.

1964 Flight

Roasted Marin sun goat with rosemary, spring peas, baby turnips and romesco sauce

1964 was the greatest Rioja vintage we tasted on this evening according to the Cune website, which gives the vintage its top, five-star rating. These three wines were all good, but the Franco Españolas Excelso Gran Reserva, with its youthful and complex palate, was easily the best of the three for me. The current versions of this wine are a blend of Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Graciano, and are aged for 36 months in American oak, and then aged for additional years in bottle.

Our other two wines in this flight were from Bodegas Bilbainas, which is one of the oldest producers in Rioja, having been established in 1859 by the French company Savignon Frères et Cie. After phylloxera was eliminated in France, the French company decided to sell to a group of businessmen from Bilbao in 1901. They were acquired by the Codorníu Group in 1997. The latest vintage of the Viña Pomal Reserva, 2005, was 100% Tempranillo, aged in American oak barrels for 14 months. Viña Pomal was their bigger, richer bottling, with the Clarete Fino being the more elegant one. As best I can tell, the Clarete Fino is no longer made.

  • 1964 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Excelso – Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
    Bricked medium orange red color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; rich, dried orange, cranberry, spicy cherry, complex nose; very tasty, youthful, poised, tart cherry, dried berry, dried orange, cranberry palate; will go for 20+ years; long finish 94+ points (94 pts.)
  • 1964 Bodegas Bilbainas Rioja Viña Pomal Reserva Especial – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
    1st bottle – corked
    2nd bottle – bricked medium orange red color with pale meniscus; autumnal, venison jus nose with light TCA; mature, slight TCA, venison jus, dried cherry, blood orange palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 1964 Bodegas Bilbainas Rioja Clarete Fino Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Bricked medium dark brown red color; different, mature, tart currant, dill nose; silky textured, classic old Rioja, cranberry, dill palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (highest acidity of the night) (91 pts.)

Fifties Flight

Our final flight included another Viña Albina from Riojanas, their more elegant bottling. It was a good, classic Rioja, doing remarkably well for 45 years on. The real star of the flight and the night, though, was the AGE Bodegas Unidas Fuenmayor Gran Reserva. Its youthfulness and persistent fruit reminded me of the shockingly youthful old Castillo Ygays I’ve had in the past, which John Gilman told us are thought to have been made in something of a “solera” style, topped up with more than a small amount of young wine, despite the vintage listed on the bottle. That was the first I’d heard of this about Ygay. John speculated that Bodegas Unidas might have been influenced by Marqués de Murrieta’s success with Ygay, and done a little topping up of their own. Thanks to Spanish wine expert José F. Rodríguez, with whom I corresponded through WineBerserkers, I learned that AGE Bodegas Unidas was most likely succeeded by Bodegas AGE, based in Fuenmayor. According to John Radford’s book, The New Spain, AGE was established in 1967 by a merger of three companies, one of which dated back to 1881. AGE was, in turn, subsequently acquired by the conglomerate Domecq (Pernod Ricard), which also owns other wineries in Rioja, including Ysios and Campo Viejo. According to Domecq’s website, “In 1881, Félix Azpilicueta founded Bodegas Azpilicueta, nowadays known as Bodegas AGE, in Fuenmayor in the heart of the Upper Rioja district.” (Confusingly, the name Bodegas Azpilicueta continues to appear on Rioja bottlings that are produced by AGE’s sister subsidiary, Campo Viejo.) Other than this little nugget of historical information, I can find nothing further on what went into our wonderful 1959 bottling, how long it was aged, when it was released, or what current bottling from AGE might approximate the grape sources and methods used on our 1959, if any. Nonetheless, it was a delightful if mysterious blast from the past on which to end this unusual and educational tasting.

  • 1959 Bodegas Unidas Rioja Fuenmayor Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
    Bricked light medium orange red color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; mature, appealing, focused, youthful, dried cherry, dried berry, berry cordial nose; tasty, balanced, elegant, dried cherry, stewed plum, dried berry, juniper palate, quite reminiscent of a mature Ygay; long finish 95+ points (95 pts.)
  • 1956 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
    Bricked medium dark red violet color with pale meniscus; tart cranberry, light dried cherry nose; tasty, mature, classic old Rioja, dried cherry, cranberry, camphor palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
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