Tempranillo made in a traditional fashion in Rioja (i.e., with long barrel aging, usually in American oak) is one of the world’s great, ageworthy wines that takes on added complexity and depth with decades of bottle age. For me, it is much like traditional Barolo, premier and grand cru Burgundy, great California Cabernet from the early 1970s and before, and traditional Chateauneuf du Papes and Rhones in this respect. I was therefore delighted to be on hand for this second part of a retrospective of Rioja wines–white and red–from traditional producers. Like part one held back in June, it was organized by Mannie Berk of the Rare Wine Co. and held in the covered back patio at San Francisco’s Contigo Restaurant, which gave us delicious pairings with their Catalan and tapas dishes. My report on the first of these tastings is here.
As was the case at part one of this tasting, the producers whose wines we tasted were among the top traditional Rioja producers, most of whose roots go back to at least the beginning of the 1900s, including López de Heredia, Marqués de Murrieta, Cune, Bodegas Bilbainas, Bodegas Riojanas and Franco Españolas. In learning more about these producers, I was greatly aided by the publication this year of a book by Jesús Barquín, Luis Guitiérrez and Víctor de la Serna entitled The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain: A Regional Guide to the Best Producers and Their Wines.
At this tasting, unlike our June tasting, we started with a flight of white Riojas. For me, at least, these complex, gorgeous, savory wines, in an intentionally oxidative style, nearly stole the show. After that flight, I very much want to try an entire lunch or dinner devoted to aged white Riojas as I think they would hold their own not only with salads and appetizers, but virtually any savory dish or protein a chef might throw at them. It would be fun, as well, to try to pair some of the savory spice-oriented tertiary flavors one gets from these wines, like cumin and saffron, with dishes featuring those ingredients. The whites we tasted came from López de Heredia–probably the most familiar and popular source of oxidative, ageworthy white Riojas in this country–and Marqués de Murrieta. The latter unfortunately has discontinued producing their traditional-styled, oxidative white–the Castillo Ygay Blanc, also known as “El Dorado de Murrieta,” replacing it with a 100% Viura that sees 18 months in oak called Capellania. Nonetheless, we got to try what is apparently the last vintage of the Ygay Blanc, the 1998.
My favorite wine of the tasting was the 1968 Bodegas Franco Españolas Royal Reserva. A 1964 Excelso Gran Reserva from this same producer was also one of my top wines at the June tasting. I also scored highly, at 94 points or more, the 1991 López de Heredia Blanco Gran Reserva, 1975 Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva and 1975 Bodegas LAN Crianza Viña Lanciano.
Before getting to details on the flights and my tasting notes, here is brief background on each of the producers represented at the tasting:
This 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. In the early 1990s, a neighboring company tried to buy the company, which led the owners to hire renowned winemaker José Hidalgo, to greatly improve the quality of the wines. The investment required to update the vineyards and facilities, however, proved costly, leading the owners to sell to the Codorníu Group in 1997. Our one sample from the producer at this tasting was a 1981 Crianza from their great Viña Pomal vineyard. It showed better than the 1975 Crianza we had tasted in the June tasting, where we had also sampled the greatest wine that this producer still makes, the Viña Pomal Reserva, as well as an elegant, lighter wine they no longer make called Clarete Fino Gran Reserva, both from the 1964 vintage.
This is one of the younger, traditional-style producers in Rioja, having been formed only in 1972. Their first vintage was 1974. The name is an acronym for the three provinces of the Rioja DOC: Logroño (now called La Rioja), Alava and Navarra. It was originally owned by a Basque investment group, and was briefly nationalized by the government in 1983 before being re-privatized and sold to a businessman who subsequently sold it back to the original investors. In 2002 it was acquired by the investment group Mercapital. The producer’s flagship vineyard is Viña Lanciano, a 178-acre vineyard planted to Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Graciano. We tried a 1975 Crianza from this vineyard, which was remarkably strong for a 35-year-old Crianza. The greatest traditional-style wine from this producer is the Viña Lanciano Gran Reserva.
This producer was founded in 1890 and still exists as a traditional house, with a lot of older vintages still for sale. It was acquired in the late 1960s by Banco de Santader on the recommendation of Victor de la Serna, a journalist and wine writer who is one of the authors of the new book mentioned above. In the 1990s, the bank moved out of its non-banking holdings, leaving the original descendants of the founders, the Artacho and Frias families, who had run the company for the bank, in charge. They turned it into a publicly traded company on the Madrid stock exchange in 1997. 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 Monte Real Gran Reserva is their classic, beefy Rioja, entirely from Tempranillo from the Cenicero vineyard. It’s the one in the Burgundy style bottle. Their more delicate wine, which has proven very ageworthy, is the Viña Albina, sourced from limestone vineyards and seeing less skin maceration than the Monte Real. We had one Viña Albina and three Monte Reals in this tasting.
C.V.N.E., aka Cune
Another one of Rioja’s oldest producers, founded in 1879 and currently run by descendants of the same founding family, Víctor and María Urrutia. The family owns 590 acres of vineyards, but also buys grapes for some of its production. The Imperial, which we tasted at the June dinner, has been Cune’s top offering since the 1920s. It’s the one that comes in a Bordeaux-shaped bottle, and traditionally was based on two-thirds Rioja Alta grapes and one-third Rioja Alavesa. The Viña Real, of which we had an example of at this tasting, was the reverse: one-third Rioja Alta grapes and two-thirds Rioja Alavesa. It is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo, and according to The Finest Wines of Rioja, it is “dark and powerful,” “hearty and higher in alcohol than Imperial [and] somewhat hedonistic and bottled in a Burgundy bottle.” They also claim that it “ages for a greater time even than Imperial.”
Another old producer founded in 1890, with an original board made up of Bordeaux producers and wealthy Spaniards, and still going. I was underwhelmed by their younger wines, however, at the Rioja trade tasting this year. For some reason, this producer is not profiled in The Finest Wines of Rioja book. Franco-Españolas apparently no longer makes a Royal Reserva like the 1968 we tasted, 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.”
López de Heredia
This legendary producer was founded by Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta in 1877, and is still very much a family affair. I got to meet the charming and down-to-earth María José López de Heredia when she visited San Francisco a few years back. She, along with sister Mercedes, runs the company’s marketing and communication departments. They share daily management and production duties with brother Julio Cesar and father Pedro, who is now well over 80. Maria’s great grandfather Rafael bought and planted the vineyards from 1913 to 1914 that now form the great 250-acre vineyard called Viña Todonia. He also bought the 37-acre vineyard in El Bosque that he named Viña Bosconia. For López de Heredia, the more elegant wine sold in Bordeaux bottles is the Tondonia, with the Viña Bosconia, in Burgundy bottles, playing the bigger, richer role. The predecessor wine to Viña Bosconia was called Rioja Cepa Borgoña, which included a small amount of Pinot Noir. According to The Finest Wines of Rioja, today “a slightly higher proportion of Tempranillo and, above all, a deliberate wish to preserve a definite style give Viña Bosconia more body and color, riper fruit, and longer life than Viña Tondonia, which in turn seeks a truer profile of Rioja ‘vino fino’ that is perfectly ready and enjoyable upon release.”
The most fascinating thing I’ve learned from reading my recently arrived copy of The Finest Wines of Rioja is that López de Heredia does as much blending in of other vintages as it legally can in order to avoid vintage variation between its different red wine bottlings. The book quotes María José explaining, “We correct vintage irregularities in a natural way, by blending in some wine from the same vineyard with a different color, acidity, or alcohol level. We use different vintages, within the legal limits, in order always to release wines of consistent quality and to maintain our house style. It is not the vintage but the label that matters: we produce Cubillo, Tondonia, Bosconia–never Tondonia 2000 or Tondonia 2001.” This helps explain an experience my friend Bruce recently related to me. Nine years ago he and a group of wine friends collected several vintages of white and red López de Heredia for a dinner tasting. Most of the group found that all the Bosconias, from different vintages, tasted the same, as did the Tondonias from different vintages. They wrote Rare Wine Co., from whom most or all of them had ordered their wines, to report their experience. Mannie offered to put on another dinner with many of the same reds, which he did several months later. Bruce reported that the results of this second tasting were much the same. From this new book, I now understand that that’s exactly how the López de Heredia family want it–their philosophy is the same as most of the grand marque Champagnes which do a great deal of blending in order to maintain the house style from vintage to vintage.
Marqués de Murrieta
This producer is the oldest of all, and I was delighted that we had a couple of their wines to sample in this tasting, as they were missing from our part I dinner. I tasted some of their most recent offerings at the Rioja trade tasting I wrote about here and they’re excellent. Luciano Murrieta founded the winery in 1852, while still engaged in a military career. He was part of a wealthy Spanish-Bolivian family, who 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, after years of mildew and oidium had already reduced production, 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. 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.
As mentioned above, this flight of complex, savory whites pretty much stole the show for me. The Finest Wines of Rioja claims “[t]he whites are probably the finest jewels in the López de Heredia lineup.” I would agree. I enjoyed all four of our whites, but the 1991 LdH was particularly complex and stunning. All of them had a long finish. The López de Heredias are generally 90% Viura with 10% Malvasia, but in 1981 there was 5% more Malvasia. Contigo paired this flight with a delicious octopus salad with cucumbers, roasted peppers, black olives, frisee and preserved lemon.
- 1998 Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Blanco Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Medium golden color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; oxidative, tart baked lemon, citron, lemon tajine, saffron nose; tasty, a little oxidative, tart baked lemon, saffron, light curry tart citron palate with good acidity; long finish 92+ points
- 1991 R. López de Heredia Rioja Blanco Gran Reserva Viña Tondonia – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Light medium golden color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; bright, citron, spice, saffron, lemon, floral nose; oily textured, bright citron, saffron, mineral, rock salt palate with medium acidity; long finish (90% Viura, 10% Malvasia) 94 points
- 1987 R. López de Heredia Rioja Blanco Gran Reserva Viña Tondonia – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Medium golden color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; light curry, baked lemon, savory, dried hay nose; mature, savory, tart baked lemon, light curry, cumin palate with medium-plus acidity; long finish (90% Viura, 10% Malvasia) 93 points
- 1981 R. López de Heredia Rioja Blanco Gran Reserva Viña Tondonia – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Medium gold color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; savory, lemon tajine, cumin nose; tasty, mature, lightly oily textured, resolved, tart lemon, baked lemon, cumin, mineral palate with medium acidity; long finish 92+ points (85% Viura, 15% Malvasia) (92 pts.)
1st red flight
The Cune website gives ratings for Rioja vintages back to 1927 with up to five diamonds for the very best vintages. Three of the greatest vintages of the past century were 1958, 1964 and 1982, which all receive five diamonds. The vintage we tasted, 1985, only rates three diamonds. I thought the Cune Viña Real was fine, and reminiscent of a mature St. Julien, but that the Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina, from a greater year, 1982, was better. Both were fairly bretty, though, which kept me from rating them higher. Our pairing, which seemed a little odd and not ideal, was corn and chanterelles on pan tostado with Idiazábal cheese and smoked salt.
- 1985 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Viña Real Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricked dark red violet color; mature, bretty, earthy, tart currant, lightly smoky nose; mature, brett, tart currant palate with good acidity, reminiscent of a mature St. Julien Bordeaux; medium-plus finish 90+ points
- 1982 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricked medium red violet color with pale meniscus; mature, tart currant, cedar, brett nose; tasty, mature, brett, tart currant, cedar palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 91 points
1981 is a vintage that Cune’s website assigns four diamonds, compared to five for 1982, but Mannie told us he usually prefers 1981s. The best of these three, for me, by far was the López de Heredia Viña Bosconia. It was fascinating to compare LdH’s two great wines from the same year. The Tondonia seemed very tight yet; the Bosconia was still youthful but more approachable, and reminded me of a Barolo with 15 years or so of age. Both are very ageworthy wines. The Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal was impressive for being only a Crianza–the style of Rioja that sees the least oak age and which is made for early drinking–and yet showing well at 30 years old.
- 1981 Bodegas Bilbainas Rioja Crianza Viña Pomal – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricked medium red color with ruby lights and 1 millimeter clear meniscus; intriguing, tart cherry, dried cherry, juniper berry nose; tasty, tart cherry, very tart berry, tangy, juniper berry, cranberry palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points
- 1981 R. López de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Bosconia – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium dark red violet color; maturing, dried berry, cherry nose; tasty, youthful, tart cherry, dried cherry, tangy palate, reminiscent of a middle-aged Barolo; should go 15-plus years; medium-plus finish 93 points
- 1981 R. López de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Tondonia – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricked dark red violet color; tart cranberry, dried cherry, dried berry nose; maturing but still youthful, tart cherry, cranberry palate with medium acidity and firm tannins; needs 5-plus years yet; medium-plus finish 91 points
1978 was a four-diamond vintage, per the Cune website, and both of these wines were quite good. I slightly preferred the very youthful Riojanas Monte Real, with its longer finish, which also reminded me of a Barolo. The Marqués de Murrieta Ygay was a fairly classic Ygay, which should age glacially for decades. Our food pairing was a thoroughly delicious wood oven roasted quail with Knoll Farm figs, bacon, hazelnuts, roasted onions, basil and arugula.
- 1978 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricked medium dark red violet color with pale meniscus; dried berry, Barolo-like, dried cherry, cranberry nose; tasty, youthful, tart cherry, dried berry, dried cherry, palate with good acidity and firm, sweet tannins; long finish 93+ points
- 1978 Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color; intriguing, cranberry, tart red berry, tart raspberry, ginger cake nose; still youthful, medium bodied, tart red berry, cranberry, tangy, dried cherry palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
1975 was another four-diamond vintage, and these were two of my wines of the night. I loved the powerful, autumnal, complex Monte Real, which should continue to age and develop for another 15 to 20 years. The surprise about the LAN Viña Lanciano is that it, again, was a Crianza, which one wouldn’t expect to be this good after over 35 years of age. Our final meat course with this and the following flight was seared Marin sun beef tenderloin with pole beans, Valdeón blue cheese and Tempranillo sauce.
- 1975 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium dark red violet color; lovely, mature, dried berry, light roasted meat, ginger cake nose; tasty, powerful, mature, dried berry, autumnal, beef carpaccio, ginger cake, beefy palate; will go 15-20 years yet; long finish 94+ points
- 1975 Bodegas LAN Rioja Crianza Viña Lanciano – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color with pale meniscus; maturing, ginger cake, dried berry, ginger nose; tasty, mature, old Barolo-like, autumnal, tart ginger cake palate with good acidity; ready now, astonishingly good for a Crianza at this stage; long finish 94 points
The 1967 Monte Real was our only corked wine of the night. 1967 was also only a two-diamond vintage. The Franco-Españolas Royal Reserva from 1968, a four-diamond vintage, was my WOTN. Others found it oxidized, and I did get some oxidation but also delicious, complex flavors and balance. From the great showing of Franco-Españolas in both of Mannie’s tastings, I plan to seek more older wines from this producer.
- 1968 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Royal Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricking, medium dark red violet color with pale meniscus; autumnal, tart ginger cake, dried berry, cardamom nose with a little oxidation; delicious, ginger caked, dried berry, rich, poised, dried currant palate with good acidity; should go 3-5 more years; long finish 95 points
- 1967 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricked dark red violet color; mature, light TCA, tart currant, ginger cake nose; tart currant, ginger cake palate with some TCA sapping flavor; medium-plus finish (NR/flawed)
Our last flight, with our Spanish cheeses, included a third remarkably well preserved Crianza, this time from the great five-diamond year 1964–the Riojanas Viña Albina. It was mature and autumnal, but still had lift and complexity. The Viña Tondonia, from the more middling, three-diamond 1961 vintage, lacked the lovely fruit of the 1964 and seemed quite mature by comparison. It might also have been a slightly faulty bottle, showing more reduction than I detected on any other wine of the night.
- 1964 Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Crianza – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking medium dark red violet color with pale meniscus; lovely, lifted, ginger cake, lightly smoky, dried berry, dried cherry, autumnal nose; poised, dried berry, tart ginger cake, mineral, iodine, earthy palate, with buoyant acidity; medium-plus finish 93 points
- 1961 R. López de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Tondonia – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color; tobacco, tart currant, cigar box, light reduction nose; cigar box, earthy, tobacco, reduction palate with medium acidity and drying tannins; medium-plus finish 88 points