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  • In search of old Riojas (and III)
  • In search of old Riojas (and III)
1. Atrio's spectacular cellar. 2. Celler de Can Roca has divided its cellar in three different areas. Both photos are courtesy of the restaurants.

Collecting

In search of old Riojas (and III)

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | October 9th, 2014

It might be the fact that consumers prefer modern-style wines; or the lack of room or proper storage conditions; or perhaps a lack of knowledge or interest, but the truth is that most restaurants across Spain fail to stock old vintages in their cellars. Luckily, there are still a few places where wine lovers can go to enjoy these vinous grandaddies. Shops like Lavinia offer some old selections and Vila Viniteca's website even features an old vintage search button to locate wines from your birth year.

In the last piece on this three-part series, we feature three special places in different locations across Spain where aficionados can explore a region's history through a glass of wine.

Celler de Can Roca, Girona

Celler de Can Roca is one of the world's best restaurants and a must-go destination for foodies and wine geeks, but it is also a family affair. In a quiet, residential part of Girona, in northeastern Spain, brothers Joan and Jordi take care of the main dishes and desserts, respectively, which are skillfully combined with 3,360 wine selections -all picked, taken care of and served by their other brother, Josep.

Pitu, as his friends call him, likes the "emotional impact" that old wines leave on people who taste them. He stores over 130 bottlings -mostly from Rioja- with vintages going back to 1914. The cellar also guards a few verticals such as Cvne, Marqués de Riscal, Pomal and shortly Marqués de Murrieta. His criteria for choosing these wines is clear. "I only buy them from the winery. I look for mature wines to pair with long-cooked, soft-texture dishes; perfumed wines with delicate spice, soft citrus, clove, cocoa and ripe animal aromas. The strength and delicateness of a wine set the scope of textures and ingredients that enhace flavours, such as bitter vegetables, sweet notes, acidity or warmth", Josep Roca says. 

At the restaurant he stores several bottles from each vintage, but the most important part of his "library" is kept in a cellar where the old restaurant used to be. It is a quiet, calm place with a constant temperature of 12-14 degrees, where these old treasures rest until a client in search of classic wines claims their presence at the table. Fans of such bottles are usually foreigners who recognise the grandeur of Spanish wines with history, wine geeks and gourmets from all over the world.

Pitu is fascinated by the evolution of wine and the possibility of "drinking time from each bottle", and that has led him to encourage customers to try old vintages. "There are excellent wines being made nowadays, but it is very interesting to experience the fabulous development of Rioja wines. They show elegance, good acidity and an everlasting backbone -brought by the pH levels that soils used to have at that time- which we now enjoy. Drinking these wines should make us think how much more informed and knowledgeable we are now, but we should also recognise that we have lost wisdom. Ancient generations knew what they were doing. We owe them some continuity", he considers.

Some of his clients clearly appreciate this know-how. "I opened a bottle of Castillo de Ygay 1925 and found that the cork had expanded. Not only that, but the wine was vigorous, splendid, robust, surprising", Pitu recalls. "The client stood up and asked me to drink with him. He kneeled down and I followed suit. There we were, both of us on our knees, worshiping a wine, a cork, a way of holding back the time, knowing that wines don't usually die, but they reinvent themselves. This Ygay created such an impression throughout the restaurant that everyone present in the room at that moment knew that a wine was the star". That day, Joan and Jordi's creations took second place to the wine and its cork.

Atrio, Cáceres

This restaurant is a legendary destination for wine lovers. Despite its two Michelin stars, which assert chef Toño Pérez's talent, the object of desire is the spectacular round cellar created by his partner José Polo. Over 35,000 bottles from 19 countries and 3,400 different selections lay on this wine temple, where the altar is devoted to Château d'Yquem – 75 vintages going back to 1806.
Sommelier José Luis Paniagua -who trained at London's Ritz Hotel and at 2-Michelin star Mugaritz- takes care of Atrio's liquid heritage on a daily basis. "My main concern is having a balanced wine list. I stock old vintages from renowned wineries but I also purchase bottles from small producers who are making great wines on lesser known regions. We must have in mind our clients' diversity of tastes", he says. 

There is plenty of room for old wines in the 350-page ledger, although he notes the increasing difficulty to find them because "the wineries have restricted sales; they know speculation has increased", alerts José Luis. On the shelves of Atrio lay bottles of Marqués de Riscal (the oldest is from 1896), Marqués de Murrieta, nine vintages of Viña Tondonia, Siglo Saco, La Rioja Alta etc. From other appellations, he favours the Vega Sicilia vertical, starting at 1918 (€3,400). "Apart from Jerez", he says, "I honestly believe that other Spanish regions are not capable of such longevity".

Customers who order old vintages are usually foreigners enjoying a holiday in Spain and wine lovers – most of them over 40 years old. "They want to drink history. They have tasted a great deal of good wines and know for a fact that these bottles are correctly stored at Atrio", says José Luis. The setting is ideal: a recently built cellar free of noise and vibrations, at 14ºC and under 80% of humidity. 

Even the best attentions are at times unable to bring a damaged wine back to life. But appearances can be deceptive too. "A couple of years ago, we uncorked a 1939 bottle of Rioja and it seemed defective. We warned the customer and suggested he should order a different one. In such situations, Atrio assumes the cost but we never throw away wine; we usually leave it at the waiters' lobby and check its condition after the service", explains José Luis. "But that day someone tried it while the customer and his guests where about to eat their desserts. Imagine our surprise when we noticed that, after being opened for two hours, the wine had come back to life and was in perfect condition for its age. We alerted the customer, who said that if the chef prepared a dessert to pair with the wine, he would have it and pay for it." This anecdote had a happy ending, a rather common situation at Atrio, where service is impeccable. "Before opening an old vintage we subtly explain diners what they will find in that particular bottle to avoid surpirses", he adds. 

La Cigaleña, Santander

Customers of this unpretentious establishment in Santander, 100km west of Bilbao, know they will not find sophisticated pintxos on their tables. The third generation of this family business, run by brothers Juan and Andrés Conde, serves simple traditional dishes surrounded by a quirky décor with hams and garlic strings mixed with thousands of bottles -including some real gems- on its walls and ceilings.

Sommelier and winelover Andrés takes care of the cellar. He has 1,500 selections and 30,000 bottles but there is also a special wine list "for interested customers" -old vintages, mostly from Rioja, ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s. Others are not even for sale: the last bottle of a valued wine becomes part of the décor.

La Cigaleña has been selling classic wine since it opened its doors. Verticals include Vega Sicilia, Viña Real and some odd López de Heredia vintages, but stocks are dwindling. He recalls purchasing 120-bottle lots at 4 or 6 euros each and regrets the "speculative game" practiced by some wineries that prevents him from replacing wines. "They use to sell them at €30 but now I have to buy at €100. It's not ethical," Andrés laments. This creates a dilemma because he doesn't have much trust in new products. "With a few exceptions, both in Spain and outside, wines are being pushed to their limits. They have nothing in common with the wines made in the 1950s;  nowadays they are not made to age", says Andrés, who believes this change is a reflection of society's fast pace of life.

Most of the customers who demand old vintages come from the Basque Country, where there is some tradition of drinking and collecting this type of wines, or from abroad. "We have a lot of visitors from London who come over here to drink old Riojas, especially Riscal and López de Heredia. Twenty years ago, most domestic consumers were reluctant and uncouth and would sometimes approach foreign customers to tell them they were being cheated. What they didn't know was that these foreigners where individuals like the owner of Berry Bros, who knew perfectly well what he was drinking", Andrés recalls. 

Most of his customers are over 40 years old, but he thinks younger people are also interested in old wine; the problem lies in the way this product is recommended. "I don't offer them a bottle; instead, I suggest they try different vintages. I don't want to have a client who is afraid of ordering such a wine for fear it might be expensive or not to his taste. Wine is seen as elitist and for wealthy people but it should not be like that", argues Andrés. Apart from well-known brands such as Vega Sicilia or Castillo de Ygay, a lot of his wines are priced between 25 and 30 euros.

Storage is essential, he says. Brands like Marqués de Riscal, Viña Real or Imperial age gracefully, even if storage conditions have not been adequate. Proximity to the coast and good humidity levels help in terms of conservation, hence collections on the northern Spanish coast are usually in good condition as opposed to others on the meseta, which suffer liquid losses. At La Cigaleña bottles are stored at  12-13ºC, but Andrés increases and decreases temperature in order to let the aging process continue and to get wines to fully express their aromas. "At 12ºC the wine is blocked so I increase temperature to 20ºC. I switch off the air conditioning one day in the summer; in winter, I leave the wine at room temperature for a couple of months," he explains. "Wine is alive so it needs to adapt to its habitat in order to age well, avoid colds and dying".

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