For us, 2022 will be remembered as the year when we had the chance to taste some of the oldest wines ever. In the space of a couple of months I had the privilege of attending a historic tasting of Marqués de Riscal and a vertical of Vega Sicilia Único. Throughout the year there were other delightful opportunities to try great old wines, mostly from Rioja.
Few wines retain or heighten their grandeur over the decades or manage to age beautifully, but each of them brings precious wisdom to add to our taste memories plus the thrill of a unique, unrepeatable experience. These are the bottles that win our heart in 2022.
This vintage was the highlight of a historical tasting held by Marqués de Riscal at their winery in Elciego in September. With 30 vintages from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, the event was full of great moments, particularly the chance to taste prephylloxera vintages including an 1862, the oldest bottled wine in Rioja.
The year 1945 witnessed the resurgence of the winery in the difficult period following the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Thanks to the transformation of the business some years earlier into a limited company under the name Vinos de los Herederos del Marqués de Riscal, S.A., the Gandarias and Aznar families took a stake in the winery. The winemaker at the time, Jean André Richard, almost failed to oversee the harvest as he had been imprisoned on charges of spying for the British.
With a considerable percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, the 1945 vintage belongs to a series of wines which were internally referred to as Reserva Médoc. Cabernet adapted successfully to the vineyards in Elciego and became the leading grape among the wide array of French varieties sent from Bordeaux in 1860 by Riscal's founder Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga as part of Médoc Alavés, a project promoted by the Government of Álava to improve the quality of local wines. It is often assumed that 1945 is 100% Cabernet, but Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga, Riscal's current technical director and the great-great-grandson of the founder, explained during the tasting that there are no records of the proportion of grape varieties that made up the blends.
The Bordeaux style was very present in Riscal, given that the house employed French winemakers until the mid-1950s. Thus, the wines spent three to four years in barrels, as opposed to the lengthy ageing times favoured by other Rioja producers.
The presence of Cabernet is certainly evident, but perhaps the most impressive thing about the 1945 is that it seemed to be frozen in time. With surprisingly deep colour, it retained red fruit (redcurrant) aromas and leafy undertones, reminiscent of classic Bordeaux. It felt really fine and complex, with astonishing vivacity. This is not a powerful red, yet it fills the palate with sweet fruit and crisp acidity; it’s alive and balanced and everything is where it ought to be. The finish is impressive as flavours comes back time and again.
Could such a wine be made today? Probably not considering its analytical data: 11.3% abv. and a pH of 3.21. Nevertheless the 1945 inspired Marqués de Riscal to release Barón de Chirel in the 1980s and, as one of the tasters who took part in an earlier historical tasting wrote in the book Marqués de Riscal. A journey through time put it, "it is a beacon for Rioja". It is also a confirmation of how beautifully the wines from this region can age.
It is great to have a white in this list. The old Paternina bodega in Ollauri, also known as Bodega del Conde de los Andes, houses what must be the largest collection of white old Rioja. Following its purchase in 2014 by the Murúa family (Muriel Group), the cellars were painstakingly restored and are now at the centre of a new project under the Conde de los Andes brand combining a new range of wines with limited bottlings of old vintages. For the first time since 1925, wine is being made made in the estate, which had been exclusively destined to ageing.
At a recent tasting in Madrid conducted by Javier Murúa and sommelier Raúl Igual we tasted two interesting old reds from the 1975 and 2005 vintages currently on release. Both are labelled as “Colección histórica”.
But the icing on the cake was the semi sweet 1948, still impressive despite being in the small, 50cl bottle it had been kept in for decades. Like Riscal, these wines have remained in the same place in perfect storage conditions since they were made. In Vignobles et Vins de l’Ouest de l’Espagne, French geographer Alain Huetz de Lemps notes that “in Paternina there is a dissociation between the Haro winery, where the wine is made and partially aged, and the actual cellar in the small village of Ollauri, where the house’s finest wines, particularly the more fragile whites, are aged.”
We had previously tasted some of them with the Murúa family in 2017, including this 48 which was originally bottled as Paternina. We noted then how delicate and floral it was, with moderate sugar and spiced citrus and talcum powder notes. This time, we found jasmine and honeyed aromas with talcum powder and stone fruit on the nose, although the citrus nuances were present on the finish. We enjoyed the silky, relatively concentrated palate. It really accomplished the finesse that we always look for in Rioja and the nose was astonishingly lively even for a semi sweet wine with 38g of sugar and 11.5% abv.
Founded in Haro in 1895 as a wine and soft drinks company, it expanded into vermouth in 1937 and it went to make a name for itself in this category. Unlike other hundred-year-old bodegas boasting historic cellars, Martínez Lacuesta had to move from La Ventilla street, their base since 1902, to give way to Haro’s urban growth. However, traditional practices like manual racking are still preserved in their large, modern winery on the outskirts of the town.
The house's quintessential cellaring wine was the Reserva Especial which was produced until the mid-1980s. Compared to second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth year wines, as they were commonly named in the past, the Reserva Especial was aged in oak for 10 to 12 years. The oldest vintage in their cellars is 1922, of which barely a dozen bottles are left.
It was a pleasure to taste several vintages with members of the family. The list included 1964 (my favourite), 1982 (damp earth, lively acidity adding juiciness, toasted notes), 1970 (woodwork, sweet spices, vibrant acidity albeit a little thin) and 1928 (leather, old furniture, brandied fruit and a silky palate supported once again by acidity). In the 1940s, the 1928 vintage was called Viejo Reserva Especial in the house’s portfolio. According to Luis Martínez Lacuesta, once the vineyards were recovered from the phylloxera crisis, the 1920s produced many great vintages.
The 1964 is a fuller wine, with structure and plenty of substance. It displayed generous toasted notes on the nose, together with nutty and woodwork nuances. On the palate, it filled the mouth and felt rich and round. Given its fuller body, the acidity was better integrated and provided plenty of juiciness. It also had the kind of length expected from fine wines.
We wrote extensively two weeks ago about the Vega Sicilia vertical that marked the 40th anniversary of the purchase of the winery by the Álvarez family -read our tasting notes here. We are adding some historic context here from the book Vega Sicilia. Viaje al corazón de la leyenda by Spanish wine critic José Peñín.
In 1970 Vega Sicilia was owned by the Neumann family. Hans Neumann was the son of a Czech industrialist who had migrated to Venezuela in the 1930s and owned Chemical Montana, this country’s leading paint factory. In 1966, he purchased the winery on behalf of his son, who at the time was a minor. It was a rather romantic purchase as he knew and liked the wine. He had tasted it at the Park Avenue restaurant run by the Heras brothers in New York; and later at the city’s World's Fair, thanks to Clodoaldo Cortés, the owner of the legendary Jockey restaurant in Madrid. However, Neumann run Vega Sicilia from the distance and only paid a few visits to the property. Back then, the day-to-day management was in the hands of Jesús Anadón, who had been appointed director by the previous owner (a seed company called Prodes) and was passionate about Vega Sicilia's potential. Anadón kept his job until 1986, so he also made the transition during the first years under the ownership of the Álvarez family.
This background reinforces the halo of fascination of the brand and the fact that it always stood above its owners. It also proves that the small community of workers who lived on the estate preserved the cultural practices and the philosophy that had been passed down to them. This was the case of winemakers Martiniano Renedo and Mariano García himself, who was born at the property, and worked at Vega Sicilia since 1968 to 1998.
1970 is a great vintage despite the fact that the winery wasn’t at its peak. This must be one of the best wines ever made in Spain and definitively my favourite Vega Sicilia since I first tasted it (in magnum) in the late 1990s.
Another excellent tasting I had the chance to attend this year featured younger vintages of La Rioja Alta's two signature Gran Reservas: the 904 and the 890. According to its president, Guillermo Aranzábal, in the past winemaking was somewhat more artistic and intuitive, and the main stylistic difference between both wines was that the 890 was aged for longer. Nowadays, the style is created from the vineyards; the 904 is subtler, while the 890 has more structure. This is easily perceived if you compare, for example, the 904 and the 890 Gran Reserva in the excellent 2001 vintage.
I have always been a great advocate of the 904. I think it epitomises the finesse, balance and delicacy that Rioja became famous for, even if this is an increasingly difficult style to make. The 904 is synonymous with elegance and silky texture; it doesn’t need much structure to show remarkable complexity. But the 1981 vintage of the Gran Reserva 890 has cast some doubt on my preference (it's better not to have too many fixed ideas about wine; there are many wonderful exceptions around).
It was love at first sight. There is so much life and energy in that 1981 that it’s impossible not to fall for it. Beyond the complex, well-defined nose with hints of tobacco, spices and creamy notes, the palate is gorgeous, full and consistent, still with firm tannins and an earthy undertone that adds character. Enveloping and juicy, this wine ranks among the most seductive wines to cross my path this year.
Just like Conde de los Andes, our last recommendation has moderate sugar levels even if it is not a vintage wine. Behind it is Toneles Centenarios, a relatively new venture born from the magnificent collection of historic wines that the Ferrero family kept in La Canyada, in Alicante province. Their bodega was one of many which closed down in the 1960s, when the cooperative was founded.
In 2015 they teamed up with David Carbonell, co-owner of Vins del Comtat in Cocentaina, to restore two dozen casks and barrels of various sizes dating from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them were old Fondillón which had not been refilled since the winery ceased its activity.
Three years later, the first fondillón wines were released. Named Luis XIV, it is a reference to the French monarch who is believed to have enlivened his final years with the historic wines of Alicante. There are two different variants, both of which are sold in 50 cl. bottles: a 25+ year old and this 50+ year old of which just over 200 bottles are on release at €235. The name of the cask (Luna) where the wine is aged is written on the label, as well as the bottle number and the total number of bottles (221) in the saca.
The wine is almost as dark as a PX and boasts impressive concentration. The nose smells like a cabinet-maker’s workshop, with aromas of dark chocolate, hazelnut and nuts. The many years of ageing mean that the wine is super concentrated, as is its acidity, thus its freshness and the hint of volatile acidity which is relatively common in this kind of wines. A comforting, almost spirituous wine with toasted caramel notes and a very long, sapid, almost salty finish. So long that three sips last for a whole evening.