Aside from witnessing the longevity of Viña Ardanza and the legendary 890 and 904 Gran Reserva reds, we were able to experience the winemaking changes that these wines have undergone over recent decades. Two factors have been fundamental in the change: the renewal of casks, which has brought down average ages from 15 to 4.5 years and a sizeable investment in the vineyards which has meant that grapes are sourced exclusively from vines owned by La Rioja Alta.
Prior to the tasting, we were shown around the winery’s modern facilities in Labastida —five minutes away from the Haro headquarters— equipped with two brand new sorting machines fitted with 3D photographic technology which are expected to process at least two of the 2.8m kg of grapes estimated to be picked during the impending harvest. This new equipment will be programmed to work to high quality sorting standards with regards to colour, weight and size of the berries. Grapes waiting to enter the new sorting area will be stored in large refrigerated trucks which are already parked at La Rioja Alta’s winemaking facilities in Labastida. This is cutting edge technology to make very traditional, classic Rioja wines.
To learn more about La Rioja Alta and its wines, particularly the Gran Reserva range, read this feature published in our Wineries to Watch section earlier this year.
A trademark brand dating from 1942, Viña Ardanza is a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha which has always been made with grapes from the same villages with Garnacha specifically coming from Tudelilla (Rioja Baja), although Viura and other varieties were also mixed in early vintages. Alcoholic strength has risen from 12-12.5% in the 1960s and 1970s to 13.5% nowadays. Barrel aging times have also been reduced and since the early 1980s fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks.
Viña Ardanza 1973. Although this vintage was classified as “Good” by Rioja’s Regulatory Board, the winery declared the wine a “Reserva Especial” for the second time since 1964. The blend includes 75% Tempranillo sourced from Haro, San Vicente, Laguardia and Labastida in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa; 20% Garnacha from Tudelilla and El Redal in Rioja Baja, and 5% Graciano, Mazuelo and Viura. Fermentation took place in oak vats and the blend was aged for 36 months in American oak barrels. Garnet-brown colour. A classic nose with dusty, antique furniture-like aromas, spices and tobacco is followed by a light palate with marked acidity and noticeable oak tannins. It performed better on the nose.
Viña Ardanza 1985. This is a legendary vintage for La Rioja Alta. 1985 was a bumper harvest with excellent grapes picked in cool areas at high altitude. Quite a few of them came form vineyards owned by the winery: Garnacha form Tudelilla and Tempranillo from the Viña Ardanza estate in the vicinity of Montecillo (Fuenmayor). The rest came from small growers based in Cenicero, Ollauri and other villages in Rioja Alta. Fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks and the wine was aged for 42 months in American oak barrels. Deeper colour than the 1973 with a brick rim. It displays a textbook nose for this style with aromas of leather, ink and sweet spices; it has considerable weight on the palate thus tannins are better wrapped-up. Nicely balanced and long with spicy and leathery notes on the finish.
Viña Ardanza 2001. Another great vintage for La Rioja Alta and the best of the 21st century, reckons winemaker Julio Sáenz. Accordingly, the wine was declared “Reserva Especial”. Medium ruby colour. Lush nose with dried fruit, white chocolate, cocoa and spices (vanilla, cinnamon, ginger); no evolution at all. Good weight considering the style of the wine, lively acidity and the same spicy character felt on the nose. Dry tannins from the oak are well wrapped-up with lovely juiciness. This is a truly great vintage for the brand.
This wine was originally called Reserva 1904. It was released to mark the merger with Bodegas Ardanza, until then privately owned by one of La Rioja Alta’s stockholders. In the early years the blend used to include Mazuelo and Viura but both of them have been progressively replaced by Graciano. This variety has such a strong personality that it rarely exceeds 10% nowadays, explained Julio Sáenz.
Gran Reserva 904 1964. Considered one of the best Rioja vintages in the 20th century, 1964 was a generous year both in terms of quality and quantity. There was little rain but it arrived just when needed and the alcohol levels were relatively high for the time. This wine is a blend of 70% Tempranillo, 20% Graciano and 10% Viura coming from small wine growers with vineyards in Haro, Briñas, Briones, Villalba and Labastida. It spent a year in large 18,000-litre wooden vats before being aged for six years in used American oak barrels with nine racks altogether. Medium garnet colour. Slightly closed at the beginning with dusty and metallic nuances, it evolves to reveal chocolate, spices and antique furniture-like aromas. Lively acidity and really silky on the palate with high-quality tannins. This is a fine, persistent red and a great example to experience what old Rioja should taste like.
Gran Reserva 904 1982. Another legendary vintage in the appellation, 1982 was a dry, low-yielding year. It is a blend of 85% Tempranillo with some Mazuelo and Graciano old vines grown in Briñas, Ollauri and Rodezno, some of them owned by La Rioja Alta. The wine fermented in stainless steel tanks and spent six months in large oak vats prior to aging in American oak barrels for five years (that means 10 rackings). Medium ruby-garnet colour. The nose shows leathery and inky aromas with a glimpse of dried fruit. It drinks nicely thanks to a well-defined palate with more prominent tannins than the 1964 vintage but displaying lovely tipicity.
Gran Reserva 904 2001. Tempranillo accounts for up to 90% in this excellent vintage. It was sourced from over 40 year-old vines grown in Briñas, Labastida and Villalba. The remaining 10% Graciano came from vineyards owned by La Rioja Alta in Briones and Rodezno. The wine was aged for four years in American oak barrels with periodical rackings every six months. It displays a subtle, complex nose with a subtle balsamic note, red fruit preserve and plenty of sweet spices (cinnamon). Depth, juiciness and weight on the palate wrapped up by bright acidity and ripe yet firm tannins; it will benefit from cellaring.
A key issue for La Rioja Alta nowadays is to preserve the identity of its Gran Reserva range way beyond the moment these wines are released. The relatively high percentage of Garnacha in the Viña Ardanza blend gives the wine its identity. Despite being labeled as a Reserva, aging times exceed what is required for a Gran Reserva. While the 904 Gran Reserva aims to offer an ethereal, fine profile, the 890 Gran Reserva is made with structured and tannic grapes, capable of enduring long barrel aging times and standing the test of time when bottled. Aging times have remained unchanged but the number of rackings has been reduced.
Gran Reserva 890 1978. A year with a long vegetative cycle, it benefited high altitude and slow-ripening areas usually destined for Gran Reserva wines. The wine is a blend of 85% Tempranillo with some Viura, Mazuelo and Graciano, all of them grown in Rioja Alta. After fermentation the wine spent six months in wooden vats prior to aging in American oak barrels for as long as 7.5 years (90 months) with as many as 15 rackings. Ruby-garnet colour. Intense, complex and fine nose with dried fruits (Macadamia nut, chestnut), spices (cinnamon) and leather aromas. Good depth and finesse on the palate with integrated, bright acidity. There’s a lovely aromatic character in this ethereal, enthralling wine.
Gran Reserva 890 1981. Although little praised, many Rioja wineries are finding that the 1981 vintage has outperformed the far more celebrated 1982; 1981 was a great vintage indeed at La Rioja Alta. After fermenting in stainless steel tanks, the wine spent six months in large oak vats and up to seven years in American oak barrels with a total of 12 rackings. Ruby-garnet colour, deeper than 1978. Rather earthy and closed at the beginning, it evolves towards dairy and spicy aromas with some umami hints (seaweed). Savoury and far more consistent than the 1978 vintage on the palate with a lovely, silky texture. One of my favourite wines.
Gran Reserva 890 2001. Confirming La Rioja Alta’s excitement with this vintage, the wine was labelled “Selección Especial” for the first time in its long history. Tempranillo plays an increasingly important role. It accounts for up to 95% of the blend with 3% Graciano and 2% Mazuelo. All grapes were sourced from 40+ year-old vines, with Tempranillo coming from Briñas, Labastida and Villalba and the rest from Rodezno. There’s a continuous selection of batches since the very moment fermentation ends and throughout the different barrel-aging stages that spanned over six years and 12 rackings. Medium ruby colour. Lovely scented and exuberant nose with chimney smoke and dried fruits (almonds and almond bloosom) aromas. Pleasant consistency on the palate with firm, serious tannins and high acidity and alcohol levels which hint at an excellent potential. This is a somewhat baroque red in need of extra cellaring time and the most challenging of the three 2001 we tasted.