There is plenty to celebrate this year at La Rioja Alta’s 125th anniversary. Finesse and restraint are back in wine fashion and with them the Gran Reserva style, which the winery definitely masters, and the rest of its range.
La Rioja Alta is not the only one benefitting from this new trend towards less structured and gentler reds. These are good times for most of the wineries found in Haro’s Barrio de la Estación. This patch of land is arguably the world’s largest settlement of centuries-old wineries with just two exceptions: Muga and Roda. The area looks better than ever —most buildings have been carefully restored and boast wine shops and tastings rooms to welcome visitors. This prosperity is the result of sound figures supported by well-known brands both in Spain and abroad.
The origins of Barrio de la Estación are linked to the arrival of French négociants to Rioja after the vineyards in Bordeaux were devastated by phylloxera. In order to meet the high demand for wine and provide effective transport, most wineries settled next to the railway station. La Rioja Alta was established by five Rioja and Basque families in 1890, the same year that Spain’s first electrical lines were installed both in Haro and Jerez. Surprisingly enough, the first president of La Rioja Alta was a woman, Saturnina García Cid y Gárate. French influence in the area led to Monsieur Vigier being employed as oenologist so Bordelaise winemaking practices were implemented since the very beginning. As proof of the buoyant situation, the winery purchased 3,500 barrels to start the business and in just two years grape production reached 700,000 kilos.
La Rioja Alta’s first bottled wine is the predecessor of the current Gran Reserva 890, which was named Reserva 1890 after the winery’s year of foundation; the first vintage was 1894 and was released as an “eighth year” red. The predecessor of Gran Reserva 904 was known at the time as Reserva 1904 to mark the merger with Bodegas Ardanza, until then privately owned by one of La Rioja Alta’s stockholders. Until the 1930s all wines were stored in hogsheads and transported by train —with a team of workers from the winery travelling alongside to bottle them locally.
The ageing categories are relatively recent in Rioja. According to the book Tres siglos de La Rioja Alta (Three Centuries of La Rioja Alta), the winery had a “third year” red in 1965 that was renamed Viña Alberdi Crianza in 1974; the “sixth year” red was known by that name until 1969, when it was renamed Viña Arana. The company’s well known Viña Ardanza was registered as a brand in 1942, although several vintages had been previously released —old bottles from the 1960s simply state the vintage and the “Red Table Wine” indication on the label. The old Arana and Alberdi reds were low-alcohol wines of around 11% vol., against Viña Ardanza and the Gran Reserva styles, which were well above that mark. Nowadays, the official barrel-aging time for the three top labels is six years for Gran Reserva 890, four years for Gran Reserva 904 and 36 months (much longer than what is needed to be called Gran Reserva) in the case of Viña Ardanza Reserva.
At first glance, La Rioja Alta seems to practice a classic style of winemaking, even resisting the temptation to launch a modern range of wines, as opposed to some of its Barrio de la Estación neighbours. Their only attempt at making reds with less aging times has been carried out away from their Haro premises — Torre de Oña, in Rioja Alavesa, was bought for this purpose in 1995.
But despite this classic image, the firm has undergone substantial changes. Since 1987 all of its wines are fermented in stainless steel deposits and a new winery was built in nearby Labastida (Rioja Alavesa) in 1996. These high-tech facilities, renewed just five years ago, might not match the traditional image of La Rioja Alta as much as the huge aging cellar underneath. Managing fixed assets of 30,000 barrels is no easy task unless you are a very long-established producer and have the means to own an in-house cooperage, as is the case of La Rioja Alta, which sources oak directly from American purveyors and undergoes its own open-air drying and maturing process.
Classicism is achieved thanks to the total absence of French oak and the long barrel aging periods. Nevertheless, the style has evolved towards cleaner reds, with less old wood character —barrels are renewed after four or five years— and fuller mid-palates as extraction is somewhat higher now, but without losing the aromatic complexity and persistence expected from a Gran Reserva.
The greatest impact on current -and future- wines is the 365-degree change in its grape supply. La Rioja Alta no longer purchases grapes from third parties; instead it has bought over 400 hectares of land, 360 of which are already in production. Since the 2005 vintage, most grapes assigned to its top-of-the-range Gran Reserva 890 (10,000-15,000 bottles, €109.20 at El Corte Inglés or via Wine Sercher), Gran Reserva 904 (150,000 bottles, €38.50 at Vinissimus or via Wine Searcher; look for older vintages at Lavinia) and Viña Ardanza Reserva (600,000 bottles, €19.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), are sourced from its own vineyards. The winery’s first purchases of land began in the late 1970s and intensified with the turn of the century.
Most vineyards are located in Rioja Alta except for La Pedriza in Tudelilla (Rioja Baja), with stony soils where Grenache, a key ingredient for Viña Ardanza, is grown. Graciano, which is intended for Gran Reserva styles, is now grown in a warmer, central area in the appellation that is better suited for its long ripening cycle.
As winemaker Julio Sáenz explains, they are currently working with vineyards of a certain age from which profitable yields around 5,000-5,500 kilos can be obtained per hectare. Individual plots are tailored towards specific wines and fermented separately. After malolactic fermentation, the first blends within each variety are done and are later aged separately. Moreover, since the late 1990s, each lot is assigned a specific length of time in barrel although the final average aging periods match the winery’s high requirements for each brand. A good example of these adjustments is Viña Ardanza’s Garnacha whose share in the blend has risen to 20% but aging times have been reduced from 36 to 30 months.
The recent release of the 2001 Gran Reserva 890 has had great impact both in Spain and abroad. It is unsurprising if we take into account that La Rioja Alta’s main markets are, in this order, New York, UK and Madrid. As it was the case with Viña Ardanza, the 2001 Gran Reserva 890 has been considered a Special Selection. "To my mind, it's the best vintage since 1964 and I think no other has reached its elegance and complexity", says winemaker Julio Sáenz.
It seems pretty clear that beyond the style, the success of the best Gran Reservas is also due to their quality and cellaring potential. Despite the fact that aging categories don’t stand for quality in Rioja, a Gran Reserva will always require the best grapes in order to endure such long aging periods. Such quality can only be obtained on the very best vintages. In 2014, for example, there will be no Gran Reserva at La Rioja Alta. The winery can be very exacting in this regard; in the past decade, Ardanza 2002, 2003 and 2006 were not released, not even Viña Arana in 2002 and 2003.
On my last visit to La Rioja Alta in January, Julio Sáenz kindly arranged a tasting of some Viña Ardanza, 890 and 904 samples in their previous stage before release. I tasted a 2012 Tempranillo meant for Viña Ardanza, a blend of different plots from Cenicero. It showed a cherry liquor character with medium body and some bitterness in the end that seemed to perfectly match the second sample from the same vintage, this time a Garnacha from La Pedriza vineyard, with plenty of juiciness and exuberance and a rounder palate. We then tasted a Viña Ardanza 2007, due to be released by the end of this year, in which the aging effect was beautifully noticeable. There came the distinctive spicy nuances (musk, cinnamon) and dried fruit (dried peaches) together with the freshness and finesse so characteristic from the 2007 vintage which I think has been unfairly underrated in Rioja.
The 2012 Graciano that will be in the Gran Reserva blends was powerful, with aniseed and liquorice aromas and more ripeness than you’d expect in Rioja. As for Tempranillos, they come mainly from vineyards in Villalba, Briñas and Rodezno. Mineral and structured in character (usually associated to chalk limestone soils), they should be able to endure the long aging process required for Gran Reserva 890, while those intended for Gran Reserva 904 had roundness and velvety tannins. The 904 2005 vintage to be released in a couple of years (after due times in barrel and bottle) was marked by red bright fruit and vibrant acidity with spicy, aniseed and leather notes. By contrast, the 890 felt rather close and tight although full of potential.
Research is under way in order to preserve consistency in wines and limit the oxidative effect during wood aging. On the other hand, some rackings have been replaced by just refilling of barrels, specially those performed in the last stages of aging. The standard for Gran Reservas is eight rackings for the 904 and ten for the 890.
Perhaps with the only exception of Tondonia, the model of long-aged Riojas has evolved as much as the rest of styles in the appellation, although at a different pace. After all, can anyone remain still for 125 years?