An exploration of wine

La Rioja Alta: benchmark classical Riojas especially top flight Gran Reservas

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La Rioja Alta bodega entrance

The distinctive entrance to La Rioja Alta bodega in Haro

La Rioja Alta, established in Haro in 1890, is certainly one of the major players in high quality, traditionally-styled Rioja. In their top pair of Gran Reservas – 890 reflecting the founding date and its little brother 904, first launched in 1904 – can be seen wines at the pinnacle of the classical Rioja quality pile

As one of the ‘big 5’ of the Haro Barrio de la Estación, next door to Muga and opposite Tondonia, this is one of the benchmark producers of Rioja Alta wines, which it was a pleasure to visit in 2018.

The bodega controls 415Ha of vineyards in Rioja, under the La Rioja Alta label. In 1995, they acquired Torre de Oña, a 44Ha single estate near Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa. They have positioned this second brand as their modern-style Rioja, producing 4 wines.

But the Group has looked beyond the boundaries of Rioja too, planting 87Ha of Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero to make 2 wines under the Áster brand. Initially, this included an estate Reserva with American oak, but they realised French oak worked better, so dropped the Reserva and now have only an estate Crianza, plus a single plot Reserva – Finca El Otero.

75Ha of Albariño was added in the O Rosal region of Rías Baixas to make wines of the Lagar de Cervera label. This latter estate is now the Group’s white wine, replacing historic production of Rioja Blanco.

Within the La Rioja Alta brand itself, the hierarchy begins with Viña Alberdi which is a relatively volume Reserva, and which is the mainstay of their Spanish sales. Next are a pair of Reservas, Viña Arana and Viña Ardanza that are matured for longer periods and come in €5 and €10 / bottle higher in price respectively.

La Rioja Alta wine range

We tasted most of La Rioja Alta group’s range except 890

With 20% Garnacha, Viña Ardanza particularly is a benchmark for traditional Rioja, often used in the MW exams as such. It is also their largest volume brand at 500,000 bottles. In 3 vintages – 1964, 1973 and 2001 – this has been released as a Reserva Especial, reflecting the supreme quality of these years. I bought and have drunk a lot of the 2001!

904 and 890 then sit over all the other wines, as ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ Gran Reservas respectively. At a dinner a few years ago, I included the 890 1995, which outshone all the other wines in an impressive line-up and had plenty of life to go, at 20 years of age. My brother has a bottle of 1973 904 awaiting the right moment…

La Rioja Alta barrel room

A photogenic selection of the 30,000 barrels La Rioja Alta have

Barrels are clearly an important part of the La Rioja Alta style. La Rioja Alta have 30,000 American oak barrels, and they import the oak already 2-years seasoned, then have an external cooperage build them new. La Rioja Alta’s in-house coopers repair, but don’t build new. Torre de Oña does have some American oak, but its profile is more heavily focused on French oak, alongside some Russian oak from the Caucasus. Áster is exclusively French oak, up to 2 years of age.

Maturation times are equally key. 890 will typically spend 6 years in barrel and 6 years in bottle, while 904 is a shorter 4 and 4 profile, both of which comfortably exceed Gran Reserva requirements. Indeed, Viña Ardanza and Viña Arana, though Reservas, would now qualify for Gran Reserva status given their lengths of total maturation. This means a lot of storage, given that the Group sells 3m bottles a year – 9m bottles maturing in the bodega (including a wine library reserve established in the 1980s) plus 30,000 barrels equates to 8 years’ production in stock.

La Rioja Alta wine library

La Rioja Alta’s attractive wine library, begun in the 1980s

With such extensive maturation, management of O2 has become a priority for the winemaking. An important stage that they are going through is to measure oxygen across each stage of production, to understand how much is introduced into the wine as a result of current production methods. From that knowledge base, processes can be altered to manage oxygen uptake better.

Nevertheless, barrels are already topped-up monthly to fill ullage and reduce oxidation, whilst traditional cloth and wood bungs have been replaced by silicone both for better seals and to reduce contamination. Barrels are racked every 6 months, not only to clarify the wines, but also to provide Quality Control analysis points on an ongoing basis.

Given that measured oxidation is a component of creating the style of the house’s Rioja Alta wines, this commitment to future quality through controlling that process more tightly should only serve to drive their already high standards higher.

From a commercial perspective, it’s interesting to see where the different brands are stronger. The Áster Ribera del Duero brand apparently sells well in Asia and the US, as well as to European locations with substantial Spanish ex-pat communities, while La Rioja Alta is mainly in the UK and US.

In the UK, the brand positioning is very much upmarket, meaning they don’t sell into supermarkets, and focus instead on independents. Its largest outlet is Majestic, particularly for Viña Ardanza. Restaurants and high-end wine bars are the on trade focus for visibility, and apparently that delivers good off-trade follow-up.

In 2015, they were heading to London Wine Fair with UK agents, Armit. The 3 days were good for on-trade sales, but at £25,000 then for a stand for 3 days, it becomes hard to justify the wine fair, versus spending the equivalent on doing road trips around the country. A fair challenge!

In the US, they have as many as 20 importers, due to the high levels of regionality in US distribution (like Germany), with particular strength in New York City. In less well known markets, such as South Korea, critics’ appraisal has been key to getting access. These days, the Rioja Alta brand at least opens doors, even sales don’t immediately follow.

The tasting notes below combine an extensive tasting of their portfolio at the bodega in 2018, with a previous wine dinner and other tasting opportunities.

 

Wines

Lagar de Cervera Albariño Rías Baixas 2017 (16.5 / 20)
MLF in most years to reduce acidity, but not in 2017.
A: Pale lemon-gold
N: Lovely apricot fruit, which added apple / orchard fruit tones on warming. Ripe lemon citrus beneath. Some toasty, nutty lees. Hint of ozone to the fruit
P: Vibrant citrus fruit. Crisp acidity. Bright and energetic with green apple tones

Lagar de Cervera Albariño Rías Baixas 2013 (?? / 20)
Tasted at 2015 wine dinner. 10% MLF to manage acidity.
A: Pale lemon-green
N: Bright, clean, white peach. Greengage. Not overt lees
P: Mineral salty touch. White peach and gentle citrus. Light-medium body. Crisp. No lees?

Torre de Oña Rioja Martelo 2012 (16.5 / 20)
New addition to Torre de Oña range. Intent to rediscover the Alavesa style with a field-blend. 90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. 600m altitude, chalky-clay, poor soils. 22 months in 80% American and 20% French oak. MLF in the American oak portion.
A: Mid ruby, with some garnet glints
N: Vanilla-cream American oak. Subtle toast. Dusty minerality over ripe red cherry. Gentle oxidation. Red fruit and elegance
P: Supple, ripe, red cherry with vanilla cream. Supple, fairly-firm, slightly chalky tannins. Fairly long, creamy finish

Torre de Oña Rioja 2010 (?? / 20)
Tasted at 2015 wine dinner. Rioja Alavesa single vineyard. Rioja Alta’s modern-style label. 2 years in French and Caucasian oak, then 2 years in bottle. 95% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo. More powerful and dark fruit typical of Alavesa.
A: Mid-deep ruby-garnet
N: Torrified. Oak spice, earth, Marmite. Black fruit.
P: Smoky, toasty black fruit. Vanilla. Touch of spice. Long

La Rioja Alta Viña Alberdi Reserva 2012 (16 / 20)
200-250,000 bottles a year. €10 / bottle in Spain. 1 year new American oak then 1 year in 2 year old American oak. 100% Tempranillo.
A: Mid ruby-garnet
N: Spicy, cinnamon-edged, toasted coconut oak. Some dried red cherry and balsamic touches to the fruit. Tea touch, then nut
P: Spiced red and dried red cherry palate. Some balsamic. Chalky, medium tannins. Creamy oak mid-palate. Bright acidity. Fair length

La Rioja Alta Viña Arana Reserva 2009 (16.5 / 20)
€15 / bottle in Spain. UK and Northern Spain are main markets. 3 years in oak. 95% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo.
A: Mid-deep garnet, with some ruby tones
N: Dusty mineral, subtly chilli-spiced, toasted coconut. Balsamic. Dried red cherry and wild strawberry. Bloody, metallic note emerged
P: Spiced, dried red cherry. Balsamic. Brisk acidity. Creamy vanilla mid-palate. Fairly fine, moderate tannins. Medium-long to long

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva 2009 (17 / 20)
€20 / bottle in Spain. 500,000 bottles production and the largest brand in the portfolio. 3 years in oak. 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha.
A: Mid-deep garnet
N: Torrified spice, clove, some chocolate, integral hints of balsamic. Dense. Dried red cherry. Mellow tobacco notes
P: Brisk acidity. Sour-savoury red cherry. Rich mid-palate spice. Fairly firm, fine tannins. Creamy oak finish. Serious

La Rioja Alta Rioja Reserva Viña Ardanza 2005 (17.5 / 20)
Tasted at 2015 wine dinner. 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha. Red fruit profile. 3 years in barrel and 6 in bottle.
A: Mid garnet
N: Balsamic, spice, tea leaf. Oxidative. Grilled meat touch. Broad. Oak spice. Papery oak touch
P: Medium body. Svelte, fairly firm, fine and silky tannins. Red cherry and dried cherry. Sweet touch to fruit. Brisk acidity. Balanced. Long

La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904 2009 (17.5+ / 20)
€35 / bottle. 90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano. Start fermentation at low temperature, then build up to get fruit and colour. 4 years in barrel and 4 in bottle.
A: Mid-deep garnet
N: Toasty oak. Sweet-spicy chilli and cinnamon. Fresh leather. Ripe balsamic cherry
P: Fresh acidity, chalky, medium tannins. Bright red cherry. Tobacco. Balsam. Spice. Long

La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904 1997 (16.5 / 20)
Bottled 2002.
A: Mid-deep brick-garnet
N: Stewed red fruit, black tea maturity, balsamic, some polished wood
P: Brisk acidity. Dried-out fruit. Balsamic. Moderate, fine tannins

La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904 1997 (17 / 20)
Second bottle to check condition of first.
A: Mid-deep garnet with a brick rim
N: Deeper spice, red & black fruit, some polished wood. Dried black cherry
P: Rich, balsamic red cherry, chilli spice and oak toast over bright acidity. Old tobacco maturity

La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904 200? (?? / 20)
Tasted at 2015 wine dinner. 1904 first vintage, but the 1 at the front confused consumers with a vintage date. 4 vintages / decade. 90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano. 4 years in barrel and 10 in bottle.
A: Mid ruby-garnet
N: Toasty spice, dried red cherry. Tight. Deep. Compact. Subtle. Mineral. A little tight
P: Sour cherry. Crisp and lean. A little hollow. Firm, minerally acidity. Balsamic touch. Toasty, broad spiced finish. Persistent

Áster Ribera del Duero Reserva Finca El Otero 2014 (17.5 / 20)
7-8Ha parcel. 750-800m altitude on sandy-clay soils. 100% Tinta del País. 15 months in new French oak, including MLF. 55,000 bottles. €25 / bottle.
A: Deep ruby with some garnet glints
N: Violets, orange peel, some spice and stony mineral. Subtle clove and smoky oak tones
P: Chocolate and cacao. Orange peel. Spice. Full bodied. Smoky. Flint mineral. Sweet black cherry fruit but not a sweet flavour. Firm, chalky-grainy tannins. Orange peel mid-palate. Warmer finish. Attractive in a modern style. Bright acidity. Clove finish

Áster Ribera del Duero Crianza 2014 (16.5 / 20)
22 months in 2-year old French oak. 150-200,000 bottles / year. €15 / bottle in Spain.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Cedar-clove oak and orange peel. Dusty mineral. Some animal / fresh leather
P: Brisk acidity. Orange-cherry. Violet tone. Grainy, firm tannins. Clove oak. Some chocolate. Spiced finish. A bit warming. Savoury

Áster Ribera del Duero Crianza 2010 (16.5-17 / 20)
Tasted at 2015 wine dinner. 95Ha single estate at 800m altitude. 100% Tempranillo. Pre-harvest from 12 to 7 bunches per vine. Harvest 5 bunches / vine. 4-4.5t / Ha vs 6t / Ha typical regional yields. 18 months in new French oak, then 2 years in bottle.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Oak spice, cinnamon, vanilla; blackberry and cherry
P: Bright acidity. Black cherry, spicy oak and vanilla. Red and black cherry. Fresh. Fine, medium-weight, chalky tannins. Fairly long

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