I’m stepping back in time again for today’s Flashback Thursday post, and again I’m in Rioja, following on from where things left off at Bodegas Muriel.
While the Muriel story is as much about satisfying a hunger for good value Rioja (and me kicking some dirt), the story at La Rioja Alta is all about the classics.
Started in 1890, this family business is one of the ‘originals’ that lie clustered around the train station at Haro, sitting alongside names like Roda, Muga and Lopez Heredia. The reason for this ‘golden mile’ around the station is simply about transport, the significance dating back to when phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of France and juice was transported by train from Rioja to Bordeaux while the French worked out what to do.
Of course phylloxera eventually landed in Spain, but not before the world hooked onto the potential of Rioja, and not before it kickstarted the local economy (Rioja was one of the first places Spain to have electricity – before Madrid and Barcelona)…
There’s a strong French connection all through this place, and it’s not surprising that the first qualified oenologist at La Rioja Alta was French. Even the winery gardens feel like your at a Bordeaux chateau, the estate completed by a still operational cooperage. There’s a real old school, ‘we know what we’re doing’ style about the winemaking and the wines too, with only American oak used, classic labelling and wines that spend extra time in oak than is required (the 890 Gran Reserva spends up to six years in barrel, just to get that traditional feel).
What also sets this grand old estate apart from some others is that they almost exclusively grow their own fruit, and with 500 hectares under vine they’ve got plenty to choose from. Handpicking is apparently the only method (but doesn’t everyone say that) and like many of the premium Rioja producers, La Rioja Alta make only crianza level and up, as they believe oak ageing to be essential for great wine.
I found it hard not to like the wines here, with the style fitting very much into that ageless, oak backed, structural style that tends to look excellent after about a decade in the bottle (if the oak doesn’t overtake things). Despite a reputation as super premium wines, you can still pickup the superb 2004 vintage of Ardanza in Spanish hypermarkets for circa €20 a bottle too, which is crazy good value.
La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva 2007
80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, the Tempranillo from 30 year old vineyards in Fuenmayor y Cenicero (which my translator tells me means Fuenmayor and ashtray. Go figure) and Garnacha from a 600m vineyard at Tudelilla in the Rioja Baja. Temp spent 36 months in 4yo barrels, the Garnacha 30 months in 2-3 year old barrels.
Red earth and chocolate fudge, the oak is ever present here lending a thickness to everything, though without ever feeling overpowering. Just thick. That’s helped by quite silky tannins, which are quite a surprise for the warm vintage. There’s some of that brick dust and roasted fruit of a hot year, but otherwise a quite charismatic old and new style. 17.7/20, 92/100. 13.5% alc., circa €17 at the winery.
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004
90% Tempranillo from Briñas, Labastida and Villalba, 10% Graciano from Melchorón I and II vineyards in Briones and Rodezno. Four years in 4yo barrels.
As an eleven year old, this is just starting to hit its straps. That nose is quite developed, with red earth, leather and more earth. But the more you look the more the red fruit comes out too. Still that obvious oak thickness, but it’s a gentle wine, the tannins particularly fine and long, kicking this along nicely without the need for heavy extraction. High quality and refined, it’s a forty year wine, with complexity and clarity. 18.7/20, 95/100. 13% alc., circa €28 at the winery.