Don’t get me wrong, some of this depends on your idea of relative value, but I assure you that buying a bottle of 20- year-old Rioja for $75 – $100 is one of the best values in the world of wine. And it doesn’t end there. Great bottles of aged Rioja can be had for a pittance around the country.
Rioja is a Spanish wine typically made from the Tempranillo grape and aged in American oak, giving it a healthy dose of wood tannin and dark vanilla character in its youth. It can take decades for this character to integrate and result into a perfectly-aged bottle of wine. However, when it does emerge from that overly oaked and tannic state, the results are marvelous.
One of the best-known names in the region is La Rioja Alta, and there’s a very good reason for that. For 125 years, La Rioja Alta has managed to turn out some of the highest-quality, best-priced Rioja that our market has ever seen, all while maintaining a large enough production to supply demand. This is the result of over one hundred years of winemaking experience and the foresight to purchase some of the best vineyards throughout Rioja as they became available.
A major leap forward took place in 1904 when La Rioja Alta acquired Bodegas Ardanza and their highly esteemed vineyards. Since that time, the winery has worked to only refine the process, but never to change what makes La Rioja Alta special, which in reality was a modern approach to Spanish winemaking over the course of 125-years that has now become the “Traditional” style today.
Tasting through vintages of La Rioja Alta is an eye-opening experience and one that I’d love to share with you. These wines may be immortal.
The Vina Ardanza Reserva differs from La Rioja Alta’s other offerings in that it is a blend of Trempranillo and old-vine Garnacha (20%), as opposed to the small dosages of Mazuelo and Graciano which usually make up the blend. Only the best fruit is picked for the Ardanza Reserva, with aging done in two-four-year-old American oak casks for 30 – 36 months, just as a classic Rioja should be. The results are an intense and lively wine with dark fruits, spice and balsamic tones offset by a hint of vanilla. It’s enjoyable now, yet balanced to age for decades, just as I witnessed at our recent tasting of the 1985.
1985 La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Ardanza Reserva – The nose was simply gorgeous with depths of plum and crushed cherry fruit, dark spice tones, dried flowers and hints of undergrowth. It was enveloping on the palate with silky textures giving way to black cherry, orange peel and herbal tea. The finish was long, lingering on blackberry, dried strawberry, and hints of citrus with a bitter twang. This is perfectly aged and a testament to Vina Ardanza’s ability to age. (93 points)
2005 La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza – The nose was earthy with an herbal quality, showing strawberry, spiced apple, dried orange peel and floral tones. On the palate, it displayed acid-driven, medium-weight textures giving way to dried cherry, spice and minerals, with herbal tones lingering on the finish. The ’05 Ardanza is a great QPR, especially for the lover of old world wines. (92 points) @Morrell
2007 La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza – The nose was rich and intense with dark fruits, spice, brown sugar and sweet floral tones. On the palate, it displayed silky textures with dark balsamic tones and ripe strawberry coating the senses. A vein of vibrant acidity kept things refreshing and lively as the finish displayed bitter fruits, sweet herbs and dark wood tones. This is a massive wine, enjoyable today, yet so youthful. (93 points)
Gran Reserva 904
In celebration of acquiring Bodegas Ardanza in 1904, along with it’s highly-regarded vineyards, La Rioja Alta began producing the Gran Reserva 904, which has grown to become one of the most popular of all Gran Reserva on the market today. The price-to-quality ration that this wine represents is almost impossible to beat. Made from a blend of Tempranillo (90%) and Graciano (10%) and then aged in four-year-old American oak barrels, the Gran Reserva 904 comes across as truly classic. It’s enjoyable in its youth yet able to age for many decades. Placing a case of this wine in your cellar each vintage would guarantee a lifetime of drinking great, mature Rioja.
1982 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 – The bouquet was remarkably pretty and alluring with dried red fruits, savory mushroom, crushed stone, and minerals. On the palate, it was taut but with a vibrant pulse of acidity with flavors of herbal red berries and chalky minerality. Inner floral tones and spice lingered on the finish, as remnants of acidity buzzed on the finish. (95 points)
2001 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 – The nose showed ripe strawberry and cherry with exotic spice, orange peel, undergrowth and dusty soil tones. On the palate, it was remarkably smooth yet light as a feather with vibrant acidity, which made the mouth water. Red fruit, dried spice and inner floral notes radiated throughout and lasted into the long, fresh finish. It’s a beautifully-balanced wine, which is drinking great now, yet should continue to age for many years to come. (93 points)
2005 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 – The nose was focused and pure with intense cherry fruit, dark wood tones, herbal mint and chalky minerals. On the palate, it was youthfully tight, showing focused red fruits, cedar, spice and saline minerality. The finish was long with concentrated red berry and tannin pulling at the senses. This wine is built for the long haul. (94 points)
Gran Reserva 890
The Gran Reserva 890 was created to honor the year of 1890, when La Rioja Alta was created by five growers with their sights on bringing Rioja to the world’s stage. Today, the 890 sits at the top of the La Rioja Alta pyramid. It’s produced only in the best years, from the best grapes, and aged for six years in hand-picked barrels. The 890 is released over a decade after its vintage date and is built for the cellar. Tasting a mature 890 is a riveting experience, as you can see from my note below.
1981 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 – The 1981 Gran Reserva 890 was drop-dead gorgeous. With each tilt of the glass, this wine seemed to reveal more and pull me closer. Deep, dark and intense red fruits, spiced-orange, game, savory herbs and minerality dominated the bouquet. On the palate, it was vibrant, showing silky textures that caressed the senses with an old-world mix of dried cherry, savory meat, minerals and undergrowth. Red berry and citrus tones clung to the senses throughout the finish, which seemed to go on and on. Stunning! (96 points)
Click HERE, to explore Morrell’s selection of vintage Rioja