When an invitation to taste some ancient Rioja from Marques de Riscal arrived, it was impossible to resist. Traditional Rioja can age very well, but for over a century?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsE_23Hx5j4&hl=en

Luis Hurtado de Amézaga of Marques de Riscal uses red-hot tongs and cold water to open a bottle of 1900 Marques de Riscal, Christie’s King Street, London 18 June 2008

Riscal, founded 150 years ago, still fashions wines intended to develop for many years in bottle. Like other founding bodegas of the region, Riscal took Bordeaux as its model, planting Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Tempranillo, and ageing the wines for many years in small oak barrels.

Respect for tradition doesn’t mean that the company is stuck in the past. Just a glance at the gleaming new winery and City of Wine designed by Frank O Gehry in 2006 will put an end to that notion. Riscal was also one of the first Rioja bodegas to release what would now be regarded as a modern-style Rioja, the Baron de Chirel: dark, concentrated, and oaky.

Another innovation is the Frank Gehry Selection, a cuvée produced to celebrate the opening of the City of Wine. It’s a pure Tempranillo from vines over 40 years old, bottled only in magnums. The debut vintage was 2001, and the next will be the 2005.

The wines were tasted over a congenial dinner held at Christie’s, which will be auctioning some venerable bottles from Riscal on 26 June. Director Jose Luis Muguiro and winemaker Luis Hurtado were both present, and admitted that even they, descendants of the founding families, had never tasted the 1900.

Since the 1900 vintage was sealed with its original cork, they used heated tongs to sever the neck, and leave the cork untouched. It looked like a risky procedure, but it worked perfectly.

2001 Frank Gehry Selection (magnum). Deep red. Rich stern oaky nose, black cherries. Very rich and full-bodied, with liquorice and mint tones as well as black fruits. Forceful and with high acidity that should ensure a long life. Good length, and very good wine, if hard to recognise as Rioja. 17.5 points

1994 Baron de Chirel Reserva (magnum; 30% Cabernet Sauvignon). Deep red. Sweet intense oaky nose, very elegant, and the Cabernet certainly shows. Medium-bodied, still dominated by oak, reasonably fresh, and with plenty of tannin to keep it going for some years. 17 points

1964 Marques de Riscal (recorked; 100% Tempranillo). Fairly deep red, with little evolution. Sweet vanilla nose, cherry fruit, intense but one-dimensional. Soft, rounded, and juicy, with supple tannins and ample sweetness of fruit, with a touch of mint. Not tiring at all, and very long. 18 points

1945 Marques de Riscal (original cork; 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano; aged 48 months in oak). Remarkably youthful deep red. Sweet intense blackcurranty nose, minty and ethereal and packed with fruit. Ripe and lush and super-concentrated, with pungent acidity and assertive but not astringent tannins. Still very youthful and long, with no sign of fatigue. 18.5 points

1900 Marques de Riscal (pre-phylloxera vines; original cork; 60% Tempranillo, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Graciano; aged 50 months in oak). Medium-deep red with some brick tones, but still bright. Cherry aromas on the nose, exquisitely perfumed and sweet. Medium-bodied, utterly smooth and silky, still remarkably fresh, a touch faded but by no means lacking fruit. The balance is excellent, with no trace of dryness, and the long finish has lift and freshness. Remarkable. 19.5 points

Written by Stephen Brook