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Spain a red decade: Rioja tasting

The 75th anniversary of La Rioja's Consejo Regulador provided ample excuse for a Rioja tasting. John Radford samples the 1999 and some of the region's older and greater vintages
  • Is there any mileage in buying Rioja en primeur as they do in Bordeaux?
  • Good Rioja tasting is predicated on suitable, judicious and time-consuming oak ageing.
  • Rioja’s best are, as always, well capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with most of the finest wines of the world.
  • If there’s a crisis amongst some producers, it might be a crisis of identity: to Parker or not to Parker?

Wine: Spain

You’ll have noticed the ‘La’ in La Rioja. It is significant. La Rioja (feminine) is a province and autonomous region, centred on the city of Logroño, where they make a wine (vino – masculine) called El Rioja. They also make this wine in the neighbouring province of Alava, to the north (part of the Basque country) and in Navarra, to the west, and some of these are among the finest of all Rioja wines, but they were not represented at this event, because it was held to celebrate the ‘greats’ of the region of La Rioja alone.

I went along with two unanswered questions in my mind. First, what was the quality of the 1999 vintage like? And second, was there any mileage in buying Rioja en primeur (en primero?), as they do in Bordeaux? I returned with an answer to the second (no, to cut a long story short) but, tantalisingly, not to the first. Paradoxically, for exactly the same reason.

The tasting

First, though, the event. It was well-organised and took place at a purpose-built conference centre outside the city of Logroño. A conference and seminar sessions for the trade (with simultaneous translation in four languages) were held in the main hall while the press were offered a series of structured tastings in a separate room, hosted by Andrés Proensa, one of the triumvirate of top Spanish wine writers (the others being José Peñín – also there – and Victor de la Serna). María-Antonia Fernández (who had organised everything) did the English-language stuff and the glasses we tasted from were specially-designed, on a beguilingly long stem with a conical base complete with punt. They gave us a glass (and a bottle of the official government Rioja) to take home. Journalists from Sweden, Japan, Australia, Denmark, Portugal and France as well as the UK made up the number, and the whole business culminated with a series of presentations to the full conference on our feelings about the state of the industry and the quality of the wines. That was the formal bit.

My first tasting was of the wines of the 1999 vintage – a flight of 14 wines already on sale in Spain and beyond – and the answer to my second question, would it be realistic to buy Rioja en primero? You must have heard the old joke about the Spaniard who wanted to buy a bottle of wine. He went to a French wine producer and chose an appropriate wine. The producer handed it over and said, ‘Keep this wine for five years, and then you can drink it’. The Spaniard handed it back: saying, ‘No, you keep it for five years, and sell me a bottle that’s already five years old.’ It illustrates the different approach to wine from both countries, and also reminded me that, since good Rioja is predicated on suitable, judicious and time-consuming oak ageing, all we were ever going to get from the 1999 tasting were jovenes – young wines with little or no oak, made for instant drinking.

None the worse for that, however, the 14 wines came and went. The 1999 vintage has been classified as ‘Good’ (that’s three stars out of five on the Spanish quality scale – see Box 1 for details of that and the relationship between recent vintages), which means that, even though it was a pretty large harvest, much of it is middle-of-the-road quality. Most good producers will have made a modest amount of good wine for ageing, but this is securely locked in its oaken womb until the legal time-limits have been observed. Later in the week, we did get to taste the odd cask sample of wines for ageing, but as regards bottled wines, there’s nothing on the market and not likely to be for quite some time (see Box 2).

So, having established that you can’t buy good Rioja wine too early, and that the quality of the 1999 vintage won’t become apparent for at least another couple of years, the 1999 wines we did taste showed reasonably well and the average mark I gave them was ***. Intriguingly, one of the most interesting was Murmurón from Bodegas Sierra Cantabria, which is made by the old-fashioned método rural – grapes crushed in an open trough, blanketed from the air by natural carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation, and run off for (almost) immediate drinking: it was absolutely delicious. The top 1999 wine, however, was a cask-sample (as yet unnamed) of Graciano at Viñedos de Aldeanueva, which will go on to become a crianza or reserva. The top wines already on sale were Marqués de Aradón from the Coop at Alcandre and Solferino from the always-reliable Viña Ijalba in Logroño.


The 1998 vintage was poorly represented with only four wines present, although given that it was the biggest vintage in history and is also classified as ‘Very Good’ (****), it’s probable that many producers are stashing the wines away for crianza and reserva business in future years. Certainly those few which appeared at the event showed very well, though not to universal acclaim. Cirsión from Bodegas Roda in Haro showed ‘whacking great big fruit, oaky notes in a rich structured palate with body, tannin, and everything…’, according to my own notes, although a nearby Scandinavian journalist was heard to remark something along the lines of ‘it’s fantastic, but it’s not Rioja’. I gave it *****, even on a subsequent visit to the bodega where it showed ‘very good tight fruit, complexity, and a spicily tannic structure’. The other three all achieved ****: a cask sample of Finca Allende (which may very well go on to greater things), a pure Graciano from Ijalba (ditto), and the Colleción Privada of Sierra Cantabria, made by maceración carbonica (and marked up to ***** when it was served with lunch later on).


There were 13 examples from the 1997 vintage, of which five made the **** grade: Valsacro crianza, San Vicente, Allende (another ‘but it’s not Rioja’), Herencia Remondo, and Viña Hermosa from Santiago Ijalba (no relation), which I noted as being ‘textbook’ Rioja.


The 1996 blockbuster was Aurus from Bodegas Allende (no relation) in Briones: with 19 months in new Tronçais oak (tight pores, slow maturation), it showed more complexity than a problem in metaphysics and more extract than a 10-megawatt air-conditioner. This is a Parker-wine, aimed squarely at the Great Wine Pundit and his cheque-book wine-enthusiasts in America, although it was a bit intimidating when the winemaker introduced it as his ‘$150 (£100) wine’. Roda I followed the same style: ripe, good, tight structure, excellent balance, classic Rioja style but writ large and bold in the modern idiom (ie ‘Parkerised’). Eight wines made the **** grade from this vintage, including the Finca de Valpiedra from Martínez Bujanda, Marqués de Vargas and another couple of ‘classic/textbook’ Riojas: Azabache crianza from Viñedos de Aldeanueva and Lagunilla reserva.


Now, of course, we reach the blockbusting ***** vintage of 1995, whose wines could go on forever but which, sadly, will probably all be sold within a very short time. The shortage of wine in 1993 and 1994 brought these on to the market much too early, and some excellent examples will have been drunk long before their peak. My best was Dos Viñedos from Palacios Remondo (*****) but there were many excellent **** examples, including Summa Añares Reserva from Olarra, the always-reliable Viña Real Reserva from CVNE, and Puelles Reserva and Duque de Huescar Reserva from Viña Herminia.


The 1994 vintage was at least as blockbusting as the 1995 but very much smaller in size – the tail-end of the early-1990s drought took its toll but, again, what few reserva-plus wines were made were very good indeed. In the ***** bracket we tasted Gaudium from Marqués de Cáceres and the Puerto Selección MM from Marqués del Puerto. The new CVNE wine Real de Asúa, Ontañón, Bordón and Viña Zaco from Bodegas Bilbaínas all rated ****.

Older vintage

And then there were the older vintages: 1993 Tondonia fading but still magnificent and 1981 Gran Reserva still showing a glorious, voluptuous ‘bosomy’ warmth (both *****). The 1991 Viña Andrea from Gómez Cruzado and the 1982 Roman Paladin from Marqués del Puerto both rated ****, but there are those who think that the writing might seem to be on the wall for these soft, glorious, rich, oaky, old styles of wine.

On the credit side, there are fewer faulty and just-plain-badly-made wines coming out of Rioja, and its best are, as always, well capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with most of the finest wines of the world. If there’s a crisis amongst some producers, it might be a crisis of identity: to Parker or not to Parker? But there was a reassuring groundswell of appreciation for the classic styles – particularly among the Scandinavian contingent. So perhaps we may look forward to the real thing for quite a few more years to come.

Spain: Rioja

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