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Rioja’s ‘vintage of century’ 50 years on

A tasting of the exalted 1964 Rioja vintage has shown both the potential value and the limits of this era in one of Spain’s premier wine regions.

Rioja 1964 vintage 50 years on

Aged Rioja has previously been touted as an affordable way for consumers to explore the taste of maturity from a top European wine region.

Scarcity is the oft-cited problem, which is perhaps why so many high-profile UK vinophiles set their alarms early this week to sample seven wines from the acclaimed 1964 vintage at 50 years old. It has been labelled in some quarters as the region’s ‘vintage of the 20th Century’.

Carlos Echapresto, sommelier at Venta Moncalvillo in La Rioja, sourced the bottles from private collections at winery cellars.

Several critics at the event – held ahead of the Wines from Rioja trade tasting in central London – described the wines as a mixed bag, but with some clear standouts.

‘There were some musty and tiring wines, so this is clearly a vintage to drink soon,’ said Stephen Brook, Decanter contributing editor. ‘The top wines, still fruity and intense, were the Monte Real Gran Reserva and the surprisingly taut Marques de Riscal Cosecha.’

None of the wines were decanted prior to serving, emphasising their fragility. ‘It’s a good job they weren’t decanted, because they’d have been dead in five minutes,’ quipped one taster.

Sarah Jane Evans MW, who led the tasting, reminded her audience that, in 1964, Spain was struggling for economic health and there were only 26 bodegas producing and ageing wine in Rioja. Campo Viejo, which featured in the tasting, was only founded in 1961.

Yet, Evans said she was pleased with how well many of the wines showed. She added that there is great value to be had in aged Rioja in general, via auctions or some merchants and also at restaurants in Spain itself.

Brook was unsure about the odds involved. ‘It’s true that prices are relatively low, but 50 years old is pushing it for Rioja, and the risk of ending up with a faulty or fading bottle is, in my view, a bit too high for comfort,’ he said.

A forensic knowledge of storage conditions and travel history is key, according to Richard Harvey MW, senior international director at Bonhams.

‘Old Rioja sells well if it comes from a top producer, if it’s Gran Reserva, possibly Reserva, and if it’s been well stored – which is often not the case in Spain,’ he said.

A glance across auction houses and merchants shows aged Rioja is available, if one has the time to dig around.

A Bonhams auction in London on 11 September saw one 58-bottle lot of mature Rioja covering vintages between 1970 and 1987 fetch a relatively austere £329, versus a pre-sale high estimate of £380. The lot included four bottles each of Vina Real Gran Reserva and Vina Ardenza 1970.

Some of the wines in this week’s tasting were also available at retail. Switzerland’s Arvi, for example, was selling single bottles of Palacio Glorioso Gran Reserva 1964 for CHF120 (£77) excluding sales tax.

The 1964 Rioja wines tasted:

  • Bodegas Campo Viejo
  • Bodegas CVNE Vina Real Reserva Especial
  • Bodegas Franco-Espanolas Royal Reserva
  • Bodegas Palacio Glorioso Gran Reserva
  • Bodegas Ramon Bilbao Gran Reserva
  • Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva
  • Herederos del Marques de Riscal Cosecha

Written by Chris Mercer

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