Rioja’s Greatest

Even Decanter Masterclasses don’t usually feature wines spanning six decades, so it is little surprise that every seat was taken for the ‘Rioja Through the Ages,’ session on Saturday afternoon. The class showcased wines from 1948 through to 1996 from four of Rioja’s greatest Bodegas: Marques de Riscal, Vina Pomal, CVNE and La Rioja Alta.

  • See tasting notes below

“What an extraordinary tasting it was”

‘What an extraordinary tasting it was’, commented the expert moderator Sarah Jane Evans MW, who is also the Decanter World Wine Awards Co Chair for Spain and Sherry. Judging by the prolonged round of applause at the end and a marked unwillingness to part company with the wines, that was also the view of the audience as well.

When the standards are this high, it is somewhat invidious to pick out particular wines and vintages. But the two 1995s (a Gran Reserva 890 from La Rioja Alta and the CVNE Contino, presented by Julio Saenz and Maria Larrea) got us off to a cracking start. And as we moved back through the decades, there was no let up in definition, complexity or pleasure.

I thought the 1985 Viña Pomal presented by Pomal’s current head winemaker Alejandro Lopez Garcia was remarkable for its youth and vivacity. La Rioja Alta’s 1981 Gran Reserva 890 was only a fraction behind it.

Two spellbinding 1978 Gran Reserva’s came next. Refreshingly, the style was recognisably Riojan and though not recognized as a great year by the Consejo, both wines were still in very good nick.

A CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva from 1976 and a 1973 CVNE Gran Reserva were both more leathery and praline with lots of tertiary notes. And yet the gentle, savoury fruit was still evident alongside the vivacious acidity.

Alas Luis Hurtado de Amazega was unable to make the masterclass from Marques de Riscal, so Evans deputized on his behalf and presented the three oldest wines of the tasting, including the 48 and 56 Marques de Riscal Reservas, both made with up to 25% Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the 75% Tempranillo. However, the star of the show and the tasting was the stunning and utterly sensational 1964 Marques de Riscal Reserva. Of course, many regard this as the vintage of the century.

Sadly, this traditional style of Rioja is largely no more, which made the tasting even more poignant. ‘Today, we release wines much earlier and with less barrel ageing,’ commented Saenz. That’s not say that the current generation of Gran Reservas won’t age well. They’ll just age differently. However, I did get the impression that all three winemakers felt a sense of regret that times had changed. ‘We need to be careful that with today’s wines, we don’t lose the soul of these great Gran Reservas,’ added Evans.

‘That’s important because these old wines are utterly distinctive,’ she continued. ‘Some people say that as wine ages the flavours merge and converge, making it difficult to tell which region they originally came from. That’s true to an extent, but not with these wines. There is simply no mistaking their Riojan heritage and provenance.’

Evans also pointed out that that these wines are not as rare as you might imagine and still do exist in surprising quantities, especially in Spain. Historically, the Bodegas would keep significant stocks as the wines aged so well. So if you go to CVNE, Riscal, Pomal, La Rioja Alta or Lopez de Heredia, you can still find many of these wonderfully traditional wines. Moreover, compared to the likes of Bordeaux and Burgundy, they also represent remarkable value for money.