Discovering the wines of La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta is one of the best known wineries in Rioja and this year it is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Founded by five families, it is still family owned and managed and now owns 450 hectares of vineyard in Rioja Alta – considered the best sub region of Rioja.

The wine of La Rioja Alta

The wines of La Rioja Alta

They are considered to be one of the few remaining wineries producing ‘traditional-style’ Rioja – meaning the wines are aged for long periods of time in American oak barrels. Interestingly, to make the barrels, they import their own wooden staves from various states in the US and then craft barrels to their specifications in their own cooperage – not something you come across very often.

Last week I was invited along to a dinner, hosted by Adam Wander and Kiran Curtis of WanderCurtis wines, to taste a range of wines from La Rioja Alta – all presented by the export manager, Francisco Corpas.

But before the Rioja started flowing and to get us in the mood before dinner, we were treated to a duet of Champagne, brought along by the importer Tim Hall from Scala Wine. Both were from small growers and they made a fascinating comparison.

Vazart Coquart

First up was Vazart Coquart & Fils Extra Brut – a Blanc de Blancs NV from the Grand Cru of Chouilly on the Cotes des Blanc. The high proportion of reserve wines, coupled with low dosage of 3g/l, made this a really vinous style of Champagne. Rich yet delicate with a lovely creamy texture and soft mousse. Really quite impressive. The second Champagne, Lacourte-Godbillon Premier Cru NV was a Pinot-dominant blend with more standard 9g/l dosage and showed bags of red apple and red fruit character. A more classic aperitif style, but I have to admit to preferring the creamier Vazart Coquart.

Then onto dinner. With our first course of tuna carpaccio we were served not Rioja, but a Albariño from Rias Baixas. La Rioja Alta first bought vineyards in Galicia in the 1980s and they are now the largest single vineyard farmer in the region. We tasted their Lagar de Cervera 2013 – a fresh and zesty style with lots of green melon and red apple fruit. The wine usually undergoes malolactic fermentation to reduce the total acidity – but 2013 was such a great vintage that they didn’t need to.

And then finally we were onto the Riojas, what we had all been waiting for, accompanying a delicious dish of Welsh lamb loin, slow cooked lamb croquettes and cavolo nero. We tasted through the range of different labels and it was really interesting to see the contrasting styles produced.

First up was Vina Alberdi Reserva 2008. 100% Tempranillo with 2 years ageing in American oak – the first year being in 100% new oak. This wine split opinion around the table. Some people really enjoyed the soft, oaky style with lots of sweet coconut and toasted vanilla notes. Personally I found the soft oak slightly out of sync with the spiky red fruit character. A simple enough wine and certainly inoffensive – but when compared to its bigger brothers it didn’t quite stand up.

Vina Arana Reserva 2006 was up next. This has 5% Mazuelo (Mourvèdre) and 95% Tempranillo and has had 3 years ageing in 3 year old American oak, plus a further 2 years in bottle before release. For me, this was much more classically Rioja than the Alberdi. Mid bodied and refreshing to drink with more savoury tobacco notes along with the red fruit character and lovely, silky tannins.

The Vina Ardanza Reserva 2005 proved an interesting comparison. 80% Tempranillo and 20% Garnacha with similar ageing time, this showed more juicy red fruit as you might expect from the Garnacha with a real spicy edge too. Again, mid bodied with notes of sweet oak adding complexity. A lot of people preferred this slightly more opulent style, but the savoury notes and delicacy on the Arana made that the pick for me.

Finally, we moved onto the two stars of the portfolio: the La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004 and La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 2001.

The 904 is 90% Tempranillo with 10% of the lesser known Rioja grape, Graciano and is aged for 4 years in 3 year old American oak and a further 4 in bottle. In contrast, the 890 is 94% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano and 3% Mazuelo and is aged for 6 years in 4 year old American oak plus 6 in bottle. According to Francisco, the 2001 is the best vintage they have ever produced of 890, and so they have given it the extra epithet of Seleccion Especial.

Whilst Francisco professed that La Rioja Alta only release wines when they are ready to drink, in reality these two wines are still babies – and whilst you can drink them now, you’d do better to hang into them for a while as they will age superbly.

The 904 was very expressive with bags of dark fruit and a lifted, floral note from the Graciano. Lots of spicy oak giving complexity, but needs time for this to integrate more fully into the wine. A classy wine.

In contrast, the 890 showed a touch more evolution but also needs time for the oak to settle in. It deftly accomplishes that oxymoronic feat of showing both incredible concentration and intensity of flavour, but also great balance and elegance. Fascinating to taste now, but I would love to try this again in another 20 years – when it will probably barely be reaching middle age: this wine has a very long life ahead.

All in all this was a great insight into the wines of La Rioja Alta. It really highlighted the styles of the different labels and also underlined just how surprisingly refreshing Rioja is to drink. And whilst lamb is the classic match for Rioja, as Francisco said, “we drink Rioja with anything”.

Now, it’s probably time for me to get my hands on some bottles of that 890 to lay down for a couple of decades.


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