Rioja has been on the cutting edge of viticulture and oenology since the late 1800’s when Bordeaux vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera louse. To keep French wine markets supplied, Bordelaise vintners fled to Rioja, establishing wineries and bringing the latest winemaking technology to Spain. Many historic Spanish wineries date from this period and still exist today, including La Rioja Alta (established 1890), Bodegas Faustino (founded 1861), CVNE (1879), Marques de Murrieta (1852) and a number of others.
Today in Rioja, wines vary from ‘traditional” style, with aging in American oak according to the Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva designations and released when ready to drink. “Modern” style wines age for varying durations in French, Russian, American or Hungarian oak and offer a unique expression of Rioja. Terruñyo-driven wines are produced from singular plots and showcase Rioja’s profusion of micro climates, soil, vineyard orientation and altitude.
Some of our favorite, traditional style Riojas:
2005 Bodegas La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Rioja ($35.00) One of the premier producers of old-school Rioja with impeccable quality. Viña Ardanza is labeled Reserva, but has aged long enough to be classified as a Gran Reserva. 80% Tempranillo and 20% Garnacha from ancient vines, aged separately; the Tempranillo is aged 36 months and the Garnacha was aged 30 months, both in neutral oak. The wines were manually racked six times. Offers up a silky depth of nuance and elegance. “Sexy, highly perfumed aromas of red fruit preserves, vanilla, mocha and fresh flowers, with a hint of pipe tobacco coming up with air. Sappy and broad on entry, then more taut in the middle, with sweet cherry-vanilla and spicecake flavors given lift by juicy acidity. Closes smooth, spicy and long, with lingering smokiness and fine-grained tannins adding grip. A touch more lively than the excellent 2004 version of this wine and of equal quality, which makes it an outstanding value in old-school Rioja.” 92 points Stephen Tanzer/Vinous 94 points Wine Advocate
2001 Faustino I Gran Reserva Rioja ($40.00) A classic house, founded 150 years ago and one of the largest landowners in Rioja. Located in Rioja’s Basque Alavesa sub-region which many consider the best area for Tempranillo. 2001 was a spectacular vintage in Rioja and the 2001 Faustino Gran Reserva was named 2013’s Wine of the Year by Decanter Magazine. Aged for 26 months in American and French oak barrels, then 3 years in the bottle before release, this is a full-bodied Rioja with balance and elegance. “Restrained, mineral style with elegant tannins. Youthful and fresh, feminine and complex. Deliciously decadent, with extraordinary vitality in the palate and a long, unique finish. A jewel at this price.” 19.25/20 points Decanter
2010 Señorio de P. Peciña Crianza Rioja ($19.99) Pedro Peciña learned how to do things the painstakingly hard, old-fashioned way in his 18 year tenure as vineyard manager at Rioja’s iconic La Rioja Alta. A quarter century later, his attention to detail and dedication are displayed in his own bodega. His structured, beautifully layered wines speak to the soul of traditional Rioja with a Burgundian-like complexity and elegance. “Deeply pitched red and dark berry aromas are complemented by vanilla, allspice and mocha and lifted by a smoky mineral topnote and building florality. Sweet and expansive on the palate, offering concentrated cherry-vanilla and raspberry flavors and a zesty undercurrent of minerality. Shows excellent power and persistence on the finish, which features supple tannins and resonating mineral and spice notes. This spent two years in American oak barrels before bottling and then rested for two more years prior to being released.” 92 points Stephen Tanzer/Vinous
For an inspiring tutorial on Rioja wines, pick up a copy of “The Wine Region of Rioja” by Ana Fabiano. With 229 pages of Rioja’s history, top bodegas and winemakers, grapes and much more, with gorgeous pictures. You’ll be on a plane to Rioja in no time!