Wednesday 5 June 2013

Wonderful old Rioja

Many of us have been banging on about this for ages: Rioja represents the best value for money of any wine, anywhere. The oldest and finest I’ve tasted was Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay 1959, an exquisite, delicate mouthful with flavours of sweet quince, with a wonderful old age ahead of it. That wine sells for around £200. The equivalent in Bordeaux or Tuscany would be many times that. Or how about the superb Viña Tondonia 1994 (one of the great vintages of the decade) from Lopez de Heredia – about £70, or great wines from vintages classed ‘Excelente’ by the Consejo Regulador – 2010, 2005, 2004, 2001, 95, 94 – from world-class producers like Muga, La Rioja Alta, Contino, Murrieta, many coming in at less than £50.
Superlative...Faustino 1970
At entry level, Rioja is reliable. As we all know, any corner shop in the UK is required by law to carry Campo Viejo Tempranillo (it used to be the Crianza). I defy you to find a better wine for £8.50 - and at Crianza level, CV has huge competition, from Beronia, Caceres, Riscal, Faustino

On Monday, Wines of Spain and the Rioja Consejo, via veteran hispanophile Sarah-Jane Evans, treated us to eight superb vintages, all 'Excelente' or 'Very Good' years, from CVNE’s Viña Real 2005 back to Marques de Riscal Gran Reserva 1964. It was an eccentric evening in the Spanish Embassy. A few gran quesos were there:  Víctor Pascual, president of the Consejo Regulador of Rioja, Pedro Sanz, president of the Rioja government, and HE Federico Trillo-Figueroa, the Spanish Ambassador to London. Pedro Sanz reminded us all that the UK drinks 33 million litres of Rioja a year, more than 10% of production. A wine was served, in unmatching glasses, by cadaverous waiters who didn’t know what it was. In fact, nobody knew what it was - even Maria-Jose Sevilla of Wines from Spain couldn’t find out. A mystery. Very nice wine though.

Then we were allowed to taste. The wines were a delight, none (except possibly the Riscal) anywhere near retirement age. The best of them (and really, that’s all of them) are bright, with confident elegant tannins that dissolve into sweet juice at the end palate. There is a spectrum of fruit, from the sweet quince of Ygay to the spicy plum of Luis Cañas. Wonderful Rioja.

The Wines (stockists and prices at the end)

CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva 2005, Rioja Alavesa
Tempranillo and 5% Graciano
2005 was graded ‘Excellent’ by the Consejo. This is a Gran Reserva, matured two years in French and American oak, three years in bottle. Very sweet red fruit on the nose, first strawberry then raspberry with hints of balsamic, ripe cherry and muscovado, molasses. Lots going on there. Palate has bright fruit and dense, ripe juicy tannins which actually seem quite developed, secondary leather notes coming through. But lovely length of earth and dry bark, carrying through to a food friendly finish. Very good

Luis Cañas Gran Reserva 2001, Rioja Alavesa
Excelente. This is LC’s classic offering – if you want to see what modern Rioja style looks like in the hands of an expert, see its Hiru 3 Racimos, which is all blackerry-toast-and-vanilla. It wins a major medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards every year. This Gran Reserva has bright smooth leathery nose, some smoke and wood, sun-warmed wood. Really powerful sour plum and spice on palate, intense linear tannins (they seem much less developed than in the first wine, the 05). There’s nothing big or brash about this – it’s got a superb fresh zesty length, very austere and elegant. Excellent.

Marques de Caceres Gran Reserva 1994, Rioja Alta
1994 - another ‘Excellent’ year – was the first great vintage of the 1990s, and was a welcome fillip after the dull 93 and 92. Many reckon 94 marked a turning point for Rioja, the year when the first ‘modern’ styles started to appear. The 94 spent eight years ageing in bottle, released at the end of 2002. Exceptionnally bright spiced and perfumed nose with molasses, balsamic, sweet black treacle and licorice. Amazing combination of aromas in a 20-year-old wine. Wonderful supple tannins, sweet and ripe, powdery at first then dissolving on the tongue to sweet juiciness. Excellent.

Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Reserva Especial 1994, Rioja Alta
1981 was 'Very Good'. 76% Tempranillo, 14% Garnacha, then Mazuelo and Graciano. Four years in American oak, four years in bottle, released 2002. 13% alc. Of the three bottles the first was corked so we had to share glasses.
One of my favourite bodegas, run by the brilliant Vicente Cebrian and winemaker Maria Vargas. Cebrian has just spent €25m razing the entire c19th Castillo Ygay and rebuilding it stone by stone, exactly as it was before – very Borges. Ygay is one of the few estate vineyards in Rioja, and one of the world’s greatest and longest-lived wines. Lovely nose of quince and earth, sun-baked forest floor, and a hint of incense. Sweetness on the palate – cherry, wild strawberry, baked apple, set off by ripe, supple and precise tannins, and crisp acidity. Stupendous.

Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 1981, Rioja Alta
Developed savoury nose with hints of beef after the leathery opening. Deep aromas of earth and cedar, vivid sweetness of rot and spiced plum. I could smell this for hours. No need to taste. Palate is full of life though, with slightly salty tannins with a seductive powdery grip for the last three-quarters. Elegant, subtle length, crying out for food – how about lamb with rosemary? Academic actually, as there's none left. The few remaining bottles are in the Campo Viejo museum

Beronia Cosecha Fundacional Gran Reserva 1973 Rioja Alta
Before official vintage ratings came in, 73 was considered outstanding. Aged four years in American oak. 12.5% alc
Warm brick colour, bright. Subtle, dense and woody nose, fresh and elegant, a really youthful 40-year-old nose of supple old leather and moist earth. The palate is earthy with cherry and plum coming shyly through. Finish is fresh with only a hint of dryness to the tannins. Excellent. Only a handful of bottles left, in the Beronia library

Faustino Gran Reserva 1970, Rioja Alavesa
Also an outstanding vintage. The best of the lineup. Bright nose of marinaded cherry, pot pourri, dried rose petals. Wonderful salty, powdery, intense tannins underscoring fresh bright fruit – cherry and quince – and hints of turkish delight. Tannins detonate on the tongue and lead through to a superb finish. Superlative, and with years of life ahead of it.

Marques de Riscal Gran Reserva 1964, Rioja Alavesa
Outstanding vintage. Lots of bottle variation. My first glass was marred by a dry, metallic finish. The second was perfect. What a wonderful cedary, vintage cigar-box nose. So venerable, like an antique snuff-box lined with velvet, spicy and aromatic. There are hints of raspberry – cooked raspberry - balsamic, bright cherry and pot pourri. The palate has some aniseed notes alongside this lovely ripe red fruit. The tannins are still juicy and fresh. An amazing wine, nearing retirement but with a sprightly few years ahead. Perfect with Manchego and jamon serrano.

List of stockists and prices:

Faustino Gran Reserva 1970 – RRP approx. £55-£65. Listed on Matthew Clark, Cellar Trends currently stocks 6 cases which are available for sale and will list and arrange sale if required.

Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva 1994 – no longer available on the UK market. Sample was provided from library by Chief Oenologist. If any retailers have any bottles remaining in the UK, est. RRP would be £23-£25.

CVNE Gran Reserva Viña Real 2005 – RRP £21.49 from BBR, Harrods, Oxford Wine Co, D. Byrne & Co, Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Beronia Gran Reserva Cosecha Fundacional 1973 – no longer sold commercially in the UK. Library bottles remaining.

Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 1981 - current vintage is 2005. The 1981 is no longer sold – the few remaining bottles are in their museum.

Marqués de Murrieta Gran Reserva Castillo Ygay 1994 – est. £80-100. Handford, Fine & Rare Wines and Coe Vintners have a very small amount of stock.

Luis Cañas Gran Reserva 2001 – RRP £24.99. There aren’t many stockists of the wine as they are now on to the 2005 vintage. Alliance Wine

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