Wednesday 26 June 2013

The full mojito...the weird and wonderful wines of the Scholium Project

‘This is not a tasting,’ Abe Schoener says, opening his laptop, which has a death’s head motif on it – not the Scholium logo but the Alexander McQueen grinning skull. Schoener, burly, bookish, bespectacled (with a passing resemblance to the actor John Goodman), is a philosophy teacher-turned-winemaker, and he’s at the Sampler wine shop in South Kensington to explain his Scholium project – and to make every effort NOT to explain his compelling wines.

A Scholium tattoo
Scholium is hard to pin down. It’s best described as an experimental winery, based in the Tenbrink Vineyards in Suisun Valley,  Solano County, east of Napa City. As far as I can gather the operation is run almost entirely with devoted interns. One told the New York Times that working with Schoener was akin to falling in love.

Another intern, journalist and Decanter writer Courtney Humiston, who helped on the 2011s and continues to work in the vineyards, said, 'Abe is a great teacher, but what you learn most from working with him is that we are all students and the wine is the teacher...the vineyards, the vines, the microbes, the yeast, the mysterious transformation that takes place during fermentation. We can only seek to understand; it's not something you aim to master.' They all talk like that at Scholium.

The wines are produced in tiny quantities – 50 cases here, 160 there – sourced from small parcels throughout Napa and Sonoma. Schoener describes finding parcels of ancient Sauvignon Blanc behind garages (tended, one assumes, by toothless old men in bib overalls). He also makes wine in North Fork, Long Island.

Sourcing grapes is going to get more difficult, Schoener says, as this ultra-boutique style catches on. ‘Many of us are having success in using unheralded vineyards and unheralded grapes like Petite Sirah and Verdejo. There’s more competition for vineyards now.’

If you’ve been bruised by the "natural" wines kerfuffle (we’ve had it bad in London), Schoener might make you twitch, but he insists he's not a "natural" winemaker. His wines are unracked, unfined, unfiltered, untopped-up (which can lead to a sherry-like growth of flor). Fermentation is uncontrolled (the Choephoroi Chardonnay 2008 took two years to ferment), wines are never inoculated, SO2 used only rarely. He makes “natural” winemakers look like laboratory technicians, but he says, ‘most people expect me to be an exponent of natural winemaking but I’m not.’

His tastings are eccentric, to say the least. He lectures from his laptop while the wines are poured. He won’t allow spitting: ‘You are to drink all the wine, and you are to drink only the wine.’

Schoener is the type of philosopher-winemaker that only California can produce. A fierce admirer of Napa Chardonnay guru John Kongsgaard, under whom he trained, he talks about the metaphysical – ‘that unseen realm’ – and uses words like ‘heuristic’ (no, me neither). He brings in the 14th century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Indeed, he quotes him at length, warning us, ‘I’m now going to quote him at length’.

'I am not a natural winemaker'...Schoener
It might sound rather too rich a mix, but it’s leavened with disarming asides and tangents (on his no spitting rule – ‘I was drunk halfway through the last lecture’). The audience, moreover, is loving it, full of questions. There seem to be a lot of Americans – South Ken is brimming with diplomats and other rich expats – and they’re more attuned to this sort of thing.

‘I’m not going to talk about barrels,’ Schoener says, and keeps his discourse to the general rather than the particular. Winemaking is all about ‘preservation in the face of spoilage and preservation is achieved by the husbanding and management of microbes that would cause spoilage under only slightly different circumstances. So we as winemakers spend our lives hovering on the edge of disaster.’

What surprises you about the wines is the peculiar vividness of the flavours – it’s as de Quincey, say, or Aldous Huxley might experience them. So you don’t just get cigar box cedar notes, but a Siglo V on a balmy Sonoma evening; that’s not mere mint or spearmint in the Prince in his Caves, but the full mojito, complete with garnish and paper umbrella, and who knows, handed to you by a beautiful mixologista in white shirt and black tie. Tasting them makes for an intense experience – rather like looking at a minutely detailed canvas. You can’t appreciate the whole unless you step back and take a breath.

The ‘tasting’ was topped and tailed with a couple of grower Champagnes -  David Leclapart l’Amateur and one of the Sampler’s top grower sellers, the André Beaufort, and a Collet de Bovis from Bellet in Provence. Fine wines but after the technicolor delights of Schoener’s wines they seemed very much in a minor key and I couldn’t think what to say about them.

All the wines are available at The Sampler. It’s Scholium’s first London listing – the UK is now its 4th largest market: New York is strong, as is Chicago, and he’s just sold some to Japan. ‘My wines are out of place in the US,’ he says. The Sampler has had them since October, manager Ben Slater tells me, and they sell out. ‘I can tell you that certain current wines have been impossible to keep up with demand for, especially given the small volumes available. With this in mind, I am confident that Abe will increase our allocation.’


Midan al Tahrir 2010
526 cases made
Verdejo, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay
Extraordinary honeyed nose with dense aromas of nettles and gooseberry leaves. Sharp, oxidised acidity – hot, but it’s not alcohol burn, more a kind of gentle lemongrass warmth. Salinity reminiscent of fresh lobster thermidor, bolstering sour apple – crabapple, that is – lime, lemon meringue pie and custard. Lots going on, all integrated discrete flavours. Refreshing, long.

The Prince in his Caves 2011
263 cases made
Sauvignon Blanc. Blind, you’d say you had a mojito in your hand – great gouts of fresh crushed mint, citrus and tropical fruit, earl grey tea. Oxidative palate, more tea and spearmint, cut granny smith, pear, gooseberry, very fresh crushed pink rose petals, powdery, tannic acidity, (dust on a bowl of rose leaves). Sharp, tannic length. Superb, eccentric, like no other Sauvignon I’ve ever tasted.

Choephoroi 2008
300 cases
14.5% alcohol. Severely botrytised Chardonnay – Schoener said ‘the grapes were rained on and turned into slime by the botrytis’. The skins were broken down but so fast that there was not enough spore activity to suck out the moisture and sweeten the juice. Fermentation took two years, with 5-10 gallons of wine lost in each barrel, flor-like growth in airspace. The nose is cabbagey but not disagreeably so. When that clears, there is more oxidation, composted tea bags, faint and sweet odours of rotting vegetable matter, then honey and tropical fruit – lychee and kiwi. Complex, powerful tannic acidity, sharp peppery flavours of coriander and rocket, lovely gentle honeyed length. Excellent and would go beautifully with robust seafood.

Chuey Chard 2010
60-80 cases
Chardonnay, from Nelligan Rd Ranch, Spring Mountain, Sonoma
Nose of leather and spice – not just cedary notes of old cigar box but a Cohiba run lengthwise under your nose. Then peppery gooseberry, honey and sweet white flowers, apple, quince, tea (more earl grey), citrus, key lime pie. Bright zesty acidity detonating juicily on the end palate. Delicious

1MN 2011
Cinsault, 140-year-old vines
40 cases
Dense dock leaf nose, summer hedgerow on a misty morning, minty violet perfume, very bright aspirated fresh nose. The palate is much more conventional, agreeable peppery green notes, good cherry and damson fruit leading to red fruit, raspberry and strawberry with muscovado sugar. Suave tannins but with very present grip carrying through to a food-friendly finish. Very good.

Bricco Babelico 2009
Petite Sirah from Tenbrink Vineyards in the Suisun Valley,  Solano County, east of Napa City. About 160 cases
16.25% alcohol (the 08 was 17%, a Sampler staffer tells me proudly)
Baked earth nose with hot wet stones. Great sense of controlled power on the palate: christmas spice (clove and cinnamon) and sour cherry, fragrant plums and good sweet ripe acidity. Reminds me of Valpolicella Ripasso (are there raisined grapes in here?). Fine tannins tending to dryness for a young wine, some juice left but there won’t be much in a few years time. No burn from the extremely high alcohol, overall soft, dense length. Drink with rare game: grouse, venison. Good though would wonder about ageability of those tannins.

Monday 17 June 2013

'We've got two wine OBEs in the audience today...'

Some of Napa’s finest wineries came together in London for a Masterclass last week. Nothing unusual in that, but what was notable was the personnel the wineries fielded – Delia Viader, Doug Shafer, Chris Hall (the list is at the bottom), and the wealth of wines on show. The idea wasn’t simply to showcase the wines but also, I think, to show development of style over three vintages, the 02, 05 and 08. ‘Cool, cooler, coolest’ as Tim Atkin, chairing, characterised them. 2002 had a dry, cool spring with rain, an average summer and a warm, windy September. Yields were low. In 2005 the crop was far bigger and the harvest was late – mid to end of October, rather than the more normal end of September. 2008 was the coolest of the three, with widespread frost damage (some estates on Howell Mountain reported 30% losses of fruit) then a cool summer with heat spikes, and an Indian summer to follow. At the time, winemakers were optimistic for an elegant vintage, hopes that were borne out in many of today's wines.

The first thing to say is that the tasting reinforced (as if it needed reinforcement) the concept of vintage variation in Napa. I don’t know why I even have to mention it, frankly, but there you go… The 2008s were invariably more austere, tighter – look at the Stag’s Leap District wines: Chimney Rock and Pine Ridge have a very different profile in 08 to the wines before them. And it’s not just that they are younger wines: the taut tannins and nervy acidity speak of wines that are going to mature into an elegant old age.

Three sparklers from Schramsberg. The Napa fruit is all Carneros, and accounts for 50-60% of the blend. The balance is Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin County. What lovely wines they are, the 02 especially, but I loved the tight, closed 08, which will mature beautifully. In 1972 Richard Nixon chose the 69 Blanc de Blancs to toast the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai after that old rogue Henry Kissinger had worked his magic on him.

Nice surprise...
The Merlots were an odd bunch. I kept thinking of Sideways and Miles’s ridiculous diatribes, and felt I could agree… And just as Sideways revolutionised California Pinot production (I went from Los Angeles to the top of Napa on a Pinot trip in 2006, and in every meeting, that great film was mentioned within ten minutes. Sales went up 16% in 06/07, and even Riedel felt the effect, its Pinot glasses flying off the shelves, sales up 45%, or so they said at the time) so it stuck a knife into Merlot, the grape disappearing from wine lists.

Oddly enough for what is still America’s favourite red grape, the Merlots here were presented as outliers. Andre Crisp at Luna was almost apologetic, pointing out the ‘only 100s of cases’ that they produce. For me they were mixed: the best had lifted cherry fruit and refreshing acidity, but many were marred by vegetal flavours, hints of cabbage and ammonia. Are they picking too young, chasing that ‘notion of Euro-elegance’ as Parker once said of Tim Mondavi? Note that Jean-Claude Berrouet, formerly of Petrus and Dominus, is now consulting winemaker at Twomey, from the 2012 vintage onwards.

There was a feeling of lift-off when we got to the Cabernets. This was by no means a pushover though: there were disappointments. Over the last few vintages we’ve got so used to elegance in Napa, that it can be a shock to remember there are still some big, hot beasts doing good business. The Shafers, for me, seemed old-fashioned. They weigh in at 15% and more and the alcohol makes its presence felt. Still, as Doug Shafer said, they may be big, but they certainly sell. Pleasant surprise was Chimney Rock, which people can be rude about. I loved them. In fact, just to make sure, opened a bottle of the Chimney Rock 2008 Tomahawk Vineyard yesterday, and it was very fine – tight and closed at first, pure fruit, juicy tannins. 24 hours later it had developed into a silky classic. And I have to mention the brilliant Viader, if I haven’t been effusive enough in the notes below. Among the finest wines in Napa.

Dynamic, thought-provoking, slightly chaotic (minor cavil - too many wines in too short a time. We all found ourselves hurrying through...) But what a great tasting (and did I mention the lunch?). It was packed - standing-room only - with bigwigs. Atkin began proceedings by noting 'We've got two wine OBEs in the room today' - that'll be Jancis Robinson MW OBE sitting right at the back, and Gerard Basset MW OBE MS smiling into his moustache. The only person missing was Steven Spurrier, who Napa holds dear.

Thanks to Emma Wellings for putting it all together, and Cessa Beckett of Napa Valley Vintners, and to The Palm in Pont St for hosting

The wines

Schramsberg Vineyards 2002 Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley
Creamy ripe citrus nose, with hints of crème brulee. Bright sweet melon, pineapple on the palate with racy acidity. Lovely smoky, woody end palate.

Schramsberg Vineyards 2005 Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley
Some earth and brioche notes on sweet nose of pineapple and sweet lemon. Nutty spice on the palate, around cut apple and more citrus notes. Nice long finish

Schramsberg Vineyards 2008 Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley
Hardly evolved, nose quite closed. Dense acidity and sharp spicy notes on the palate, with fine tropical flavours half-submerged but ready to burst. Crisp acidity and fine finish

Luna Vineyards Merlot 2003 Napa Valley
Ripe dense earthy slightly rotted nose. Powerful acidity and some early nose of ammonia (sulfites?). Powerful and dense, bright cherry fruit leading to slightly drying finish to the tannins

Luna Vineyards Merlot 2010 Napa Valley
Sweet plum and cherry on nose with a nice delicate vegetal hint. Powerful acidity, cherry and plum carried through. Tannins angular, the whole slightly boxy and four-square

Twomey Cellars Merlot 2002 Napa Valley
Jean-Claude Berrouet, formerly Petrus and Dominus, is consulting winemaker.
Evolved colour, dark red with rim of lighter brick. Slight hint of cabbage on first sniff, then attractive cigar-box aromas and dry crunchy leaves. Very fresh acidity, nice black hedgerow fruit, mostly blackberry. Sharp, angular tannins.

Twomey Cellars Merlot 2005 Napa Valley
With 4% Cabernet Franc
That slight cabbage aroma again, then on the palate powerful acidity and dry, chalky tannins which dissolve into sweetness and juice at end palate. Much more successful than the 02, with nice bright cherry fruit really integrated with the tannin. Will last.

Twomey Cellars Merlot 2008 Napa Valley
13.7% alcohol. Raspberry on the nose then sharp palate showing early-season, slightly unripe plum. There is sweetness fighting to climb above the acidity, but not quite managing to get its head up.

Chimney Rock Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Stag’s Leap District
In magnum. 14.2% alcohol. Lovely bright cherry fruit nose with notes of cedar and earth. Beguilingly perfumed with parma violets and mint. Ripe dark plums on the palate with bright sweet tannins. Very fresh acidity. Good.

Chimney Rock Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Stag’s Leap District
The nose is fresh and bright with sweetish dark fruit – blueberry, black cherry, leading to an austere palate mitigated with a heft of cherry and tobacco. Elegant but lush.

Chimney Rock Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stag’s Leap District
Austere nose, quite closed, hints of cedar and vanilla (not pronounced). Palate is loaded with sour/saline plum, damson, cassis, with supple tannins and superb length. Excellent.

Long Meadow Ranch Winery EJ Church Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley
Founded in 1989 by Ted Hall, who took on renowned winemaker Cathy Corison as consultant throughout the 90s. Long Meadow was catapulted into the premier league by the purchase of 36ha of prime Rutherford vineland in January this year: it now joins Inglenook, Quintessa, Beckstoffer and Beaulieu Vineyard as one of the 10 largest land holders in Rutherford. There’s no 2002 in the lineup – LMR lost all of its library vintages – including the 2002 - in the devastating, and deliberately set, Vallejo warehouse fire of 2005 .

Long Meadow Ranch Winery EJ Church Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley
13.5%. Attractive green tinge on nose with ripe sweet blackberry and cassis. The palate is elegant and fresh with sour fruit notes, dense acidity and quite tough dry tannins.

Long Meadow Ranch Winery EJ Church Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley
Sweet ripe cherry on nose. Palate has ripe and racy acidity with real grip to the tannin and real definition to the fruit. Complex palate – there’s earth there, and aromatic summery forest floor, soft black fruit, leading to a fresh and juicy, food-friendly finish

Pine Ridge
Pine Ridge is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It makes wine in five Napa AVAS – Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville, Stag’s Leap and Carneros.

Pine Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Stag’s Leap District
Nose of blackcurrant, hint of sweet vanilla. Powerful leather and black fruit on the palate, gripping tannins, hint of agreeable greenness. Fresh acidity, great length.

Pine Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Stag’s Leap District
The nose is savoury, with hints of bovril. Palate sweet black fruit, blackberry, cassis, superb dryish gripping tannins. Very smooth though slightly marred by a hot finish

Pine Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stag’s Leap District
Bright nose with sour plum and damson, palate taut and nervy, full of fruit with nice tension to the acidity, dense dry tannins

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2002, Napa Valley
83% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot
Bright fresh nose, very open with violet notes and cedary oak, and hints of grassiness. The mid-palate is elegant, there’s good blackberry and cassis, some mintiness, but sense it’s not firing  on all cylinders – slight hollowness before dry tannins kick in and resolve into juiciness. Slightly unsatisfying

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005, Napa Valley
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot
A powerful tannic wine, lots of blackberry, cassis, dark plum and dark sour cherry. Tannins are dense but integrated and never dominate, still juicy at end

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008, Napa Valley
Powerful chalky grippy tannins. This needs time – still young and tough, tannins dominant throughout but with dense dark fruit peeping round the edges. Big and brooding chocolatey finish.

Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Stag’s Leap District
The three Shafer wines are 15-15.5% alcohol
Lovely open nose with textured dark plum and blackberry fruit. Dense sweet black fruit on the palate, powerful tannins though smooth, notes of iodine and licorice. Complex

Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Stag’s Leap District
Dense, knotted, sweet nose, powerful and elegant. Some green notes. Huge palate – blackcurrant, mocha, cassis – but still very fresh. Alcohol: while it doesn’t burn, it makes its presence felt, giving a slight misgiving of imbalance. But nothing a hefty rare T-bone wouldn’t remedy.

Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stag’s Leap District
Huge. Licorice, salinity and iodine alongside blackcurrant fruit on the nose. Deep palate, robust tannins complemented (aided and abetted) by brisk acidity, huge doses of blueberry fruit and coffee. Massive sense of alcohol (see the 05 above – it doesn’t burn but it’s an aggressive presence). When was this opened? I would leave half a day open – but in any case don’t come back to it until at least 2015.

Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley
82% Cabernet, 11% Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot
Really superb nose, savoury textured dark fruit, repeated on the palate. Tannins after 12 years are full of energy, great grip, chalky and detonating juicily on the tongue. Very satisfying. Lots of life left in this.

Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley
Great juicy tannins at first but falls down on the mid-palate – the fruit is bullied by insistent acidity, and the tannins close in and add to the ruck. Closed for the duration? I couldn’t decide about this. There’s primary fruit there but will it come through? Will the tannins get any sweeter? Jury’s out.

Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley
Ripe red fruit. Lots going on here, cherry and salty plum, violets. Tannins are soft at first and building into attractive dryness becoming mouthwatering for the finish. Very nice indeed.

Viader Vineyards and Winery, Viader Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 Napa Valley
Roughly 60/30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc.
Delia Viader’s eyrie clings to the side of Howell Mountain but is some 200m outside the AVA, hence the Napa Valley designation. Never mind. Superb ripe blackcurrant nose with fresh mint notes and exotic spice (what? all-spice? Marijuana?) as well as some green. Vibrant, powerful, effortless. Lovely earthy structured wine, built around elastic, silky but ultimately dense tannins with grip. Viader loves her Cabernet Franc, and it shows…

Viader Vineyards and Winery, Viader Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley
Roughly 60/30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc.
Powerful nose of blueberry and old leather. Refreshing acidity in a palate subtle with black fruit. Tannins bright and ever-present lead to food-friendly finish. This was Michel Rolland’s first vintage consulting for Viader.

Viader Vineyards and Winery, Viader Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Napa Valley
Roughly 60/30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc.
Bright and fresh with incredible young, chalky tannins. Bright fresh palate with earth and leather, plum and ripe black cherry. Exuberant, very elegant, unfussy. Delicious.

Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 Napa Valley
Started in 2000, Waterstone sources fruit from all over the valley, much of it hillside. The 2002 is mainly (or all?) Oakville and Rutherford. Bright, minty nose with aromas that act on the nasal passages like a vapor-rub. Wonderful. The fruit is at that indeterminate end of the red spectrum, wild strawberry and raspberry with blackcurrant, then earth, leather, cherry and sour plum. Excellent

Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley
Some smoke and earth on the nose, then the first hint of green, then a blistering (almost literally) palate with black fruits scrambling over each other for attention, and alcohol very noticeable. It’s still young though I wonder where that alcohol is going?

Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Napa Valley
First off on the nose is bright cherry, then woody blueberry fruit, some licorice. Superb refreshing acidity and ripe, suave tannins with grip. Long and lush. Excellent

Who was there:
  • Schramsberg: Maryann Bautovich, Export Representative
  • Luna Vineyards: André Crisp, President of Sales
  • Twomey: Vivien Gay, International Sales Manager
  • Chimney Rock: Elizabeth Vianna, Winemaker & General Manager
  • Long Meadow Ranch: Chris Hall, General Manager & Proprietor
  • Pine Ridge: Michael Beaulac, Winemaker & General Manager
  • Robert Mondavi: Tim Fogarty, VP International Sales & Marketing Europe
  • Shafer: Doug Shafer, President
  • Silver Oak: Vivien Gay, International Sales Manager
  • Viader: Delia Viader, Owner & founding winemaker
  • Waterstone: Brent Shortridge, Owner

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