Dicovery Tasting: La Rioja Alta

Twenty-four lucky members of The Sommelier Collective were treated to the club’s first ever Discovery Tasting this week (19.10.2020) from world-renowned winery La Rioja Alta.

Based in the famous Barrio Estacion (station quarter) in Haro, home to famous names like Muga, Cune and Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta has been making world-famous wines since 1890.

‘It’s the most exciting place in Rioja,’ said winemaker Julio Saenz. ‘If you visit our street you can walk from great winery to great winery.’

Along with technical director, Alejandro Lopez, Julio showed the members six wines: four vintages of the flagship reserva Viña Ardanza, and two of the gran reserva, 904. The members had all received their specially prepared tasting samples a few days earlier.

The Viña Ardanza vintages ran from 1989 through 2000 and 2001 to 2010, the latest release to hit the UK. Since the latter is ten years old, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is a house that takes its cellaring seriously.

‘Barrel ageing is a big part of our history,’ explained Julio. The 1989 spent 42 months in very old barrels. The average age of the barricas then was 18 years old, but this has changed over time. More recent versions spend around three years ageing in barrels with an average age of four years.

Though the barrels are always American oak – and the time in wood is always followed up by four to five years bottle-ageing before release.  

Asked to describe the wines, Julio repeatedly used words like ‘intensity, complexity, soft tannins, balance and long aftertaste’. They are wines that build gently in layers rather than making a lot of noise.

Judging from comments throughout, that elegance was a big hit with the Sommelier Collective’s tasters.

The Viña Ardanza wines are all 80% Tempranillo from the Rioja Alta region, with 20% Garnacha (Grenache) from Rioja Baja.

The 904 Gran Reservas are 90% Tempranillo – from some of the highest (calcareous) vineyards in the region, with 10% Graciano, a beautiful but difficult to grow native variety, also from the Rioja Alta sub-region.

‘In our opinion, gran reservas are the best wines of Rioja,’ said Alejandro. ‘The best grapes from the best vineyards and the best barrels.

‘The grapes for this wine are grown at the limit of where you can grow Tempranillo in the north of Rioja. So it’s not easy to have grapes like this every year. It’s why we can only make it four times in a decade, in the very best vintages.’

Wines tasted:


Which is your favourite vintage – 1985 or 1989?

Julio: 1985 – the previous winemaker told me he thought it could have been the best vintage of that period. I think it’s more Burgundian. It has less colour than 1989, but it is one of the best vintages.

Which is more important, tannin or acidity?

Julio: We are looking for very good acidity, but not too high. We need balance between the alcoholic content and the acidity, and the tannins. Acidity is typically at 5-6g/litre. Our tannins in Rioja are typically very soft and elegant. In our winery in Ribera del Duero, for example, the tannins are higher than for Viña Ardanza.’

Would you say that softness and non-aggressive nature of the wines is the hallmark style of Viña Ardanza?

Alejandro: It’s elegance – easy to drink – but with complexity and a lot of aromatic intensity, with softness in the mouth. To get that we need first of all the best grapes, and it’s not easy to get those every year. So in some years we can’t make it. We only make Viña Ardanza six years out of ten, for instance. If the flavour profile of the grapes doesn’t fit we can’t make it.

Which have been the best vintages of Rioja?

Julio: We’ve only ever classified four Viña Ardanzas as ‘Reserva Especial’: 1964 and 1972 and two of the wines here – 2001 and 2010. 2001 was an amazing vintage for us.

Where do you buy your barrels from?

Julio: We make our own. We’ve imported staves since 1996. We dry them for three years then make our own barrels. We only use American oak, from Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. We need to have the control of this process because it’s so important to the quality of the wine. Toasting level is medium/medium plus.

Would you recommend decanting the wines?

Julio: I don’t recommend it. It’s better to open it just ten or 15 minutes before you drink it and move the glass to open the wine, and you’ll see the evolution then. Decanting it makes it worse. It drops its flavour quickly – and you’ll see that there is sediment.

as voted for by the members

2001 Vina Ardanza
(50% of the vote)

La Rioja Alta wines are available through Armit Wines

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