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In focus: The rise in interest in aged Rioja

With its tradition of long ageing, its practice of blending grapes from across the region, and its reputation for consistency, Rioja is, in many ways, the Champagne of the still wine world. Long-aged gran reservas from esteemed estates like López de Heredia, Marqués de Riscal and La Rioja Alta remain among the best value fine wines in the world.

José Urtasun, co-owner of Remirez de Ganuza, has seen a surge in interest for his 2010 Riojas

To some extent their affordability has made them less appealing to collectors seeking the globe’s finest and rarest drops, but as the likes of top Burgundy and Bordeaux become increasingly out of the price realm of mere mortals, might Rioja’s best expressions be able to provide an attractive and ageworthy alternative for a fraction of the cost?

Many estates are seeing increased demand for wines from vintages classified as ‘excellent’ by the consejo, the most recent of which being the 2011, 2010, 2005, 2004 and 2001 vintages. Only 14 vintages since 1925 have been ranked as ‘excellent’, so their rarity adds to the appeal.

“We have lots of customers asking us for the recent ‘excellent’ vintages, especially the 2010. It’s a fantastic vintage, but the wines still have a way to go before they reach their prime,” says José Urtasun, co-owner of Rioja Alavesa-based bodega Remirez de Ganuza, whose 2004 gran reserva is particularly sought after, thanks to a perfect Parker score.

Marqués de Murrieta receives regular requests for gran reservas dating as far back as 1925. “We have a great community of fans seeking out our older vintages. The historic years like 1925, 1964, 1994 and 2005 are extremely sought after as we only produce Castillo Ygay in the best vintages,” says the estate’s export director, Arthur de Lencquesaing.

Marques de Murrieta is renowned for its long-aged Riojas

As well as direct sales, top Rioja is also selling well at auction in the UK and US, particularly bottles from collectable vintages. “Classic Riojas from standout vintages like 1947, 1964 and 1968 are doing well with us,” says Noah May, head of department for wine and spirits at Christie’s London.

“When it comes to collectable wines, the prices are still very cheap in comparison with top Bordeaux and Burgundy. There is a growing interest in Riojas from acclaimed vintages, as you can still pick up the wines for comparatively little. We sell a lot for under £100, and some for as little as £30 a bottle at auction.”

Perfect provenance is key, and May is seeing the most interest for gran reservas from revered estates like López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta and Marqués de Riscal. “Their long ageing makes

them very durable, and there is still quite a lot of old stock at the wineries and in private collections in Spain. The wines age beautifully – a Tondonia Gran Reserva from the 1920s can age like a fine old Musigny, and an old Riscal could be mistaken for a top Bordeaux,” he says.

Victor Urrutia, CEO of CVNE, believes that an increased interest in Rioja on the part of wine critics, along with a recent spate of high scores, is helping to raise awareness of the wines among consumers, and increase their appeal. “Being the first Spanish wine to take the number one spot in the Wine Spectator Top 100 in 2013 with our Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 has certainly led to increased demand for our wines, particularly in the US,” he says.

But no matter how strong the appeal of an esteemed vintage, Berry Bros & Rudd’s Spanish wine buyer, Catriona Felstead MW, feels the producer and critics’ scores still trump vintage when it comes to consumers, hence the importance many Rioja estates place on their house style.

Fans of top Rioja often have to wait years between releases, which adds to the allure, thanks to the rarity factor. “The 2010 vintage of La Rioja Alta 904 was eagerly anticipated last summer, as customers had to wait a couple of years to get their hands on it,” says Felstead. Among the slowest to release their wines in the region is Haro-based López de Heredia, which launched its first rosé in a decade, the 2008 vintage, last year.

Victor Urrutia of Cune is enjoying success in the US

Felstead puts the hype around the wine down to rarity rather than the specific appeal of the 2008 vintage. In no rush to flood the market with its wines, the current gran reserva red from López de Heredia on sale is the 1995 vintage. “We are keenly awaiting the 2001 vintage, but the indications are that the release is still at least a year away,” laments Felstead.

Taking rarity in Rioja to new heights, in 2016 Marqués de Murrieta released the 1986 vintage of its Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Blanco onto the market a staggering 30 years after it was made.

Only 11 vintages of the wine have been bottled since 1919. The Wine Advocate’s Spanish wine critic, Luiz Gutiérrez, described the 1986 vintage as “one of the best white wines of my life”, and gave it a perfect 100-point score – a first for a Spanish white from the publication.

Made from a blend of 97% Viura and 3% Malvasia, the wine spent 21 years in American oak and nearly six in concrete. De Lencquesaing is unable to confirm when the next vintage of the exceptionally rare white will be released. “The last time that Halley’s Comet was seen was in 1986, and it is predicted to return in 2061 – let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long for the next Castillo Ygay Blanco release,” he quips.

Unlike Bordeaux, Rioja prices tend to remain stable from year to year, and producers don’t seem compelled to put their prices up in excellent vintages. “The concept of vintage has always been important in Rioja but it doesn’t influence consumer buying decisions as much as it does in regions like Bordeaux.

Limited production has a greater influence on the price of Rioja than the vintage classification,” says Luis Marculeta of Rioja Vega, who believes the 2011 vintage in Rioja was the best of the past 20 years. It almost seems a point of principle for the producers to keep their wines affordable.

“We do not increase our prices based on the vintage. Our reserva has been the same price for years, only increasing with the rate of inflation, but we do see a correlation between higher sales and better-rated vintages,” a spokesperson for Marqués de Riscal tolddb. “We have a distinct house style that may vary slightly from year to year, but it can always be recognised and trusted regardless of the vintage.”

Miguel Angel de Gregorio of Artadi releases his Riojas en primeur

Rioja producers have developed house styles they are keen to maintain, so their customers know what they’re going to get when they open a bottle. “Rioja does for still wine what Champagne does for sparkling when it comes to delivering consistency year after year.

Great vintages are not driving demand for Rioja but vintage does play a key role for the very best wines from the region, where variations between vintage and site underpin the core proposition and interest,” says Richard Cochrane, managing director of Félix Solís UK.

Rodolfo Bastida, chief winemaker at Ramón Bilbao, is honest about actively seeking to “delete the vintage effect” in his wines. “Rioja offers a consistent style that consumers recognise. To achieve this we have always tried to delete the vintage effect and to find balance between the more tannic vintages and fresher ones,” he says.

Like a chef de cave recreating his non-vintage brut blend year after year, Bastida uses up to 15% of wine from older vintages in his latest releases to “create the Ramón Bilbao style”.

The fact that the top wines from the region can spend decades resting in oak negates the importance of terroir and vintage character, as the wood can often end up masking the nuances of a specific year or site.

“Gran reservas are sold more on the basis of achieving a particular house style than reflecting the style of the vintage, thus producers release their wines only when they feel ready to, rather than the co-ordinated releases we see in Bordeaux,” says Felstead of Berry Bros.

Pierre Mansour, Spanish wine buyer for The Wine Society, believes long ageing “adds complexity in Rioja if the wine has the concentration, balance and structure to support it.”

His belief is echoed by José Luis Lapuente, general manager at the consejo regulador, who told db: “Some exceptional vintages lend themselves to aged wines, and the character of the vintage will shine through in gran reservas, even after a minimum of five years in oak.”

The choice of oak, be it French or American, new or second use, light or medium-toasted, is crucial, according to Marculeta of Rioja Vega, because “this will mark the character of the wine throughout its life”. Equally important is the quality of the grapes in determining how long a wine can be kept in wood without losing its fruit character. Victor Urrutia of CVNE believes passionately in the role of oak ageing in Rioja.

Lopez de Heredia ages its whites for longer than most

“Oak does not lessen the importance of the specific character of different terroirs and different vintages. As in Burgundy, great Riojas that spend a long time in oak can be appreciated young, and at the same time age gracefully,” he says.

“Terroir needs time to reveal itself, so we release our gran reservas after many years of cellaring to give consumers the chance to enjoy them immediately. They want to experience the unique taste and they don’t want to have to wait for it.”

It’s a similar story at Remirez de Ganuza, which shares CVNE’s philosophy of ageing its wines on site. “Bottle age is crucial to the quality of our wines, and I wouldn’t want to pass on that responsibility to the consumer, as they may not have the right ageing conditions at home and will likely end up drinking the wines too soon,” he says.

In the on-trade, consumer understanding of the quality of different vintages in Rioja remains low. “Diners are still at the discovery stage when it comes to Rioja,” says Andras Frisch, manager of Michelin- starred Spanish restaurant Ametsa with Arzak Instruction in London.

“Some of our guests ask for specific vintages like 2010, 2005 and 2004, but they are in the minority. When they’re guided towards the wines they’re happy to try them, and great vintage Rioja is still a third of the price of an average vintage from France.”

While vintage may not be the driving force behind Rioja sales, outstanding years certainly help to boost profits, and the ‘Mediterranean’ 2019 vintage is shaping up to be one of the region’s finest since 2011, though it has yet to be officially classified.

While down by over 20% in volume on 2018, the berries that were picked were smaller than average, and were marked by their concentration of flavour. “The reds have excellent colour, structure and aromatic intensity, and are full of promise,” says Rodolfo Bastida of Ramón Bilbao.

While Rioja may lack unity when it comes to the timing of its vintage releases, this doesn’t seem to be muting the buzz around long-awaited gran reservas, with the ‘excellent’ vintages of 2004 and 2005 from López de Heredia still years away from hitting the market.

As the prices of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo continue to soar, the chance to snap up perfectly cellared old Riojas from acclaimed producers for a song is sure to attract the attention of savvy collectors seeking wines that age in a similarly graceful way. As single bottles of DRC continue to sell for crazy money at auction, how lovely that there are still some pockets of the wine world where the prices seem suspended in time.

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