Legendary Rioja – Nectar of the Gods

2 March 2016 by Pippa

Hot on the heels of our hugely enjoyed (and very successful) celebration of Rioja last October, we have been offered some wonderful older – and we mean older – vintages of Rioja – from 1980 and 1978. These wines have been “liberated” from  well kept cellars – in some cases individual ones, in the region – by one of our more intrepid suppliers with whom we share a passion for Spanish wine.

The arrival of these treasures has got me thinking both of Rioja’s extraordinary staying power and what terrific value these wines offer in their advanced years. What would we have to pay for a 1980 Bordeaux? Somewhere north of £160 for a 1980 Cheval Blanc certainly.

I can’t think of another wine region in the world where such an array of mature wines is available, affordable and still drinking so well. And while Rioja has always been open to innovation and change, these historic bottles are an eloquent testament to the quality of old school winemaking. Old-fashioned techniques like co-fermenting red and white grapes are mostly now discredited, but they have given us a legacy of remarkably age-worthy wines.

Beronia 1980At the 40th anniversary tasting of Beronia’s founding, I was lucky enough to taste their 1973 Gran Reserva poured in celebration of the anniversary.  My note records the wine’s pale brick colour, the nose of bruised strawberries, polish, nutmeg, sweet spices – the flavours still absolutely vital and a joy to taste. Alas the 1973 isn’t commercially available – but I was delighted when the Beronia 5 Año 1980 arrived on The Good Wine Shop’s shelves.

Beronia, based in Ollauri, are south of Haro in the cooler, westerly part of Rioja Alta.  Mattias Calleja, the winemaker, has been there since day one. He was an early pioneer of mixed wood barrels – made with both American and French oak.  Beronia 5 Año 1980 was aged as a Gran Reserva but with 3 rather than the usual 2 years in barrel.

Also soon to arrive at The Good Wine Shop is Bodegas Lan’s, Viña Lanciano 1978. It is another aged treasure. My colleague, Derek’s tasting note reads “the ’78 Bodegas Lan seduced with its elegant evolution and yet surprising youth. While there is plenty of mature pleasure to be had, the wine is certainly not at the end of its rope. Tobacco, leather, dried fruits, dried flowers and dusty earth on the nose, but the tense structure and present tannins frame a wine that is anything but tired.  Surprising density for its age.“

Rioja vines

Bodegas Lan, are in Fuenmayor south of the Ebro river, nearer Logrono at the warmer eastern end of Rioja Alta. Viña Lanciano is one of three single vineyard wines representing Lan’s top quality production. Viña Lanciano is 80% Tempranillo and 20% Mazuelo aged for 2 years in American and French barrels.

My own first taste of vintage Rioja came in 1980 with a Reserva 904 1964 from La Rioja Alta. 24 years later the deal was sealed with a glass of 1978 Castillo Y Gay from Murrieta – a wine that had spent 25 years in barrel. Mature Rioja remains my wine of choice for a special occasion – including moments when the wine itself becomes just that – a celebration.