viernes, 25 de enero de 2013

Bodega La Rioja Alta S.A. (Haro)


La Rioja Alta is one of the most traditional wineries remaining in Spain. It was founded by five wine growers from Rioja and the Basque Country in 1890. Today there are other stockholders, but control over the company is still in the hands of the original five families. The winery is situated in that most traditional of Rioja’s locations, the Barrio de la Estacion in Haro, next to other well-known names such as Cvune, Lopez de Heredia, Muga, and Roda.

The company is one of the main guardians of traditional Rioja and is loyal to the classic profile of its wines. This does not mean it has avoided change or innovation (viticulture, vinification, and aging have all been updated through the years), but the basics remain the same, and their identity is scrupulously protected, a philosophy that sometimes means returning to old practices. They believe that American oak is best for their wines, for example, and they built their own barrels until the 1950s. In 1995, they returned to this tradition, and they now source, buy, and dry the wood, as well as making most of the barrels they use themselves. Though all their oak comes from the United States, they have a maturation cellar dedicated to experimentation, where one of the things they are constantly testing is wood from different origins.

The original fermentation room is still there, housing the original oak tinas that were used to ferment every vintage up to 1996, when the company built a new fermentation room in their winery at Labastida, only a couple of kilometres away from the headquarters in Haro. Here the oak vats have given way to stainless-steel tanks.

Rioja Alta is also, of course the name of a subregion within Rioja, considered by many to be the one with the greatest potential. To carry the name of a whole region, which can create some confusion among consumers, is a legacy of rights acquired long ago. The logo, used on their labels since it was registered in 1916, shows the River Oja framed by four trees, as well as the name La Rioja Alta in a distinctive and rather baroque italic font.

In the past, local wine laws meant it was not necessary to specify the vintage on the label, so the winery started selling its wines with 1890 on the label, referring to the year the winery was created. The name Gran Reserva 904 has similar origins, it was originally called 1904 after another significant date in the company’s history, when it underwent a major expansion. Other wines took their names from vineyards named after the owning families: Viña Alberdi, Viña Arana, and Viña Ardanza.

In recent times, the company has expanded into other regions of Spain, with wineries in Rías Baixas (Lagar de Cervera), Ribera del Duero (Aster), and Rioja (Barón de Oña). But Rioja is still overwhelmingly the focus. Today the company owns 425 ha (1,050 acres) of vineyards in the region, mostly in Haro, Briones, Labastida, Rodezno, and Cenicero, and this meets roughly half its needs. The most significant plots are the goha (222-acre) Finca La Cuesta (also called Viña Ardanza) in Cenicero, planted to Tempranillo; and in Rodezno, Finca Las Cuevas (also called Viña Arana), initially 36 ha (8o acres), now 76 ha (188 acres), and Viña Alberdi, which is 22ha (54 acres). In 2006, a further 70 ha (173 acres) in La Pedriza (Rioja Baja) were planted with Garnacha, which will contribute to the Viña Ardanza blend. Also of note are 25 ha (62 acres) in Montecillo and 32 ha (80 acres) in Cihuri. Yields are kept under 5,000 kg/ha, and the average age of vines is 23 years old.

As a curiosity, the wire netting on Rioja Alta’s top wines originally acted as a protective seal to prevent unscrupulous people from being tempted to change the contents of the bottle for others of inferior quality and then reselling it. Nowadays, it is used for aesthetic reasons, as well as to maintain a link with the past. The company was also a pioneer in keeping in direct touch with its customers by forming a special club (Club de Cosecheros), which allows customers to buy one cask of wine directly from the winery and to have access to its facilities for visits and dinners. In the past few years, the company has gone to great lengths to attract visitors by providing a restaurant and meeting services, as well as selling its wines in an ultramodern shop inside the headquarters.

Rioja Alta has had its ups and downs over the years, and the quality of some wines during the early 1990s was not up to its historically high standards. But it seems to be back on form under the guidance of winemaker Julio Sáenz. Sadly, its stock of old vintages is small, but old bottles can still be found in shops and restaurants throughout Spain. The search is certainly worthwhile.


- Viña Alberdi: This is the entry-level wine—pure Tempranillo from Briones, Rodezno, and Labastida. It is sold as Crianza in Spain but Reserva elsewhere. It has been modernized since the very good 2001 vintage, sold as Selección Especial and dressed with a colourful
label, displaying a fresher profile. It is aged for two years in American oak, the first year in new barrels, the second in barrels three years old.

- Viña Arana: Viña Arana is 95% Tempranillo that comes mainly from a 76ha (188-acre) vineyard in Rodezno, called Las Cuevas, with additional grapes from Las Monjas in Zarratón and Larrazuri in Labastida. The 5% of Mazuelo is also harvested in Rodezno. The wine is aged for three years in used American oak and is the archetype of the Bordeaux style produced in Haro and originally known as Rioja claret.

- Viña Ardanza: Ardanza is the surname of one of the founding families of the winery and a name often found in the management team through the years. It is also one of the strongest brands in Spain. Created in 1942, it was strong enough to survive some tough times. It was originally aged for 42 months, always in used American barrels, but this has been reduced to 36 months. In the past, wines did not always carry a vintage date on the label, and this was also the case for Viña Ardanza. So, while old bottles do exist, it's difficult to know their age. The 2001 (released in 2009) is fantastic, taking its place alongside some of the finest vintages. It is being sold as Reserva Especial, only the third vintage ever to carry that designation (the other two being 1964 and 1973). The downside with high-volume brands like this is that the different lots are necessarily heterogeneous. What makes Viña Ardanza different is the 20% Garnacha from Villalba. This is currently bought in from different growers, though in future it will be sourced from the company’s recently planted vineyard in the area, La Pedriza. The Tempranillo comes from the company’s La Cuesta vineyard in Cenicero and Los Llanos and Montecillo vineyards in Fuenmayor. Viña Ardanza blanco was only produced for a few years, presented in 1988 (with the 1986 vintage) but abandoned early in the 1990s, when the company purchased a winery in Rías Baixas, Lagar de Fornelos, dedicated to whites made from Albariño under the brand Lagar de Cervera. At the same time, they gave up on all young wines, including the rosado Vicuana.

- Gran Reserva 904:
Not only was 1904 one of the best vintages in Haro, it was also the year Alfredo Ardanza, one of the founders of La Rioja Alta, proposed the merger with his own winery, Bodega Ardanza. This was one of the milestones in the development of the company, and a special wine was named in honour of the event, Reserva 1904, later renamed Gran Reserva 904 to avoid confusion between name and vintage. The 904 is traditional in style, with good concentration and spicy fruit. It is 90% Tempranillo from growers in Briñas, Labastida, and Villalba, and 10% Graciano from the company’s own vineyards in Rodezno and Fuenmayor. It is aged for four years in barrel and is possibly the longest-lived wine in the portfolio.

- Gran Reserva 890: This is the top of the range, a wine that is produced only in exceptional vintages. It can age in wood for eight years (nowadays closer to six) and for another six years in bottle (this has also been gradually reduced over the years) before release. As one might expect from this formula, this is a wine of the most traditional style; spice from the barrels, vanilla, maraschino cherries, cedarwood, and smoke. The name alludes to 1890, the year the winery was founded, but the name was shortened to 890 to avoid confusion with the vintage year. It has never been a cheap wine. The vintage on the market in 2010 was the 1995. The scale of production is variable but averages around 40,000 bottles. Older vintages probably have a different composition, but nowadays the wine is 95% Tempranillo sourced from long-term suppliers in Brinas, Labastida, and Villalba; 3% Graciano from the company’s own vineyards in Rodezno and Fuenmayor; and 2% Mazuelo from its vineyards in Rodezno. The colour is translucent orange more than red, the colouring matter having precipitated out during the long periods in barrel and in bottle. The nose is mainly tertiary, with leather, forest floor, and mushrooms and a whiff of truffle and spice (clove), while the palate is polished, with suave tannins and good persistence. Great Gran Reserva 890 vintages include 1959, 1970, 1975, 1981, 1982, 1985, and 1994. This is a textbook traditional Rioja.

La Rioja Alta S.A.
Area under vine: 425ha (1,050 acres)
Average production: 1.8 million bottles
Avenida de Vizcaya 8,
26200 Haro, La Rioja
Tel: +34 941 310 346

Writen by Hugh Johsnon (The finest wines of Rioja)

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