La Rioja Alta: Fusing The Past With The Present

La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza ©La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta is one of the oldest wineries in Rioja. Five families established La Rioja Alta in 1890. By 1904 the winery merged with the Ardanza Winery. Today four wineries make up the La Rioja Alta brand, and each represents a distinct wine region.  They are La Rioja Alta, S.A. in Rioja Alta, Torre de Oña in Rioja Alavesa, Lagar de Cervera in Rias Baixas and Aster in the Ribera del Duero. All incorporate La Rioja Alta’s philosophy of combining traditional methods with new technology. The process constantly evolves both in the structure of the wines and through the expansion of the winery production.

La Rioja Alta was always ahead of its time. It started in 1890 with the naming of a woman, Doña Saturnina García Cid y Gárate, as president. Their first winemaker, Monsieur Vigier, a Frenchman, created the first vintage release,  Reserva 1890, which is now called the Gran Reserva 890.

La Rioja Alta Vineyards ©La Rioja Alta
La Rioja Alta Vineyards

My first encounter with the winery occurred in 2017 at the commemoration of the winery’s 75th anniversary of the Viña Ardanza wines. Representatives of the winery visited several American cities, including Los Angeles where I enjoyed the wines at a luncheon at the Bel Air Hotel. Fast forward to 2021, and this time  La Rioja Alta’s superb wines highlighted a luncheon at Tesse in West Hollywood.

Winemaker

Winemaker Julio Sáenz Fernández has been at the helm since 2005. Under his helm, the wines are described as new classics. Aspects that are unique to La Rioja Alto include entirely hand-picked grapes, onsite production of their own barrels in both American and French oak, and 100% direct distribution.

Winemaker Julio Sáenz Fernánde @La Rioja Altaz
Winemaker Julio Sáenz Fernández. Photo Courtesy of La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta Winemaking

Many characteristics of the wine are steeped in tradition bringing out the sophistication,  elegance, delicacy, complexity, balance, and long life in each bottle of wine. The new world aspects of the wine include the color, freshness, fruit, and rounded tannins.

La Rioja Alta has an onsite cooperage at their facility in Haro.  Here they make their barrels using both American and French oak.

Lagar de Cervera focuses on white wines, especially Albarino.  The three other wineries concentrate on reds.

The Luncheon

Jose Luis Navarro, the US Export Manager for La Rioja Alta, presented the wines at the luncheon at Tesse. Since many of the wines I sampled in 2017. I will compare the wines I sampled in 2017 to those I tasted recently to show the consistency of the wine even though they represent different vintages in terms of climatic effects on the grapes and wine.

Lunch at Tesse with La Rioja Alta
Lunch at Tesse with La Rioja Alta

Albariño

Our luncheon began with the Lagar de Cervera Albariño 2020 and appetizers. The wine is an outstandingly elegant crisp and bright Albariño exhibiting dominant flavors of green apples.

In the last month I sampled the 2019 Lagar de Cervera Albariño.  It delivered a wine with bright crispness.  On the nose, I found lemon and lime.   On the palate, flavors of apples and apricots give way to a wonderful freshness.

My notes from the 2016 vintage of Albariño read: Lagar D Cervera Albarino 2016 is an outstanding crisp and bright Albariño that one wants to keep sipping. This winery is one of the newest acquisitions of La Rioja Alto, especially since the winery resides outside of Rioja in Rias Baixas.

Lagar de Cervera Albariño
Lagar de Cervera Albariño

First Course

Three wines from the Torre De Oña winery paired exceptionally with the first course of Veal Tartare.

Finca San Martin 2017 Crianza: In Spain, a Crianza wine must age in oak for a minimum of 12 months, followed by aging in bottle.  The San Martin aged 14 – 16 months in oak.  I found a very together wine for the vintage.  The integration of this wine impressed me, especially since it consists of 100% Tempranillo.

Torre de Oña 2015 Reserva:  The wine combines Tempranillo with a small amount of Mazuelo in a very classic style.  The reserve spends 18 months in new French and Caucasian oak barrels.   The wine displays flavors of black currant and blackberries accented with clove and pepper.

Finca Martelo 2014 Reserva:  The wine consists of Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Garnacha and Viura.  In Spanish winemaking using the white Viura variety acts like when winemakers in the United States add Viognier to Syrah to enhance the color of the wine.  The wine ages 24 months in 80% American oak and 20% French oak. On the nose, the wine delivers earthy aromas with hints of cedar.  On the palate, one finds cranberry, raspberry with hints of chocolate and vanilla on the finish. The brand was a favorite at the luncheon.

In 2017 I wrote, The Martelo exemplifies the old new world direction La Rioja Alta strives to achieve. The wine Torre De Oña Martelo Reserva 2012 combines 95 Tempranillo with Mazuelo, Garnacha and Vuira. Wonderful florals permeate the nose. This very drinkable wine is fresh with flavors of plum.

Finca Martelo
Finca Martelo

Second Course

Complimenting Cavatelli, a pasta with Pork belly, arugula and Parmesan were the Viña Alberdi and Viña Ardanza

Viña Alberdi 2016 Reserva:  Another favorite of the event, this wine consists of 100% Tempranillo.  I consider this a new classical style that delivers a soft elegance.  It signifies a new release from the La Rioja Alta. I found flavors of cherry that are accented by mocha both on the nose and palate.

Glasses of La Rioja Alta Reds
Glasses of La Rioja Alta Reds

Viña Ardanza 2012 Reserve: The wine combines 70% Tempranillo from 30-year-old vines in the highest elevation of Rioja and 30% Garnacha from the Rioja Oriental region, where the soils are more deficient. Each component of the wine ages separately, the Tempranillo 36 months in 4-year-old American oak and the Garnacha 30 months in 2 – 3-year-old barrels. The more we learn about wine, we discover that certain wines smell like the region.  This wine’s aromas tell us it is a Rioja. The wine exhibits cherry flavors accented by spicy notes.

Viña Ardanza 2009 Reserva: In this vintage, the wine was served from a magnum.  The fruit appeared riper with a little more sharpness.

In 2017 I sampled six vintages of the Ardanza.  I will list in this article my favorites from that time.  It is worth noting that before 1994 the composition of the wine not only included Tempranillo and Garnacha but also Mazuelo and Graciano. The wine is produced only when the winery deems the vintage worthy of creating this wine.

The 1989 Viña Ardanza was my overall favorite at the 2017 tasting because of its elegance, balance, and lighter body. The flavors were sharp and distinctively tobacco and tomato. A Mediterranean quality was quite evident in this wine.

Viña Ardanza 2001 was a very special year for Rioja wines. This vintage represents the first year the wine aged entirely in barrels coopered at the winery. Although considered a scarce year in terms of grapes; nonetheless, it made the wine exceptional. The color is intense, and the wine very complex.

Viña Ardanza 2008 represented the 75th anniversary year wine and came across as exceptionally together and bright.

Tesse Leg of Lamb
Tesse Leg of Lamb

Third Course

The highlight of the meal was when the chef brought out the leg of lamb.  This yummy dish complemented the La Rioja Alta’s Gran Reserva series.

Viña Arana Gran Reserva 2014:  This is the 2nd vintage of this wine that combines Tempranillo primarily with a small amount of Graciano.  The wine aged in neutral American oak for three years. Think mushrooms on both the nose and palate.  Other aromas include mocha, coffee cedar.  This full-bodied wine delivers flavors of plum, vanilla, and cloves.

Vina Arana
Viña Arana

The 904 series commemorates the merger of the two wineries La Rioja Alta and Ardanza in 1904.  The first wine after that merger was the Reserva 1904, which now is called the Gran Reserva 1904.  It was changed because people thought they were purchasing a wine made in the year 1904.

Gran Reserva 904 2011:  Consisting of a blend of Tempranillo from 60-year-old vines with Graciano. The wine expresses beautiful nuances of dried fruit accented with hints of smoke and black tea.  It is a wine in which you want to savor every sip.

Gran Reserva 904 2009:  This wine was one of my favorites and a library wine, again featuring the blend of Tempranillo and Graciano.   On the nose, there were herbal notes, while on the palate, the dominant flavors were cherry and currant.

La Rioja Alta Wines
La Rioja Alta Wines

Finale

Instead of dessert, which would not have paired our final wine, we were treated to a rich short rib with polenta and Mascarpone.  The sauce had a sweetness of fruits that complemented our final wine.

Gran Reserva 890 2005.  This wine pays homage to the year La Rioja Alta opened and released its first vintage that same year.  The wine is produced only in a year where the winemaking team deems the vintage deserving. Originally a reserve wine called 1890 and now called 890 as not to confuse the year of production with the year 1890; the wine represents the true winemaking prowess of La Rioja Alta.  Combining Tempranillo primarily with Graciano and Mazuelo, the wine is another outstanding example of La Rioja Alta’s finesse at creating exceptional wines that showcase the Rioja region.  The wine has depth and structure as if it fills you with wonder, fragrant aromas, and flavors of cherry.

The stature of the wines of La Rioja Alta gives the Rioja its name. It is a stellar example of what is being produced today using both the old world style and new world techniques without forfeiting quality, integration, or balance.

Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer received a hosted luncheon and wine tasting. While it bears no influenced on this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.

Featured image courtesy of La Rioja Alta.