Traditional Rioja is one of the greatest categories of wine in the world.  But most people don’t know that.  And it’s fine with me.  It has kept prices reasonable in the face of areas like Bordeaux and Burgundy which are very expensive across the board for most top end, and even middle of the road, producers.  Ditto to Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello, but maybe to a slightly lesser extent.  There are too many reasons why traditional Rioja is so magical to even begin to go into, but one of the things that they are noted for is their ability to age gracefully and with surprising longevity.  And on a recent evening I was able to taste many examples of traditional Rioja going all the way back to 1925 at Acker Merrall’s Wine Workshop series.

Rioja has been a hot button location in the wine world, where the divide between traditionally made wines and modern styled wines has been widely debated.  I don’t pull any punches with where my heart lies.  It’s with traditional Rioja and it always will be.  And I am not alone.  In fact, I have come across a couple great stories concerning traditional Rioja lately.  The first is a great interview with Gerry Dawes by my friend Tom at Inside RiojaGerry Dawes is a no B.S. kind of guy, and his interview is a great read.  This is a guy who is been in the wine business for many years and has dealt in some of the world’s greatest wines and he rates López de Heredia 1947 Viña Bosconia as the greatest wine he has ever tasted!  Kind of even more spectacular is the video posted on Alice Fiering’s blog from a Spanish language television show that draws inspiration from a chapter in Alice’s recent book Naked Wine.  It is a profile of Rioja bodegas López de Heredia (the ultra traditional) and Remírez de Ganuza (the ultra modern).  The video is an hour long and it’s in Spanish (and Catalan dialect also I believe), but you don’t need to understand Spanish to appreciate the stories.  A must watch for anyone that loves Rioja, traditional or modern.  It’s worth a watch simply for the footage of the cellars at López de Heredia alone.

Below are the notes from the Aged Traditional Rioja tasting with Acker Merrall.  But my take away on being able to taste such an impressive line up of older Rioja wines, is that they certainly can age as well as any of the finest wines in the world and seem to have incredible longevity.  There were a couple of bottles that were “maderized” (in essence cooked and now resembling something akin to Sherry or Madeira wine – very drinkable in fact, but not Rioja).  That said, all the other bottles showed well and ranged from drinkable to profound.  There were distinct differences in house style; Riscal being the most robust, Murrieta showing great acidity, CVNE showing great complexity, and López de Heredia exhibiting distinctiveness.  I would say that we probably missed the heyday of many of these wines, but some, like the 1960 CVNE, and the López de Heredia 1976 seemed to be right on the money right now.  The 1934 López de Heredia being the only wine that was still too young!

1964 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva ’904′

Lighter garnet with an orange rim.  Woody cedar aromas hit you first, there are some tertiary aromas, but not overtly.  There are cinnamon spice notes as well and it seems pretty fresh for a 1964, but I expected a bit more.  Some folks thought it the wine of their night.  Normally I am a bigger fan of La Rioja Alta, but this bottle fell a bit short in my mind, none the less, I wouldn’t kick it out of bed either.  RECOMMENDED

1953 Marques de Riscal Reserva

Garnet in color with hints of brick.  Meaty, smokey, peppery fruit with distinctive burnt chocolate notes.  Not bad, but not great.  ON THE FENCE

1947 Marques de Riscal Reserva

Dark and sanguine with an orange rim.  There are hints of woodiness, dark current, and liquorish hints but it turns to turpentine a bit on the tail end?  ON THE FENCE

1938 Marques de Riscal Reserva

Sanguine in color with some browning.  Dried fruit and smoke house meats suggest the wine is maderized.  In other words, the profile was that of something approaching Madiera or Sherry, not Rioja, but not, not tasty either?  ON THE FENCE

1925 Marques de Riscal Reserva

Another sanguine wine with a hint of orange on the rim.  Meaty sweet fruit with a distinctive cedar lift.  The freshest of the Riscal’s.  RECOMMENDED

1970 Castillo Ygay Marques de Murrieta Gran Reserva

Light garnet in color with pickled mushroom tertiary notes.  There is a hint of an ethereal Burgundy element here.  RECOMMENDED

1959 Castillo Ygay Marques de Murrieta Gran Reserva

Light garnet marks the Ygay wines.  And “high toned” notes are present in the Ygay wines.  There is a great sweet caramel topped melon note here.  On the nose the wine is pretty with hints of mint and some tertiary elements.  The acidity is solid as is the finish.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

1952 Castillo Ygay Marques de Murrieta Gran Reserva

Medium garnet, a bit high toned, with caramel, chocolate, decent acidity and a nutty finish.  ON THE FENCE

1948 Castillo Ygay Marques de Murrieta Gran Reserva

Medium garnet with some high toned notes.  Watermelon topped with fresh mint and some tertiary notes.  Good acidity, good spice, and all I can say is that this one was zinging!  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

1968 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva

Very maderized.  Not tasted.  Probably solid as a decent glass of Madiera, but definitely not Rioja.  NOT TASTED

1960 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva #1

The first of two (w/ lower fill level), medium purple in color.  Meaty with bacon fat and Asian spice and liquorish.  The acidity is decent with a nice solid finish.  Nice stuff.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

1960 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva #2

Medium garnet and fresher than the first bottle of 1968 CVNE (with full fill level).  Great freshness and acidity mix with minty red berry aromas.  Even nicer stuff!  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

1953 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva

Medium with smokey burnt caramel.  Match stick, tertiary elements, and decent acidity.  RECOMMENDED

1934 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva

Medium garnet with Provençal herbs, a smoked nuttiness, good acidity and spice.  Kind of on the edge.  ON THE FENCE

1976 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva

Very light garnet in color, almost rosé like.  An interesting briny salinity marks the 1976 Tondonia (as it has when I have tasted it in the past).  A singular wine, the most singular of the night for me.  It was the favorite of several people at the tasting, it had a great memorable individuality.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – CLASSIC

1934 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva

Surprisingly bright red medium garnet.  Hints of smoke and plum red fruit.  This does not seem like a 75+ year old wine.  How?  Does this wine need another 50-100 years?  This wine has a seemingly indefinitely long life ahead.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED