Situated by the old train station in Haro in Rioja, La Rioja Alta is one of the classic Rioja bodegas.  Admittedly, it has been one of my favorite Rioja producers since first trying a bottle of Viña Ardanza, one of their several bottlings.  La Rioja Alta holds a great reputation here in the United States, and throughout the world, as being a real deal old school Rioja producer.  Having tasted their wines several times prior to our journey to Rioja, I could no doubt agree with this.  And having tasted the wines at the bodega as well, they all show classic Rioja character.  In fact, as a range I would happily drink any of the bottles we tasted on any day, but more on that later.

In contrast to Lopez Heredia, who’s walls remain covered in mold and everything seems to have remained unchanged for the past century, La Rioja Alta is a mix of old school with modern updates.  No mold or cobwebs here, things are clean and tidy and so far these updates have not affected the classic nature of the wines.

La Rioja Alta enjoys a very rich history dating to 1890 (from which the Gran Reserva 890 bottling takes it name).  In fact, they have produced a great hard cover book chronicling their history and wine making.  Walking into the Bodega one can see the history, but one also see’s that there are many modern touches and updates as well.  One thing that has remained traditional and was one of the most impressive things we saw on our visit to Rioja, is the hand racking of the wines.  In this process the wine is transferred from one barrel to another leaving behind the sediment that has fallen to the bottom of the barrel.  This is done periodically while a wine is being aged and it removes unwanted sediment from the wine.  We were not only lucky enough to see the hand racking process, but we got to taste the wine directly from barrel, pretty cool.

Being that we were late for our appointment at La Rioja Alta (things always seem to run late when tasting wine, hmmm…) we took a rather express tour of the extensive bodega and and then sat down to taste the range of wines (minus one).  The hospitality and warm receptions that we received in Rioja were truly generous and La Rioja Alta was no exception.  The incredibly charming and well spoken PR director at La Rioja Alta Gabriela Rezola led up our visit and while I can’t say that the bodega at La Rioja Alta is as impressive as the sheer untouched magic of López Heredia, what really counts is whats in the bottle and I am happy to say the all four wines that we tried were amazing.  I knew the wines were good, this was like a best friend confirming how awesome they are by doing something that reminds you of why the are a best friend.  Hard to choose a favorite really, so why even bother, easier to love them all.

There are five wines in the Rioja Alta range.  At the top of the line up is Gran Reserva 890.  This is not only the top wine, but it is also aged the longest, best selection of grapes, and naturally most expensive.  Sadly we did not try this bottling, but it didn’t bother me really as the Gran Reserva 904, the second from the top as it were, was so great.  We had had this same bottle on our first night in Rioja, and it remains one of the best Gran Reservas in all Rioja in my opinion.  Lots of classic Rioja character real elegance and depth with great hints of earth and cedar.  The 904 can be found for just under $50US and it is a more special occasion wine that is not to be missed.  The current release in 1997, so it has got some nice bottle age and is drinking pretty splendidly at the moment.  I opened on for New Years Eve in fact!  Following along after the 904 Gran Reserva is what is probably the flagship wine for La Rioja Alta:  Viña Ardanza.  This is a wine that I fell in love with immediately the first time I tasted it at a massive tasting of Spanish wines.  It was one of the standout wines of the evening, if not the standout wine, and there were hundreds of wines being poured that night.  At the bodega we tried the 2001 Viña Ardanza.  2001 was a stellar vintage in Rioja and La Rioja Alta which normally designates Viña Ardanza as a Reserva, bottled it as Reserva Especial due to the exceptional quality of the vintage.  Something they have only done a few times throughout their history.  I would say that the bottle of 2001 that we tried needs more time in bottle.  It was still a bit tannic and brooding, a young wine at nine years of age.  But it will undoubtedly last and last and be classic wine to drink over the next 20 years.  That said, what is on the market in the United States now is the Viña Ardanza 2000.  It is readily available from many sources and retails for just under $30US.  The 2000 is a bit more elegant in style that the 2001 and is drinking awesome right now and the price is pretty good too.  This is the easiest of all the wines to find.  It is a blend of 80% Tempranillo and 30% Garnacha and spends 36 months in American oak casks with an average age of four years.  The Garnacha certainly contributes to the softer rounder character of Ardanza.  The next wine in the range is Viña Arana.  It is not a step down in quality or price from Viña Ardanza, but rather a different blend/style of wine.  It is not as easy to find in the United States, or I have rarely seen it, but it is typically priced the same as Ardanza at around $30US.  But it is worth seeking out and trying as it is excellent.  To my mind it has a bit more spiciness to it than Ardanza due to higher percentage of Tempranillo and no Garnacha.  It is a blend of 95% Tempranillo and 5% Mazuelo and it spends 36 months in three year old American oak casks before being bottled.  Impossible really to pick a favorite between the two, different in style, but unmistakeably La Rioja Alta.  The final wine is the Crianza bottling of Viña Alberdi.  Not as readily available as Viña Ardanza but a bit easier to locate than Viña Arana, it is a great bargain at about $20US.  The current vintage on the market is 2003 and it is drinking really well.  Very approachable and very delicious, classic Rioja at an everyday price!  The 2003 Alberdi was aged for 2 years in American oak casks, new oak for the first year and oak an average of 3 years old for the second and it is 100% Tempranillo.

O.K., enough with the tasting notes and all the facts, here is the final say on La Rioja Alta.  If you are looking for rock solid old school Rioja look no further.  Every bottle of Rioja Alta I have had has been fantastic.  While they all share a certain character that makes them unmistakably La Rioja Alta, they each posses great singular character onto themselves.  Thanks La Rioja Alta!  Your devoted fan,  -the (z)infidel

Where to find La Rioja Alta

The wines of La Rioja Alta are readily available in many fine wine shops.  NYC certainly has it’s share and K&L on the West coast has a good selection, including the hard to find Viña Arana.  Apparently there is a strong following of La Rioja Alta wines in Florida as well (B-21 carries the La Rioja Alta range).  Many of these shops also have older vintages available.  They can be a small splurge but are truly worth it to get a glimpse at just how well these wines can age, if not how long they can age.

East Coast:

Astor Wines

B-21 Wines

Frankly Wines (they have older vintages available!)

PJ Wines (they also have older vintages available!)

UVA Wines (again, some older vintage available!)

West Coast:

K&L Wine Merchants