Rioja that really rocks? La Rioja Alta SA tasting at the Mystere Wine Club, Cardiff.

Yes you lucky people, it is time for a wine post. I know you have been waiting for one with bated breath for months now, so here it is in all its “War and Peace” glory

Having received literally hundreds (rounded up by me from none) of requests for more wine posts, I have relented (despite my reticence in terms of talking about wine 🙄) and given the public what they (should) want.

On a related note, I am also introducing scoring to these wine posts (yes there will be more). l know this will be of huge interest to no one, but it is good for me in terms of record keeping (the blog is more a record for my benefit than anything else). I have hummed and harred about doing this for a while as I find the out of 100 (everything over 90 points is good anything below 90 is to be poured down the sink) scoring system favoured by the wine critics very odd. I mean to say a wine that scores 80 out of a 100 (16/20, 8/10, 4/5) being deemed to be rubbish seem utterly absurd to me. What I would have given to have gotten  80% in some (any) of my exams!!!!

My scoring is out of 20. Anything below 10/20 is a poor wine (below average), over 12/20 is a decent wine (you get a B for 60% in my world) and over 15/20 (75%) a very good wine. A score of  18 or over is a mind blowingly good wine. I will never score a perfect 20/20 as to me there is no such thing as a perfect wine – there is always going to be a better one out there.

Before you all doze off, I will be getting to the point in an hour or so, this post is on that wine beloved of the UK (and me), Rioja (UK is the biggest export market for Rioja by some distance, with just under 34% of export sales as against the 12.3% for the second place Germany and  10% for the US in 2020). Also this stuff is not just any old Rioja (plenty of good Rioja out there, but regrettably also plenty of rubbish), but from one of the greatest Rioja and indeed Spanish bodegas in the form of La Rioja Alta S.A. Now that may bore the pants off you lot, but it is the sort of thing that gets me positively giddy with excitement.

By way of a little background, the winery was formed way back in 1890 (their top wine is called 890 for this reason) in the Barrio de la Estacion in Haro (a heavenly place for the likes of me).

Me outside of the winery a few years back

In 1904 it merger with the Ardanza winery and from that we got their 904 wine (the one being lost to avoid confusion in terms of vintage).

In 1942 their Vina Ardanza came into existence, with that now probably their most widely recognised wine. Back then it’s main markets were Cuba and Venezuela (oh how times have changed). Vina Ardanza was one of the wines, along with Pieropan’s La Rocca, that first got me really interested in wines (and no J that was not back in 1942!)

A foray into Galicia in the late 80s saw them acquire a winery which produces their Lagar D Cervera albarino. They also have holdings in Ribero del Duero (aster) and a further winery (Torre de Ona in the delightful village of Paganos – great restaurant there called Hector Oribe) in La Rioja Alavesa.

Three of their Haro produced (La Rioja Alta) wines, plus a special bottling for the Wine Society (anyone who remotely likes wine should join) formed the November Mystere Club tasting led by yours truly. We added their albarino as a sharpener before the main proceeding, as the tasting was very popular (despite the fact I was leading it).

All wines, bar from the white, were double decanted 6 hours + before the tasting.

2021 Lagar D Cervera

LA Rioja Alta S.A. don’t make a white rioja at the moment (there use to be a Ardanza Blanco and I still hold out hope that this will be revived one day), but they have this outpost in the North West of Spain where they make two white (and a couple of evil spirits in the form of Orujo).

Quite a typical albarino this, with a golden colour and distinct aromas of apple and quince. Minerally, with a twist of lemon zest, on the palate this would be great with some shellfish and can be picked up from Waitrose for not a bad price. Nothing that will blow your socks off, but a decent prelude to the main event (we didn’t include it in the scoring).

Price£14.99

2016 Seleccion 874

This wine is a collaboration between the Wine Society, with the 874 a reference to the 1874 founding date of the Wine Society (La Rioja Alta make the Wine Society’s Exhibition Rioja).

It is a blend of tempranillo (70%), garnacha (25%) and graciano (5%), put together by Pierre Mansour of the Wine Society and Julio Saenz of La Rioja Alta.

Deep rich colour, with a really distinct aroma of coconut from the American oak (aged for 2 years in the barrel and one year in the bottle). I am not usually a fan of coconut (I think Bounty Bars are the work of a maligned and spiteful God – the news they are being binned from Celebration boxes would be good news if the rest the stuff in them wasn’t equally shxte, with the removal of the accursed Bounty merely a case of a cold turd going and leaving just the warm turds in tin), but in Rioja wines I often enjoy it as long as it is relatively shy (see what I did there) in terms of its presence.

Here it was perhaps a tad too enthusiastic in making its presence felt, along with a big hit of vanilla on the nose.

On the palate, there was red fruit (raspberry), tobacco and a touch of spice. Bit lean I thought and not quite knitting together, with a whopping 14.5,° abv not helping by leaving a touch of alcohol burn. Time may even it all out and mellow it (2016 is a good vintage and is in a drink or hold place currently), but this was the lowest scoring wine of the night for me and everyone else by some margin (in its defence is was by some distance the cheapest red).

Score: 12

Price: £16 ish I think.

2010 Vina Ardanza especial seleccion

2010 was a cracking vintage in Rioja, viewed by some as the vintage of the century to date (beating in the Wine Spectator the much fated 2001, 2004/5 vintages).

Ardanza is a blend of tempranillo (80% – from their La Cuesta and Montecillo vineyards in Fuenmayor and Cenicero) and garnacha (20% – from their La Pedriza in Tudelilla), with the tempranillo getting getting 36 months and the garnacha 30 months in American oak barrels (always wondered why Ardanza is not marketed as a gran reserva, but is the mere 30 months in barrel of the garnacha the reason?).

Nice rich colour to it, with a touch of bricking to the rim

Nose has nice spicy perfumed (pepper, nutmeg and a touch of cinnamon) notes to it, with the American oak much less prominent than was the case in the 874, as well as sweet red fruit.

Good acidity to this, with decent tannins and more red fruit (cherry) and a bit of liquorice on the palate.  Consensus of opinion (including mine – which often varies wildly from the wider group’s) was this needed a bit more time to reach its full potential.

Score: 14

Prices: £35 (ish)

2001 Vina Ardanza reserva especial

2001 was (as with the 2010) a stellar vintage in Rioja and this was a step up in class from the 2010 with the wine knitted together far better on a basis that (in my view) not just the extra 9 years could account for.

No tangible difference in colour from the 2010,

with an intensely spicey nose of vanilla and cinnamon as well as a touch of the bonfire and rich red fruit.

On the palate, lots of fruit still in the mix, silky, well integrated, tannins, great acidity and a long finish.

I described this wine as being in its (and my) happy place and I think it will stay there for a fair while yet.

I bought half a case of this on release for less than £15 a bottle. Gutted I didn’t buy more, alot more.

Score: 16

Price: £50 (ish)

2010 904 Gran Reserva

In theory a step-up in class, with this designated as a gran reserva (here 4 years in American oak, bottled in July 2015 and released in June  2019). The blend is tempranillo (90%) and graciano (10%).

As with the Ardanza, 2010 was a great vintage. As such this should have been at least on the verge of properly singing.

Quite a bricky rim to the colour, showing more age than the 2010 Ardanza.

On the nose I found this a bit muted, with touches of plum and tobacco. On the palate, it was all a bit lean and taut. Touch of coffee, candied fruit and liquorice, but it all felt a bit too young to me.  Needs at least another 5 years further bottle time to knit together I suspect.

Score: 15

Price: £75

2004 904 Gran Reserva

One of my favourite Rioja vintages, with a “Excelente” designation and the Wine Spectator referring to  it as “Balanced, with ripe black fruit flavors and lively acidity“.

4 years in in-house made American oak barrels, with it bottled in February 2009.

Not noticeably older looking than the 2010, it still have a relatively youthful colour despite a bit on bricking on the rim.

On the nose, it was a belter. Lovely smokiness, with leathery, meaty notes and vanilla.

On the palate it had a elegant acidity and silky tannins.  The finish was long, with red fruit (strawberry) still present as well as coffee, chocolate and more spice. Great wine, with years still left in the tank.

Score: 16.5

Price£80

2005 890

First of the 890s, which are 95% tempranillo topped up with 3% graciano and 2% mazuelo. Aged for a whopping 6 years in the barrel (with 10 rackings) and then not released until 2018, the 890 is La Rioja Alta’s flagship wine.

Starting to show a bit of age, with bricking on the rim

On the nose it was a broad shouldered brooding beast. Big meaty aromas, leather, rich stewed fruit, a big hit of dark orange enfused chocolate and sort of mushroomy forest floor finish.

On the palate, it had lovely mellow tannins, great acidity with plenty of forest fruits still in the mix.

Lots to love about this Rioja.

Score: 17

Price: £125- £150

2004 890

An interesting chance of comparison between the 890 and its (in theory) baby brother the 904. 890 is oft described as being more full bodied and explosive as against the more elegant, refined, 904. From previous tasting I have often favoured the 904 over the 890 in a straight shoot out (then there is the fact that the 904 is generally much cheaper than the 890).

Similar look to each in terms of colour, with bricking on the ring.

On the nose, I got a big hit of minty chocolate and then dried fruit (quite pruney) coming though. I didn’t really get the expected full array of tertiary notes. Reading reviews there was reference to forest floor, game, cigar smoke, old furniture and incense and I didn’t really get much of any of these 

On the palate it had good acidity, plenty of sweet fruit and liquorice.  Not 100% sure why, but I was much more enamoured with the 904 2004. Think it had more complexity to it, with more tertiary notes, and a greater refinement. As a result I found the 904 2004 of more interest on the nose and palate.

Think this one has loads left in the tank development wise and perhaps it could surpass the 904 in due course. At the moment I would go for the 2005 vintage or the 904 2004 every time (even discounting the price disparity in terms of the latter) over this wine.

For the price I was just a tad disappointed if am honest. Don’t get me wrong it is a very good wine, but not convinced it is worth the prices being asked these days.

Score: 16

Price: £110 – £185 (not sure why such a range).

2001 890

Unlike the 2004/5 this had 12 rackings (as oppose to 10) whilst in barrel, with it going into bottle in March 2008 (released in 2014).  

Final wine of the night and back to one of my favourite vintages. To me the 2001 gran reserva riojas seem to be really hitting their stride, as they come of age at 21 years old, at the moment.  Only 15,900 bottles were produced, much less than the 2004/5 vintages, so this is a rare beast indeed these days.

Rich garnet nose, with seemingly no noticeable more signs of ageing than the 2004/5 vintages

On the nose, the first word on my tasting sheet was ” Wow”, followed by ” wow” “wow” and “wow”.The aromas wafted up were intoxicating, with vanilla, cedar, smoke, game,  subtle coconut, mint, loam and rich ripe cherries. Loads of complexity, but all in perfect harmony.

On the palate, there was still plenty of ripe candied fruits, but also tertiary flavours of coffee, mocha, caramel and liquorice. Great balance, silky tannins, refreshing acidity and a huge length. What a wine this is!!!

Sitting firmly in its and my (deliriously) happy place, I doubt this will get much better (difficult to see how it can to be honest). It will sit at this stellar level of development for 10 years plus, in my opinion. Oh to still have a case of this to drink over the next decade – I only have 1 bottle of it in the wine room 😭.

This is a “You have got to try this before you die” wine.

Score: 18

Price: £150 (if you can afford it buy it, is my advice).

The verdict

Rioja is my first and enduring love wine wise and this was a stellar tasting with not a dud amongst the wines tasted. 

My top 3 were as follows:

  1. 2001 890
  2. 2005 890
  3. 2004 904

The overall vote by club members was (as always slightly different) as follows:

  1. 2001 890 (it won by a country mile)
  2. 2004 904
  3. 2001 Vina Ardanza.

Value wise I think the 2001 Vina Ardanza was the winning wine (still got some of it 😁).

Many may baulk at the price tag of some of these wines, but I spent the price tag of the 2001 890 on a michelin star meal recently and I derived as much pleasure from the 2001 890 as I did from that meal. When you think about how much effort, skill, man hours and investment that goes into that wine (12+ years before it even gets on the market after the grapes are harvested) and how bloody good it is £150 starts to actually look pretty darn fair (at least to me).  They say money can’t buy you love, but boy with this wine can it buy you a Rioja to really fall in love with.

This is what the mystere wine club is all about. Being able to drink stellar wines without the stellar price tag. This tasting was £45 and when you look at the quality of wines tasted that is some bargain.

For those still awake, in terms of food these wines don’t need anything too fancy. To me they cry out to be drunk with baby lamb chops (chuletas de cordero) cooked rare over flame, with the source of that flame being vine clippings. A match made in heaven.

Finally Majestics are currently  selling the 2012/2015 Ardanza for £19.99 if buy it as part of any 6 wines. Seriously good price that.

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