Rioja – Ancient and Modern


La Rioja Alta Old BottlesThere is something beguiling about Spain, about the way in which this oldest of cultures is able to embrace the new and give it a pleasing twist of tradition. The beauty in that most modern of constructions, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, resides in its affinity to its surroundings; the way in which the shapes and colours are effortlessly outstanding, in every sense of the word, and yet at the same time, in certain lights and at certain times of day, become assimilated with the natural, albeit urban environment. History repays the compliment; it is hard to imagine anything more horrifically modern than some of the late charcoals of Goya, or anything which predates surrealistic elasticity of form as much as the portraits of El Greco… And on a rather more prosaic but equally telling note, the same applies to wine.

With a small party of journalists we set off to one of the oldest villages in Rioja, Villabuena, to stay, you’ve guessed it, in one of its most modern hotels, an architectural challenge to the dictates of geometry and common sense if ever there was one. And then two contrasting days, the first with a brace of the oldest most established Bodegas in Rioja, Lopez de Heredia and La Rioja Alta, and the second with two of the modern superstars, Finca Allende and Bodegas Artadi. I do hope, I expect you are thinking that he is not going to say that the Tondonias tasted thoroughly modern and the Allendes pleasingly old-fashioned. Most certainly not, but there was a definite feeling of the ageless grace of the youth and the timeless freshness and vigour of the older wines. Dorian Gray and all that…

Tempranillo, the mainstay of the reds, is etymologically tied to youth and early ripening and yet, for all its modesty of hue, can be one of the longest lasting of all grapes. Viura, the oft-maligned white variety, can taste flabby and fantastically uninspiring in youth and yet with age, admittedly from ancient vines, it assumes a vitality and energy to shame all it s peers. And so, shadowed by Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia’s famous generosity, Tondonia Old Bottlesthe 91 Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva white seemed younger than the 93 and as for the 64… Things did start to seem strange indeed, sitting as we were outside in boiling sunshine… in the middle of October. The reds were equally enchanting, with the Gran Reservas from 87, 81 and an impossibly youthful 1954 all tasted with increasing wonder. It was in no small measure in credit to La Rioja Alta that their wines were in no way over-shadowed on our next visit; indeed John Radford, the highly-respected Spanish wine aficionado, who was one of our number, reserved particular praise for the 1973 Viña Ardanza, an extraordinary paradigm of laconic pleasure. Equally good were the Gran Reserva 890 from 1981 and, pleasingly, the current release of 890, which comes from 1995, wise beyond its years even in such august company.

The key feature of day two was that most of it was spent in the vineyards. Artadi’s fabled white London taxi cab, star of at least one previous BBR Blog, was roto , maybe refusing to go South of the River Ebro at this time of year… but Juan Carlos found a clapped out BMW instead and the tour, as always enlightened the tasting. Every sinew of the valley informed the different tastes of the different wines, and their amalgam, PagosJuan Carlos in the Artadi vineyards Viejos, was different again, the blender’s art held in crisp counterpoint to that of the viticulturalist seeking to illustrate nature’s diversity. Similar vineyard variations were illustrated by the ebullient Miguel Angel de Gregorio at Finca Allende. The visit to the steep Martires vineyard and the old gobeleted Tempranillo vines of Briones served, respectively, to explain the premium white and to underline the difference between the two top reds, Calvario and Aurus. It was Miguel Angel, indeed, who warned us against trying to simplify our perception of Rioja too much… the initial Bodegas were founded in the late nineteenth century by expat Frenchmen , who were escaping the ravages of phylloxera, and it was normal for them to use French oak… American oak came later and was, for a while, equated with modernity… And today both putative camps use both styles of oak, thereby complicating the story further; tasting Pagos Viejos 1995 or even the youthful Calvario 2005, one is starting to appreciate that beyond the vigour and youth of these apparently modern styles, there is an absolute archetypical classic Rioja. The more one explores the differences, the more one discovers the similarities… and, in all likelihood, vice versa… Viva Rioja!