What is traditional Rioja?

As part of our ongoing commitment to acquiring limited and special allocations, part of our collection is focused on back vintages, especially from the most famous wine region in all of Spain, La Rioja.

We’ve developed many relationships with traditional wineries, and continue to attend tastings to check on the development of these long-ageing wines.

Yet, the use of the word “traditional” is controversial.  Before the phylloxera louse ravaged viticulture throughout most of Europe, winemakers in Rioja farmed on a much smaller scale, making it possible for manual harvests, and meticulous attention to the vineyards, ensuring quality of fruit.  Stems were often included during fermentation, and maturation in oak barrels was brief.

By the 1860’s, as France looked to Spain for fruit, wineries such as Marqués de Murrieta, CVNE, La Rioja Alta, and R. López de Heredia adopted the Bordelaise method of larger scale production and maturation in oak barrels for longer periods of time.  American oak was the natural choice for reasons of economy and flavor preference.  A few of these viticultors preserved the ancient wisdom of winemaking, even amidst the trend for higher yields and profits.   

Rioja’s Golden Age (1940’s-1980’s) relied on this ancestral winemaking knowledge preservation.  The tenets were simple. Locate the best vineyard sites, blend indigenous varietals with tempranillo, include stems in fermentation – all traditional tools from the past.

The ageing of Rioja wines is characterized by the long maturation in oak barrels, followed by additional time spent in bottle before release. For example, gran reservas, whose grapes are selected only from the best vintages, must spend a minimum of five years in barrel. Venerable houses such as the esteemed R. López de Heredia hold onto their wines in cellar even longer, essentially ageing the wines until initial readiness.

By the 1990’s, there was shift to more modern techniques, as winemakers produced robust wines for international palates.  Consumers who enjoyed higher ABV, flavors associated with new French oak (tobacco, vanilla), and consistent product quality irrespective of vintage drove the market.  The counterbalance to the alta expression (modern style) did also bring about improved viticultural practices such as temperature control, stainless steel tanks, and less oxidative ageing.

More recently, select winemakers have chosen to eschew the ageing classification system of the D.O.Ca. to concentrate on the fresher styles of Rioja’s traditional past.  This is achieved through the blending of varietals.  Remelluri is a good example of an estate revitalizing indigenous blends to be fermented with the tempranillo base.  Smaller producers such as Alegre, Gil Berzal, Tentenublo, and Sierra de Toloño are following this path.

Wine collectors and sommeliers across the globe have been on the hunt for Rioja wines from the golden age for many reasons.  Traditional aged Rioja wines are capable of aging gracefully for 30, 40, 50 years and beyond. The wines age beautifully, standing the test of time, drinking like the best elegant Bordeaux, Barolo, and Burgundy.  A few wineries continue to maintain a stocked library of back vintages in their cellars. 

Fortunately for old-style Rioja lovers, not only are the wines still available, but they also continue to be a great value comparatively.  The cost of collectible Burgundy and Bordeaux has hit astronomical levels. Great vintage Rioja wines can be had for a fraction of the price.

Here are some of the traditional vintage wines on offer:

López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1947

Ramón Bilbao Reserva 1964

López de Heredia Viña Bosconia GR 1964

Bodegas Berberana Carta de Oro 1966

Bodegas Berberana Carta de Plata 1970

CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1973

CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva 1986


And for some more recent vintages:

La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva 2005

Remelluri Reserva 2006

Remelluri La Granja Gran Reserva 2012

Remelluri Reserva 2014

Contino Gran Reserva 2015