These are not the same wines that Rioja produces today, many things have changed, but they are similar. The grapes are the same, though with clone and vineyard practices that on the whole probably deliver better quality fruit. The vinifications tend to be very similar, though today’s are temperature controlled and carried out with the full knowledge of what things like oxygen and heat do to both musts and uncrushed fruit, resulting in both more freshness and fruit. And of course, the ageing process so integral to Rioja’s character has remained significantly the same.
Rioja continues to undergo long ageing in wood, though more French oak is used today than in the past. The necessity of barrel hygiene is much better understood today as well, so while we are seeing more complexity from oak, especially when French and American oak is used for the same wine, we are seeing a complexity added by dirty barrels with decreasing frequency.
One major indication of the change in oak ageing requirements is the recent one year reduction of the minimum barrel ageing required for Gran Reserva status.
One of the participants brought a long a bottle of Marques de Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay Etiqueta Blanca, a label that is no longer made and was fairly unfamiliar to those around the table. The Bodega responded back with the details regarding the wine, offering a fascinating snapshot into what was going on in Rioja in 1970.
“Regarding your request, “Etiqueta Blanca” wines were Crianzas, and the last vintage of this type of wine was the 1982. After which, we decided to concentrate our efforts on Reserva and Grand Reserva. Anyway, I have to add that the ageing process of Crianzas in those days was much longer than the one that nowadays is considered enough in Rioja for that type of wine: 35/40 months in oak versus 12 months.
The blend of that vintage was the following one: Tempranillo 75%, Mazuelo 11%, Garnacha 8% and Graciano 6%."
As you can see, your father’s Crianza was not quite your Crianza, and so it goes for all Rioja. With very few exceptions, the wines show more fruit in their youth today but do continue to be built on similar structures, combing bright acids and tannins from both fruit and oak. The finest wines, Reservas, Gran Reservas and the rare Reserva Especials, all offer great drinking on release and promise to age well for decades.
Will they age as well as the 1970s? Probably. In fact, I would imagine that many recent high quality vintages have more than a passing resemblance to 1970.
Interestingly, this vintage which was so very highly regarded for the first two decades of its life has begun to fade more quickly as its fruit drops from site.
For most of us, that shouldn’t be a concern. I doubt many are looking forward to enjoying our 2001 Gran Reservas in 2042! But if you are looking for wine to enjoy from your cellar for the next 20 years, let me repeat one last time: great Rioja continues to be the best value in cellarable wine in the marketplace today.
Having said that, let me wrap things up with one further observation regarding why we buy and cellar wines. Many of the wines tasted for this article showed signs of less than perfect storage. Buying wines on release and storing them yourself is the only way to ensure that your wines do not suffer the same fate!