There are few great values in the world of aged fine wine, and it’s not a growth category. In fact, the number of options available to those with a modest budget continues to shrink quite rapidly as the global pool of wine lovers expands. Among the treats still out there to be discovered (though not for long), traditional Rioja remains an amazing value.
Not only are many of these wines still priced very attractively—though the prices for the top wines have skyrocketed over the past several years—but the wines themselves deliver like few others. Two points work in Rioja’s favor, the first being that for as long as I can remember, they have in fact been out of favor with wine lovers. There was no great marker for old Rioja, so bottles didn’t get moved around the globe to be sold and resold before eventually finding their way into an aficionado's hand (who was intent on actually drinking the wine).
The second fact that makes old Rioja so attractive in today’s wine market is the unusual aging curve of these wines. Aged for long periods of time in wood, and then in the bottle before sale, these are wines that were drinking well on release. So well, in fact, that few people probably had faith that they might evolve for decades. After about their first decade, traditional Rioja Reservas and Gran Reservas do show a noticeable change reflective of their age, but that’s just about when the magic starts to happen.
Unlike any other wine I can think of, Rioja, after a certain age, tends to be a bit of an immovable object, fading slowly away instead of hitting a wall and cracking up. That fading is glacially slow, confronted with the amazing persistence of Tempranillo’s fruit and structure. Wines that are 50 years old or more don’t differ markedly from wines 30 years their junior. Of course, they are different, bearing the marks of their vintage and winemaking. But well-preserved bottles of rather ancient Rioja can be rich and robust, still packed with fruit and complexity. It’s a memorable experience--that first pristine bottle of old Rioja that crosses one’s lips--and thoroughly convincing as well, which is why the marketplace is waking up to the value these wines offer.
As with all mature wines, you never really know what you’re getting when you buy a bottle of old Rioja. As with any other wine, storage issues abound, but chances are good that you will find a wine that is still intact, delivering all the hallmarks of great Rioja. One trait that old Rioja does share with at least one other old wine, in this case Barolo, is that it loves air. Even when they’re fairly ancient, these wines that have been produced in a slightly oxidative style need time to unwind after being cooped up in a bottle for decades. If you do buy a bottle and find it lacking, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Have some patience, several hours of patience, and you just might be shocked at the renaissance some of the bottles manage to pull off.
I recently sat with several friends for an opulent meal served as a backdrop for a lineup of C.V.N.E.’s Vina Real Gran Reserva, though several of the wines were in fact labelled Reserva Especial. Vina Real takes its name from the Camino del Real, whose historic path skirted some of the Rioja Alavesa vineyards that went into the original wines, first bottled in 1920. Today the wine is called “modern, balanced, and elegant” by C.V.N.E., though if I had to guess from what remains in the bottles with some of these old vintages, they would have used the same terms from the start.
Most of the wines showed well tonight, though we did have two corked bottles, and one that showed some signs of less than ideal storage. In general they were vibrant, still well-fruited, and aromatic. A real treat to try them all, and with few exceptions, wines that have many years of life ahead of them.
1978 C.V.N.E. Vina Real Gran Reserva
Dried cherry fruit greets the nose along with a whiff of smoke and the lift of VA. Further time in the glass reveals dry soil and dried dill notes along with a little leather rounding things out. The acidity is well integrated here, making this seem a touch soft in the mouth while keeping the red fruits juicy on the mid-palate. At times a touch lean, this gains a minty aspect on the finish and some weight, but continues to lack a little brightness and detail in the mouth. 88 points
1976 C.V.N.E. Vina Real Gran Reserva
Sweet and soft on the nose, which offers up a captivating blend of raspberry jam, licorice, tar, leather and sandalwood. Soft, broad and supple on entry, this delivers clear, bright red fruit framed by subtle tannins, which help add some drive and heft on the back end. The fruit shows excellent persistence on the finish; while this is a touch simple, it’s showing particularly well tonight and is a pleasure to drink. The most fun wine of the evening. 92 points