When a notion gets into Brad Kane’s head, he can become extremely insistent about it. He loves planning themed tastings. Verticals, horizontals, vertizontals, transversals, metarregionals... So, for a few months he’d been e-nailing about a dinner with 1970 Riojas in Manhattan. I liked the idea, so all I had to do was plan a trip back to New York around the proposed Wednesday night. Easy enough.
Of course, along the way Brad’s theme began to undergo mutations, as Brad’s themes often do. In the end, instead of Riojas from 1970, the dinner became a “Seventies Show: Rioja Edition”. Shortly thereafter, it completed the expectable metamorphosis to a dinner featuring “Riojas of a Certain Age”.
Happy mutations, say I.
And so we gathered in the back room of the ever-popular Tenth-Avenue tapería Tía Pol. There was the aforementioned Kane, SFJoe, Snooth’s own Greg Dal Piaz, Jayson Cohen, John Gilman, The Real Jay Miller, Christine Huang (visiting all the way from San Francisco, a longer flight than the one I took from Santo Domingo), Carlos Hübner Arteta and a bespectacled, chubby bald guy dressed in black who usually gets called The Latin Liquidator, or “Manuel”, or whatever.... I had hoped to see my good friend Gerry Dawes at this shindig, since I hadn’t seen him in the better part of a year, but he canceled on us at the last minute. A sucky turn of events, that.
Seated at the table, we were soon enjoying many wines and almost as many small dishes from Tía Pol’s kitchen, which outdid itself this time around. Montaditos, little croquettes infused with truffle oil, briny prawns, stuffed piquillo peppers, chorizo braised in Sherry, lamb, beef—all were fairly respectful renderings of traditional tapas. And all were delicious. No food-and-wine pairing revelations were to occur that night at our table, just good eating that didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of some great wines.
At the table, still exhibiting remarkable seriousness and restraint, from left to right, The Real Jay Miller, John Gilman and Jayson Cohen.
The wines... As is habitual in this kind of anarchic soirée, we couldn’t make up our minds as to what should be poured first. Suddenly, the argument was settled by somebody opening and pouring something, making further argument moot. The bottle seemed to be of 1970 R. López de Heredia, “Viña Tondonia” Reserva, Rioja. Or at least we assumed “Reserva” status, since there was no label-apron stating it was something else. Not that it said “Reserva”, either... Anyway, corked. Some good folks were more tolerant than I and waited a bit to see if the evil mustiness blew off. Never happened.
The Real Jay Miller got up from his seat at the other end of the table and came up to me. He poured me a glass of the 1964 Gonzalez-Byass, Fine Dry Oloroso. He said something about this having been the star of a Sherry tasting I had to miss a few months back and that he had wanted me to taste if. Which is why I love Jay. Such an amazingly thoughtful man. Alas, I couldn’t possibly taste this unbelievably powerful, palate-obliterating Sherry then—at least not if I wanted anything I sampled afterwards to register at all. I put my glass aside and said I would get back to it with the cheeses.
In the meantime, the 1976 R. López de Heredia, “Viña Tondonia” Blanco Gran Reserva, Rioja had been poured into another glass for me, It was behaving fabulously. Gorgeous perfume of toasted nuts, white flowers, honey, dried herbs, dried apricot and cherry. Powerful in the mouth, with the expected intensity and variety of flavors, the depth and the saline minerality, not to mention electrifying acidity of white Tondonias. Very long, lively finish. The floral aspects reappear, along with hot wax and a talcumy element at the very end. Phenomenal example of a wine I have had the privilege of tasting many times.
Kane and Hübner, in their corner.
It was to be the only white that evening. The fact that we continued with a 1981 R. López de Heredia, “Viña Bosconia” Gran Reserva, Rioja had me wondering about a further transformation of the theme, of which I was never notified. Had this become a Lópezdeherediathon? Not that I would object to such an event, but hey, the advertising promised other wines from other bodegas… Anyway, a splendidly youthful Bosconia. Lively aromas opening fanlike with panes of apple, just-poured concrete, sweet peas, old leather, plum, redcurrant, cranberry, ink, dried lavender and blood orange, among other aromatic suggestions. In the mouth this manages, simultaneously, to show admirable muscle and an extraordinarily delicate touch. Excellent nerve and the same fanlike tendency to the flavors. A very good example of what my dear Dr. K would call—borrowing the phrase from Steve Tanzer, no less—“inner-mouth perfume”, as the florals and minerals that arise at midpalate lift the aftertaste with them.
My contributions to the proceedings came up next. I had spent quite a bit of time wondering what from my cellar would be best for this group, in this occasion. I own enough Rioja from the sixties, seventies and eighties and have shared many bottles with these guys. Finding something different, something that would surprise them, was not easy. In the end I found a mini-vertical of the first three commercial vintages of Contino Reserva, a present from my buddy Jesús Madrazo, the bodega’s current winemaker.
Viñedos del Contino was founded in 1973, a fact that made this mini-vertical particularly emblematic and meaningful If we were to see this tasting as a study of what was going on in Rioja in the seventies. After all, Contino was the first bodega in Rioja modeled after the châteaux of Bordeaux, with its vineyards adjacent to the winery—a definite change from the norm in Rioja at the time.
A Trio of Continos.
We went from youngest to oldest, starting with the 1978 Contino, Reserva, Rioja. A compact, dark and serious wine with aromas of cherry and blackberry, truffle, a hint of barnyard. The volatility here is lifting, as opposed to a defect. It carries the nose toward a very pleasant aspect of violets. Zippy and fresh in the mouth, with very pure fruit and a certain creaminess of texture. Some wood left to resolve and integrate here. The aftertaste is long, tight and tannic, with hints of black tea and spices. Still very young.
Next up was a wine I have loved every time I’ve drunk it in the past, the 1976 Contino, Reserva, Rioja —and this bottle managed to take my love to the next level, surpassing every great memory I had of this wine. A real beauty. Warm, sweet, spicy nose with abundant fruit. Ripe and very elegant, generous, supremely seductive. Aromas of fig, cured meats, preserved orange, rosewater, plum, earth, cinnamon, cumin and much, much, much more. This enters the mouth delicately, but its touch, as discreet as it is, immediately goes deep. The reverberations of the first caress penetrate the tongue and would seem to take delicious hold of it from inside. Very long finish, with red fruit that is surprisingly protagonistic, accented as it is by excellent acidity and silky tannins. The kind of beauty that makes my heart race. If we could have consumed only this throughout the night, I would have considered myself perfectly satisfied.
The flight ended with the very first commercial bottling from Contino, the 1974 Contino, Reserva, Rioja . This, I have to say it, was a bit of an anticlimax after the wonderful ’76. In retrospect, the vertical would have been better served in reverse order, from old to young. This one is more aromatically discreet and, initially, seemed to be headed downhill rather quickly. It turned out that a little bit of patience was relatively rewarded, as the nose picked up intensity for a bit, before waning again. Did this several times in the space of twenty minutes, actually. Dried flowers, leather, sandalwood, plum and beeswax aromas. Svelte and delicate on the palate, this makes me miss the provocative intensity of the ’76. “Vaporous fruit—more air than actual flavor of plum, cherry and cranberry” is what appears in my notebook. Accents of cedar and orange zest on a medium finish that is slightly dried out.
Ah, but that ’76… I went back to it and took my sweet time moving on to the next thing. This was the 1973 CVNE, “Imperial” Gran Reserva , which had been sitting in front of me for a while. A chocolatey Imperial with aromas of leather, ash, black fruit and cedar on sweet, succulent nose. Fine and extremely enjoyable, with bright fruit and spicy notes on the palate. Juicy and persistent. Perhaps this could be accused of lacking complexity, but the aftertaste is delicious in its relative simplicity. Excellent grip. A good food wine.
We also had a 1970 CVNE, “Imperial” Gran Reserva, Rioja , broader, brawnier and deeper-voiced than the ’73. Earthy, spicy and with great intensity of fruit. There’s a minty vibe to the nose that seemed to me a bit disconcerting, at least at the outset. But I got used to it quickly enough, I guess. Compact in the mouth, with soft tannins and good acidity. This one’s ready to party right now. Its corpulence becomes particularly noticeable at midpalate. Good length, with the finish going pleasantly to citrus and showing a caramelly lilt.
After this came, almost as in compensation for that first corked Tondonia, a 1970 R. López de Heredia, “Viña Tondonia” Gran Reserva, Rioja . Highishly-toned nose with aromas of camphor, leather, dried roses, appleskin, brown sugar, rust, malagueta pepper, plum, cranberry, hot clay, crushed stones and bay leaves. A complex, intriguing nose of the kind that makes you pause. For quite a while. Many times. Before ever thinking of actually drinking the wonderful thing generating this various scent. Silky, yet vibrant in the mouth, and as multi-layered as it was on the nose. Very long and luscious. All its elements appear with a liveliness that is tremendously stimulating. I love this. With the ’76 Contino, this is another favorite of the night.
We continued with the 1970 R. López de Heredia, “Viña Bosconia” Gran Reserva, Rioja , which provided a marked contrast to its brother, the Tondonia. Aromatically reserved, compact and spicy. A touch of sweaty beast, another of cedar, yet another of toasted sesame seeds, clove… But the operative term here is “compact”—in the sense of tightly packed. Like a good Bosconia of this age, it’s tight and very young still, needing time to relax, open up and display its virtues. Good length. Even if the finish is so tightly coiled and extra-nervy, one can intuit quite a bit of complexity. One for the future…
I’ve said “lively” a few times already. The term serves to describe the lucid intensity of our table as well, things having settled at the noise level and skylarking pitch of any good New York wine geek gathering. We started sending wine to the chef and his kitchen staff. We took to questioning the young waiter who had been assigned to us: “When were you born? And your dad? Your grandpa?” It turned out that we had on the table wines of ages to cover a few recent generations in any given family. As the waiter warmed up to the idea of sampling the wines, he went from big surprise to bigger. Couldn’t believe that wine from the year of his birth or older could be this fresh and utterly brilliant. This was a night for sharing the pleasure of great wines, a pleasure that is as much sensual as it is intellectual. It’s almost inevitable, because of their age, to stop and think about them with reverence. But then, they’re also delicious… It’s also almost inevitable, at least for me, to start thinking of these wines as one does of people. Thinking of them this way, you notice that you are in the presence of adult wines, not just in terms of lifespan, but in terms of the pleasure they offer.
“Adult Riojas, an example of civilized…” Er, wha??? Oh, yeah, Christine and Brad, interacting with a decanter of adult wine.
But what the hell do I know? I’m just inclined, recollecting this set of experiences, to demand more of wine than what current opinion-makers would seem to be content with. I need much more than immediate spectacularity and shattering impact of Big Wine. Great wines evolve, much like great human beings: Polishing off bits of rough, learning manners, gaining subtlety of expression and complexity, attaining true balance and grace, becoming marvelous dining companions.
The discrepancy between the musings recorded in my notebook and the pictures in my camera is pretty brutal.
Next was the 1964 Bodegas Riojanas, “Viña Albina” Reserva, Rioja . A quiet, autumnal nose of dried leaves, bitter chocolate, baked ham and dried fruits. As can happen with Albinas of a certain age, the volatility here is considerable, but if one is tolerant to it, it embellishes the whole very nicely, livening up other aromas. On the palate, though this seems clearly past its prime, there’s a lovely sweetness, a delicate profile of cedar, mushrooms, plum and spices that is still quite enjoyable. The wine puffs up its chest at midpalate, showing some nice fruity-floral fleshiness, though the aftertaste is a bit diffuse.
1947 Palacio "Reserva Especial"
Honestly, I didn’t think we were going any earlier than the sixties at this dinner, wine-agewise. But a surprise came with the 1947 Bodegas Palacio, “Reserva Especial”, Rioja . Here it seemed clear to me that I was in the presence of a wine of lesser pedigree than the earlier ones, though nevertheless a very good one at that. Evident fatigue, though it’s still quite alive and drinkable. Aromas of plum veering toward prunehood, leather, dried bay leaf, eucalyptus, damp cellar and cardamom, all discreetly manifested. In the mouth it’s all one piece, completely polished and a big squishy of middle, with prune and oxidation elements being accentuated in a way that bordered on the uncomfortable. Round, somewhat flaccid finish of medium length.
1925 Marqués de Riscal Reserva
Not that this would be the last surprise... Soon there came a 1925 Marqués de Riscal, Reserva, Rioja that had me all excited. My experiences with wines from this bodega in the 1920s have all been amazing, paradigm-altering, received-idea-shattering ones.
This Riscal seemed to be two wines in one. Initially there’s dampness, dust, mushrooms, oxidation and stale soy sauce—old-wine aromas that quickly subside, giving way to spicebox aromas, surprisingly uppity and jammy black fruit, meat and herbal notes. With air, the herbals resolve into a prominent note of black tea. Also prominent—and worrisome—is the oxidative aspect. Large and sturdy in the mouth, saline, comes in quietly as old wine, then picks up bulk and speed at midpalate. By the time one gets to the (wide and long) finish, the wine shows fruit of incredible freshness in parallel with a whole bunch of tertiary elements. And then there’s the oxidative bit… On the one hand there’s this large, potent, youthful wine. On the other there’s a bunch of very much superannuated stuff. What gives? Could this be attributable to a less-than optimal “refreshing” at some point in the wine’s existence? Or is this veteran wine just hell-bent on living a double life?
1964 González-Byass, Very Fine Dry Oloroso, finally...
As promised, with the cheeses I could finally alight upon the sensational 1964 González-Byass Oloroso that I had set aside. A wise decision. The joyous palate-domination I foresaw was definitely the case. And then some. In fact, were there cheeses? I forget now. If there were, they were probably excellent. But as far as I was concerned, this drop of Sherry made everything that came with or after it sort of redundant. Imagine the purest, most flavorful caramel—but without the sweetness. Then lavender, honeycomb, quince paste that has seen a light sprinkling of sea salt, charcoal, cured ham, rose petals, roasted hazelnuts, bitter chocolate—all this carried on a pulsating volatile wave that creates a delicious tension between aromas, a tension that results in the most wonderful sensory confusion, since you don’t know what’s what… Yeah, you don’t get the picture. That’s the point. A powerful Oloroso, succulent, saline and deeply satisfying. Another phenomenon. You know how it goes: Now we have a trio of wines of the night.
More or less at Sherrytime, Carlos Hübner skipped over to my end of the table and sat down to chat. A very interesting exchange ensued.
The crucial question, having found so much that was undisputably enjoyable in all these mature wines, was “Why are there so few bodegas that still conceive of Rioja in this way and craft their wines accordingly?”
SF Joe y Carlos Hübner-Arteta displaying the typical facial gestures of serious men who get to converse with me.
The de rigueur considerations soon landed on the table with a “plop”. Of course, these great Riojas are “manufactured” wines, wines made perhaps more in the cellar than in the vineyard. The methods used in the bodega have at least as much to do with their character and longevity as any natural aspects of terroir we may choose to ascribe to them. That we value these wines so highly could—if one arrived at the scene with a particular mental disposition—stand in conflict with the notions of non-interventionist viticulture and enology many of us defend. Of course, arguing our way out of the contradiction would be a tall order, so can I plead the fifth for a bit and just enjoy the paradox? They’re wines made in that manner and upon this hinges their character, their authenticity. They age beautifully. They’re extremely social.
So why have so many once-traditional producers in Rioja rejected this style of wine, favoring instead whatever idiotic enofashions have possessed the rest of the world over the past couple of decades? Many bodegas have looked—at least to me—like they were blindly flailing in hopes of hitting the media piñata and getting showered with the miraculous, sales-boosting points from Ugly American Critics. The wines have ended up losing their identity. Where before these producers made delicious, convivial wines that rewarded cellaring, what the hell are they making now? Has their stuff really improved?
Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about any new kid on the Rioja block here. Those who have started making wine only recently and are “modern” because “modern” is all they really know, I will respect. I’m talking about historic houses that had even produced some of the wines we enjoyed at this dinner, but that now have changed styles—motivated by clueless accountants and marketing executives without the slightest sense of history, tradition, or even what real wine is supposed to behave like. Why? Really, why?
Tjat night I left the restaurant happy to have shared so much excellent wine with an equally excellent group of friends, old and new. But I was also bothered by these questions, which are still annoying me right now, like a splinter in my foot. I remember very well the many times I took part in fierce debates about Rioja with partisans of the ultramodern, spoofulated alta expression style. One central argument these people put forth was that stylistic “modernization” was the only way for Rioja to “compete on the global stage”. As if it hadn’t before.
A tribute to the evening’s stars.
They were not only proponents of big, blobby, super extracted, alcoholic wines full of new French oak as “what Rioja should be”. Nooooooo... They were also, let’s remember, fierce detractors of traditional Rioja. Those old wines were classified as “obsolete”, “dirty” or even “corpses”. Many of those folks were so passionate in their invective against traditional Rioja that they seemed to want nothing less than its complete and utter obliteration. Why?
That night in Manhattan, as in many others like it of which I have been honored to participate, the bottles were spewing indisputable truths left and right.
Manuel Camblor, an authority on the wines of Spain, published his thought in his native Spanish on his blog: La Otra Botella .
Rioja dinner at Tia Pol
- Reply by Philip James, Mar 27, 2009.
Wow - thats some insanely old wines! First time I've heard an 80 year old wine have the word "youthful" used even remotely in the same sentence.
- Blog comment by Manuel Camblor, Mar 28, 2009.
The funny thing is that certain examples of old Rioja (or, for that matter, old Bordeaux, from those long-forgotten days when that region produced a lot of real, ageworthy wine) can exhibit real brio and youthfulness. In the case of this particular bottle of Riscal, there was that thing about it "being two wines at once". There was a clearly demarcated "old" side and then the side where things were as if time hadn't passed. Other bottles of similar age from that bodega I've had a chance to try haven't been like this, instead presenting maturity and vitality in a unified way.
- Reply by Philip James, Mar 28, 2009.
Manuel - thats great. Sounds like a wonderful event.
- Reply by SFJoe, Apr 4, 2009.
Great report, Manuel.
- Reply by Olaf Rudiger, Apr 6, 2009.
Always when I drink old Riojas I think these are the best wines Spain has produced, wines with personality and with the power to last for many years. So I don't understand why people here (Spain) had turned their backs on this kind of wines, to produce... what? The same stuff is being produced in many other countries but with tempranillo. Wines for tastings and for points, with high pH's and that might be dead in a few years.
From one side, better for us, so this kind of wines are quite cheap (even from old vintages). The problem is that there are very few producers nowadays keeping the tradition.
I remember this summer drinking a Tondonia form 1934... what a wine!
- Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Apr 6, 2009.
Fortunately for us Lopez de Heredia continue to produce fantastic wines!
Never had the 34 Tondonia but I can imagine it must have been beautiful. Tomorrow I'll be drinking a few of their wines,nothing older than 1970 though, but expect it to be a wonderful evening!
- Reply by GregT, Apr 7, 2009.
"So I don't understand why people here (Spain) had turned their backs on this kind of wines, to produce... what? The same stuff is being produced in many other countries but with tempranillo. Wines for tastings and for points, with high pH's and that might be dead in a few years."
Good thing you said they "MIGHT" be dead. Because just as likely, they MIGHT not be dead. I have a question for all the people who carry on about Lopez de Heredia - have they ever tasted one that is maybe four or five years old?
- Reply by Olaf Rudiger, Apr 7, 2009.
You are right, we don't know. But there are some parameters giving some clues, as the low acidities some of those highly alcoholic wines are carrying. And as Manuel says, and I agree with him, I'm not complaining about the new Riojas in general (time will place everyone where it deserves), what I don't understand is why cellars as Murrieta, CVNE, Viña Real... decided to change their way of making wine.
- Blog comment by Manuel Camblor, Apr 17, 2009.
Having tasted young López de Heredia wines on a couple of occasiones, including a "preview bottling" of latter-day Tondonia. I'll say that the wines, when that young and partway through their élévage, can be pretty damn unfriendly. In fact, some of the great Reservas from López de Heredia are mean little beasts when released and take a few years to get over the shock of coming out of the bodega. They do get sooo pretty, though.
As to what you posit, Greg, the thing with a lot of the "modern" wines is that they tend to make up for structural shortcomings with new oak. Which seldom leads to any good. At best, the wines survive a decade or more. But improvement with age is something I don't really recall seeing in any of the ones I've tasted. Just recently I tasted a 1994 "Gran Reserva" from Remírez de Ganuza which, though alive and drinkable, was some weird-ass stuff withoutthe freshness, tension and depth of, say, anything you and I have consumed together from López de Heredia, la Rioja Alta S.Aa, etc.