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Exemplary Patience: Pre-Aged Wines from Rioja
By Jim Clarke
Dec 15, 2015
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According to researchers, the vast majority of wine sold in the U.S.A. -- 95% or more -- is consumed within 48 hours of purchase.  This is fine for a great many wines; only a tiny percentage of wines actually benefit from aging anyhow.  However, many of those that do are classics, or come from our most highly regarded regions.  Many of these are nonetheless subject to the 48-hour rule, and wineries have adapted their winemaking accordingly, fashioning wines that show more generosity and riper tannins.  But few do what Rioja does, despite the fact that it’s the simplest answer to the problem:  Age the wines longer at the winery before selling them.

Obviously not all -- maybe not even most -- Rioja producers do this, but it is generally easier to find an older, just-released Rioja than an older release from any other classic wine region.  The reasons are historical, and stem from a desire to emulate Bordeaux -- or some imagined version of Bordeaux.

Rioja, after all, owes much of its fame to Bordeaux’s troubles.  When phylloxera reached Bordeaux in the second half of the 19th century, devastating that region’s vineyards, the Bordelais cast about for places where they could make similar wines which phylloxera hadn’t yet invaded.  Rioja was ready to provide, and a stream of French winemaking talent and investment began; a new railroad connecting Rioja to the port of Bilbao sealed the deal by making it easy for the wines to get to market.  (In Haro, a town in Rioja, many of the classic producers’ cellars are clustered around the former train station; barrels of wine could go straight from the cellar to the rail car.)  While the region retained its native varieties, the wineries took to two French practices with a vengeance:  Aging, and oak barrels. 

Sometimes this eagerness to age the wines goes overboard, resulting in tired wines, or wines wherein the fruit aromas are overwhelmed by those of the barrel.  That can make for pungent notes of vanilla, coconut, or dill thanks to the use of American Oak -- a choice that certainly sets them apart from the Bordeauxs that inspired them.  The trend now seems to be toward more French oak, but less new oak overall.  Aging in bottle, rather than barrel, at the winery prior to release remains an important part of the process as well; wineries proudly show off their chilly and moldy cellars, stacked full with bottles waiting for their moment to shine.

Or not.  At CUNE, the owners set aside a few bottles each vintage in the “Centenario”  cellar permanently, locked behind a cast iron gate as a musty and mold-covered sacrifice to the wine gods.  (By the way, CUNE is a.k.a. CVNE, the Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España; the “V” became a “U” thanks to a printing error, and stuck when the family decided a pronounceable two-syllable name had some obvious marketing advantages.)

This preference has even been incorporated into the classification system; only the basic “Rioja” designation doesn’t have minimum aging requirements.  The three higher levels, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva call for two years, three years, and five years of aging, respectively.  Not all of that must be in barrel; Gran Reservas, for example, need to spend two years in oak but can then age in bottle for the other three years before they are sold.  Many producers exceed these minimums.  In any case, the intended effect of all this is to ensure that wines are released when they’re ready to drink rather than requiring the consumer to take on the chore of cellaring.

CVNE sticks fairly close to those requirements for their releases.  The 2011 Reserva is the youngest vintage in the market currently; for their top wines, the Imperial Reserva is on 2010 and their Imperial Gran Reserva is on 2009.   Other producers hold their wines back even longer; Remirez de Ganuza is a relatively young brand, founded in 1989, 110 years after CVNE, but even without the deep historical cellars they believe in giving their wines extra time.  Their current Reserva in the market, for example, is a 2008.  La Rioja Alta, another classic property and like CVNE, situated alongside the old train station in Haro, current releases are from the 2004-2007 vintages, depending on the individual bottling.

So far I’ve been addressing only red Riojas; there are white wines that benefit from this tradition, too, though they’re much scarcer -- which is also the case for white Rioja in general, actually.  Lopez de Heredía ages both their reds and whites extensively.  On the shelves right now, you’ll find the 2002 Gravonia, made from 100% Viura; and the 2002 Tondoñia Blanco Reserva (90% Viura, 10% Malvasia).  That makes the latter even older than their current red releases, the Tondoñia Reserva 2003 and Boscoñia 2004.

The whites in particular, however, raise the question of what wine drinkers will think of these wines.  The fact of the matter is that most drink young releases most of the time, and a wine designed to drink young, pleasurable as it may be, does not mean that it’s designed to taste old -- or better put, aged.  The tertiary notes that develop with aging -- the bouquet, for those who like to distinguish a wine’s nose that shows such notes from that of a fresh wine -- are becoming less and less familiar to many people, even those with an appreciation for wine.  In whites a bouquet can mean nutty, oxidation, honey, or -- most famously in Riesling -- kerosene or petrol notes, and less of the fresh fruit.

Back when I was working the floor as a sommelier, I occasionally had guests say that a wine was flawed or corked because they weren’t used to the experience older whites offered.  This sometimes arose with older reds, too, though that was less common.  In any case, if we want winemakers to continue making wines that can age and develop in the bottle, it’s vital that consumers maintain or even rediscover an appreciation of what aged wine has to offer.  Riojas like these offer a chance to teach ourselves that lesson, without cellaring the wines at home or the expense of buying at auction; many of these wines are very reasonably priced.

Which brings us to why other regions don’t embrace this approach.  It’s not cheap to keep inventory around for five or ten years before selling it; young wineries in particular find they (or their bank) prefer to see a higher ratio of revenue to standing inventory.  A wine that’s not for sale isn’t doing its part to pay the bills.  It’s remarkable that Rioja producers not only made this investment historically, but that the practice it hasn’t fallen away completely; even newer wineries such as Remirez de Ganuza value the tradition enough to take part; for older wineries it’s easier, as some of the other, big capital expenses may have been paid for long ago.

As an additional perk for wine drinkers, once a Rioja producer has a few vintages slumbering, there’s less drive to sell off one before moving on to the next, so many producers have deep reserves of even older vintages that they release on occasion.  “New “ old vintages can still appear.  The owners of Bodegas Muriel recently purchased the Conde de los Andes winery (despite the name, we’re still in Rioja, not Argentina); with the property came a cellar of older vintages -- about 500,000 bottles of them.  Be prepared to look for these older wines on the market, too; let’s encourage these Rioja producers to stick with a very worthwhile tradition.