It doesn’t take a lot to convince us about the quality of wines from this producer. As you probably know, we’ve been fans for a long time. It’s hard for us to even imagine why wines like La Rioja Alta aren’t the first choice of most wine drinkers. We have worn our affection for Rioja on our sleeves for, what, a couple of decades? La Rioja Alta has been a house favorite for a long time as well and is one of the bastions of quality juice in the ‘traditional’ style. They perform well at all of the price levels at which they play, from their Reserva Viña Ardanza and Viña Alberdi to their super-premium Gran Reservas 904 and 890. You’ve got high quality, very modest prices relative to similar examples in other genres, and those wacky Spaniards even throw in a bit of bottle age at no extra charge. Where’s the down side?
Not long ago we wrote an offer for the sensational 2009 La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva. The pitch was pretty straight forward. How about a 96-point (from James Suckling) Rioja in a plush, ripe style (2009 was a warm vintage), with a few years of bottle age, for under $30? Pretty compelling, no? Correspondingly, we sold quite a bit of it. No surprise there. In the piece we wrote about the fact that we tasted two wines that day, the Vina Ardanza 2009 and the Gran Reserva 904 2009. It was one spectacular day of ‘research’.
It was also a little bit of a surprise. Alongside the 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2010 vintages in Rioja, the 2009, while certainly no slouch, simply isn’t thought of as an elite vintage. Apparently La Rioja Alta did not get that memo because both of these wines were among the most engaging out of the gate that we had ever had from these folks over great number of releases. Plush, packed with supple but substantial cassis, black cherry and spice character, ripe tannins and well tucked in supporting acidity, If you were going to ‘design’ a super sexy Rioja, this pair of 2009s would be great models.
La Rioja Alta is one of Spain’s greatest and most beloved wineries. It produces classically elegant and polished Rioja wines that are always released after quite some time aging in their cellars. They do all the work, you don’t pay the price.
The variety of vineyards La Rioja Alta has to work with allows them to maintain the vintage’s unique imprint on the wine while still maintaining a simply ridiculous level of quality for the money. As far as hedonism goes, the bodega hit home runs with these two. Hey, we’ll gladly admit that we would drink either one of them with relish. We know that many of you out there prefer to buy at the top-level, in which case the 904 is the clear choice.
The 904 is a complete, engaging, stylish beverage with enormous food versatility yet a roundness and complexity that will reward those that just want to haul off and drink it. The reviewers seem to share our excitement with this effort. James Suckling wrote, “This is a driven and super tight Gran Reserva with dark berries and hints of spice and cedar. A spicy red-pepper undertone and some dried flowers. Full to medium body, integrated tannins and a superb finish. A great wine.- 97 Points!”
Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez was, as usual, a bit more loquacious. He offers, “Time flies, and the 904 for sale is already the 2009 Gran Reserva 904, as they didn’t bottle it in 2008. They are only going to bottle their top wines in very good and excellent vintages, so there will be a 2010 and 2011 but no 2012, 2013 or 2014. This super classical cuvée showcases the wines from Haro, silky and elegant after long aging in oak and a good future in bottle. 2009 was a powerful vintage, ripe but with good balance. The blend is approximately 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano, fermented in stainless steel with a 78-day natural malolactic. The aging was in four-year-old American oak barrels crafted by their own coopers; the wines aged from April 2010 until April 2014. During that time, the wine was racked every six months, to be finally bottled in November 2014. This is usually my favorite wine from the portfolio, where the balance between aging and youth reaches its highest point. It’s developed but it keeps some fruit character, plenty of spices and balsamic aromas. The palate is polished but has some clout, with clean, focused flavors and a long, spicy and tasty finish. This represents good value for the quality it delivers…95+ points.”
The only question left to answer is for the ‘numbers’ set who would say that, since the Ardanza got 96 from James Suckling and 93+ from Advocate, as opposed to the 97 and 95+ respectively for the 904, why would one spend the additional funds for a point or two? We could unleash a lengthy argument on several fronts but, for time’s sake, because it’s better. It is from a different vineyard, with older vines (60 years as opposed to 30). It’s also a different blend (90% Tempranillo/10% Mazuelo in 904 compared to 80% Tempranillo/20% Garnacha in Ardanza).
There’s more complexity, structure, and a different profile in the 904, plus it is a different expression of Rioja. It is simply not, in our minds, an either/or proposition. Ardanza is one of the best $30 wines in the world, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in 2009 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904’s price category that was better for the fare. You need both! It’s a wonderful ‘problem’ to have.