STILL UNDER THE RADAR SPANISH GEMS

This particular traditional Rioja house has been a part of our set for at least fifteen years as well as being one of the prime grabbers for home ‘research’. You may not have heard of it under its formal name Ramon de Ayala Lete e Hijos Vina Santurnia Rioja. You quite possibly haven’t heard of it at all. We simply call it Vina Santurina. We have consistently carried one or more of the Crianza, Reserva, and Grand Reserva bottlings for a long time.

You likely haven’t read about it either unless you are one of those rare folks that reads archived wine review magazines. We have not been able to find anything more recently than 3 years ago in the Wine Spectator and, mind you, these weren’t the 100-pointers, usually grabbing high 80s to low 90s scores from the critics when they were mentioned at all. At this point you might be wondering why we are talking about them.

The simple story is that, while these are not the wine version of ‘super models’, they are character-filled, honest, classically rendered wines that deliver every time at prices that are pretty easy to swallow. Familiar notes of plum, cranberry, spice, leather, and vanilla play at every level. While they have that engaging Rioja muskiness and dusty note to the finish, they tend to be riper, more substantial, and fuller-bodied than your garden variety Rioja.

These folks are traditional to the core, as in organic farming (unless some seriously bad weather dictates otherwise) and even some foot-trodding in the cellar. The wines exude great authenticity will still delivering an ample blast of fruit. The Viña Santurnia Rioja Crianza 2016is a plumper-than-normal version of this wine. It is their best crianza we can recall. We usually play the reserva and gran reserva bottlings but this plays at that level qualitatively this time around. Plenty of dark cherry and red plum with notes of spice, coffee, sweet earth and vanilla. Made from 100% Tempranillo from vines planted between 1986 and 1998, sourced from both Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, it is a lot of wine for the dinero and accessible now though there is no hurry.

Given the producer and vintage, the performance of the crianza wasn’t as big a surprise as this one. While 2008 isn’t necessarily considered an epic vintage, we have had a lot of very successful wines. But few have shown the plushness, roundness and flesh of this one. The Viña Santurnia Rioja Gran Reserva 2008 from a character standpoint is the reasonable upgrade from the delicious crianza, though more refined, resolved, better balanced, and classier. It is one of the better 2008s we can recall, and as you know we deal with a lot of bodegas. It’s the classic Spanish bargain of a high quality red with bottle age for under $30. This one is a blend of Tempranillo 90%, Mazuelo 5% and Graciano 5% that sees the traditional 24 months in a mixture of French and American oak.

We have been selling these wines for a long time as we said. But more importantly they are regular visitors to our own table as we appreciate quality and value as much as anyone. The wine media doesn’t tell you everything and some labels get overlooked simply because they don’t come from from some high profile, big budget importer. However these deliver where it counts, in your glass.

LA RIOJA ALTA’S BRILLIANT 2009 GRAN RESERVA 904

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.

 

 

 

Spanish Immersion, Part Dos: Ravishing Rioja

It is pretty easy to buy Spanish wines ‘by the numbers’ these days.  There seems to be no end to the parade of well-priced, aged reds from places like Rioja that are getting great notes from the media, and deservedly so.  But every once in a while one comes along that is so accommodating and delicious that reviews aren’t really a factor.  Simply put, we have an outstanding selection of Spanish wines that fall into that big score, little price category already.  We didn’t need this one, but bought it anyway with an eye to our own consumption.

The Lealtanza Rioja Gran Reserva 2010, is, by classic Riojano definition, the top traditional bottling from this house.  What impressed here, besides the obvious depth of quality to the fruit as expected from a gran reserva in one of Rioja’s benchmark vintages, was the plush, ample, velvety palate feel that was a cut above the crowd even for this typically crowd-pleasing genre.

The wine is packed with cassis, black raspberry and other dark berry fruit laced with cocoa, spice, a hint of pepper and a whiff of tobacco, all served on a bed of nicely ripe, mellow tannins.  But what really sets it apart is its fleshy sweetness on the palate, engaging roundness, and soft core of fruit as it rolls across your tongue.  Yes, Riojas aim to please.  But this wine simply does it a bit better.  The reviews will likely come.  We haven’t seen any yet.  But in truth, we’re already pretty smitten with this one.  Deliciousness trumps everything.  As Gran Reservas go, it’s pretty attractively priced as well ($22.98).  All the better.

 

THE NEXT RIOJA ‘LEGEND’

How do you follow up a legend?  The Faustino I Gran Reserva 2001 was one of the highest volume wines in our 35-year history, it got a 97-point score from Decanter Magazine as well as being named their Wine-of-the-Year for 2013.   What the press did was create a scenario where exponentially more people tried the wine and, subsequently, bought It on a regular basis.  On top of that, we had been selling Faustino’s Gran Reserva consistently since the 1994 vintage, pretty much when no one heard of it.  The 2001 vintage was an outstanding one in Rioja, and the wine already had more than a decade of bottle age on it when we started to sell it.  It was the perfect storm.

The funny thing is that it almost seemed like we were the only ones buying it (as well as a cadre of older library vintages) as we were able to continually restock the wine for nearly four years!  Given the accolades, bottle age, price, etc., how were there not others involved?  In any case, as happens with wine, all good things come to an end.  We are well aware that any time a current wine has to compete for attention with a ‘memory’, it is at a disadvantage.  Still, knowing that, we’re going to tell all of the folks that have been buying Faustino over the years from us, and all of you who just discovered this stylish Rioja with the 2001, the new release 2005 Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva is the next up in this series.

The story is relatively straightforward.  After selling so many of the prior vintages, and silly amounts of the 2001, we were presented with the option of buying either the 2004 or 2005 (both outstanding vintages) as the follow-up to the 2001 campaign.  We’ll tell you up front that the 2004 got a 94 from James Suckling and a 90 from Luis Gutierrez, and the 2005 got 93s from both Wine Spectator and Decanter Magazine.  Side by side it was an easy call for us.  The Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva 2005 had more structure and power, plenty of palate authority as 10+-year-old reds go, and a classic Rioja profile of cassis, red fruits, spice, earth, vanilla and some fresh herb undercurrents.

The Spectator verbiage paints a pretty clear picture as well, “Fresh and lively, this red shows bright fruit and spice flavors, with cherry, berry, vanilla and anise notes that mingle over light tannins and orange peel acidity. Harmonious and graceful, expressive and alluring…93 points.”

That whole ‘graceful, expressive, and alluring’ thing is what Rioja is about, and has been a big part of our love affair with Faustino over the years.  We aren’t going to tell you that this wine is just like the 2001.  The vintages are different, the profiles accordingly different, but the 2005 is the next delicious episode of a Faustino saga that has had more versions here than there have been Star Wars films.  Some of you will like the 2005 better, some of you equally as much and a few of you less so, but it is indeed at the same incredible level of quality as that legend 2001.

An aged, polished, complex, pop-and-serve-or-hold Rioja for under $30 never goes out of style and this lovely 2005 is simply the next up in a series that has provided a lot of pleasure over the last two decades.  Thanks to that 2001, a lot more folks have ‘seen the light’.  But for those of us that have had more than a dozen vintages, this classy 2005 simply steps into the program without a ripple.  It’s another example of what Faustino does on a regular basis.  Simply put, a wine with this kind of quality, bottle age, and at this kind of price, would seem an imperative for any cellar.  Great Rioja ages, but it never ‘gets old’.  You need some of this.

 

Faustino Chronicles, Part One: Last call for Rioja Gran Reserva 2001…No really!

Almost four years ago, we wrote this about the 2001 Faustino Rioja Gran Reserva,

“An amazing Rioja, a surprising review, and a price that’s under $30… here we have the makings of one of the most exciting offers we have presented this year. Sure, we ‘play the hits’ as well as anyone, promoting hot buys and wines that get big reviews. However, unlike a lot of other wine merchants, we put a lot more effort into developing brands that we happen to like ourselves whether or not they have been favored by the media. Faustino Rioja is one of those brands (particularly their Gran Reserva) that we have developed over the years simply because we happen to like it (gasp).”

That was a pre-arrival offer we did in November of 2013, and it did prove to be one of the most exciting offers we did that year, and the year after that, and even for our Anniversary sale last year.  How does such a spectacular wine and value stay on the market for so long?  We alone sold about 1000 cases of it, and it seemed that every time we thought it was almost gone, the supplier ‘found’ some more.  It got to the point where we kind of took it for granted.  How much of a wine that was a 97 point, Decanter Magazine Wine of the Year did these guys make anyway?

Suffice it to say it has been an amazing run almost unparalleled in our history, and the Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva 2001 has made many happy customers as well as having been a welcome go-to for us.  I mean, how many 97-point, 16-year-old reds are out there under $30?  Only one we know of.  But for all of you who have been fans of this (and there must be a few if you), this really is the ‘last call’ on this special wine.  Judging from what the wholesaler has left, it will sell out some time, without warning, over the next month.

Yeah, we know we have intimated before that the party was over, only to be told by the purveyor that another batch appeared.  This time however, we think they are serious for a couple of reasons.  They released a final finite batch that they had been saving for a restaurant that, as happens so often, didn’t fulfill their commitment.  Prior to that there was no wine to be had for a few weeks.  Perhaps more telling, the purveyor is set to receive inventory on the 2004 Gran Reserva, something they would never even had ordered if there was still 2001 to be had.

Stock up on this legendary Rioja while you can because this time ‘the end is near’ and ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…”