La Rioja Alta, Rioja Reserva “Viña Ardanza”
Among the most historic yet still-relevant wineries in the world are the great bodegas of Rioja in northern Spain—among which La Rioja Alta belongs in the top rank. Founded in 1890, this sprawling property is said to have the equivalent of eight years of sales aging in its cellars at any given time. “Viña Ardanza” is one of the many long-lived specialties of this venerable bodega—yes, the 2016 is the current release—and this edition is a stunner. These are wines of impeccable polish and precision, and they enjoy an extended rest in La Rioja Alta’s cavernous cellars before they’re release, and yet the price…kind of unbelievable. Surely both the history and grand scale of La Rioja Alta help facilitate such fair pricing, but ours is not to ask why: We just want to drink great, affordable wine. This may be the epitome!
As its name suggests, La Rioja Alta is based in the higher-elevation Rioja Alta subzone, where soils are mostly a mixture of clay and limestone. The Tempranillo for the Viña Ardanza comes from 30+-year-old plantings in Rioja Alta, whereas the Garnacha (Grenache) comes from further east in the Rioja Oriental, where soils contain more iron and sandy gravel. Overall, the estate has grown its vineyard holdings to a whopping 300 acres across all subzones of the Rioja appellation.
The original La Rioja Alta bodega was created in 1890 by an association of five local growers. Later, the group absorbed Bodegas Ardanza, whose holdings included prime vineyards in the namesake Rioja Alta subzone. At the time of La Rioja Alta’s foundation, the region’s wines were in high demand, as many wine regions elsewhere in Europe (Bordeaux most notably) were ravaged by phylloxera. Today, La Rioja Alta is recognized as one of the great wine estates of Spain, known for its exceptionally long-aged wines and in-house barrel cooperage.
Viña Ardanza is unique among La Rioja Alta’s wines in that it incorporates a substantial percentage of Garnacha (20%), and it displays some of that variety’s sappy cherry fruit and luscious texture. Yet, for all its silkiness, it is clearly a wine capable of aging several decades. As is typical of La Rioja Alta, this wine ages much longer in barrel (3+ years) than is required by law for a wine labeled “Reserva.”
Aromatically, this ’16 a perfect expression of high-altitude Tempranillo from Rioja: at first dominated by red plum and dried cherries, the wine slowly exits its shell and begins releasing beautiful, perfumed notes of exotic spices, sandalwood, redcurrant, balsamic, coconut husk, dill, cedar, dried rose petal, wild herbs, strawberry preserves, coffee beans, and leather. The palate is medium-plus bodied, bright, and full of savory layers of crushed minerality. Fine-grained tannins and wonderfully energetic acidity ensure that this supple wine remains lifted rather than flabby. There’s a healthy dose of oak, especially at this still-youthful stage, but it is seamlessly integrated and presents more as a warm spice accent note, rather than a dominant aromas/flavor component. To sum: It’s delicious, and drinking well now (although it will continue to evolve for years to come). Decant 30 minutes before serving at 60-65 degrees in Bordeaux stems and pair it with the classic Spanish preparation attached. Just, wow!