Fine Living

Rioja on a roll

After the recent clamour for modern riojas, wine aficionados are rediscovering the traditional virtues – and remarkable value – of older vintages from traditional bodegas, says John Stimpfig.

November 07 2011
John Stimpfig

Located in the heart of Haro, Rioja Alta’s bodega capital, López de Heredia has to be the world’s most unlikely cult wine producer of recent years. Founded in 1877, it is hardly a new kid on the block. Then there’s its ultra-traditional style of red and white rioja. Neither this, nor the winemaking, nor the time-capsule bodega has changed in the ensuing 140 years. Vinous fashions have come and gone in Rioja and beyond, but, according to general manager Maria José López de Heredia, “We haven’t altered our approach to the market at all. Instead, the fine-wine market has come back to us.”

As a result, López de Heredia couldn’t present a more striking contrast to the once modishly contemporary alta espresion style of rioja that burst onto the fine-wine market at the end of the 1990s. For many, names such as Roda, Allende and Artadi became the fashionista labels to have and to hold. Suddenly, power, fruit and tannin were all the rage. American oak was out, and French oak was in for these dramatic new “postmodern” rioja which were so beloved of the new generation of wine collectors. Compared to the gleaming, high-tech wineries that began to emerge in Rioja, López de Heredia, with its antediluvian cellars, looked more like a museum than a working bodega.

It wasn’t just López de Heredia’s subtle, nuanced style that became sidelined and swamped by these avant-garde riojas. Almost overnight, it seemed, generations of great old reservas and gran reservas from Murrieta, Riscal, La Rioja Alta, Paternina and Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE) were simultaneously consigned to history. As times got tougher in the brave new world, several bowed to growing market pressure by revamping their style or producing their own turbo-charged bottlings.

Riscal started the trend with its very own cabernet sauvignon-based Barón de Chirel. CVNE created its single-vineyard Real de Asua, while Murrieta came up with the more fruit-driven Dalmau. According to the Spanish wine expert and author John Radford, “Most of the classic bodegas now produce a tête-de-cuvée wine, perhaps from their best old plots and aged in new French oak, which comes perilously close to the new-wave style.”

Only López de Heredia refused to change its ways or compromise its age-old principles, an approach many considered to be commercial suicide, leaving it to rely on a small and ever-decreasing base of hardcore collectors.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad news. In 1998, Christie’s chanced upon a couple of private cellars of old gran reservas outside Madrid and put them under the hammer. “It was a risk, but it went well enough to want to do it again,” recalls David Elswood, Christie’s international director of wine. “It made us curious. So we visited the principal bodegas, including López de Heredia, and found they had the most amazing stocks that they hadn’t been willing or able to sell, and had no idea what to do with.”

The volumes of these vintages in Rioja have to be seen to be believed. Just after the millennium, Marqués de Riscal calculated that it had about 180,000 bottles of mature vintages that dated back to 1862. At CVNE’s Haro bodega, there are still some 100,000 bottles, just in its cobweb-covered “Cemetery” cellar, which itself dates back to 1879.

Meanwhile, Maria-José López de Heredia estimates that her eponymous family-owned winery still has some 800,000 bottles – just of its legendary Tondonia and Bosconia Gran Reservas. Why so many? “Partly lack of demand, but also because the gran reservas weren’t for commercial sale. We saved them for family occasions.”

It was the same story at Riscal, says winemaker Luis Hurtado de Amézaga, whose ancestor Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga founded the bodega more than 150 years ago. “Our fathers didn’t like to open old vintages – they just wanted to keep them.”

The early rioja sales at Christie’s didn’t bring in new collectors, though. “It’s a shame there weren’t, and aren’t, more bidders,” says Elswood. “But it’s not that surprising. The market for old rioja has been a bit like madeira, or old German rieslings. Even now, it’s still too esoteric and off most collectors’ radars. Many are still fixated on bordeaux and burgundy to the exclusion of all else. In Asia, they haven’t got as far as the Rhône Valley or Tuscany. Rioja’s not even on the map.”

In Spain, it’s not much better. “There is little demand for old wines,” says Financial Times wine correspondent Jancis Robinson. Spaniards tend to be much more interested in the latest modern-style rioja.” With such an imbalance of supply over demand, it is no surprise that prices are low. As Victor Urrutia, CVNE CEO, points out, “We are the opposite of bordeaux in that respect. These are not investment wines, and collectors can easily afford to enjoy drinking them.”

Even at the most recent Christie’s sale of rioja in September, the legendary 1928 Paternina fetched just £1,400 for 10 bottles. Similarly, four bottles of CVNE’s magnificent 1951 Imperial Gran Reserva went for £600. Compared to auction prices for claret and red burgundy, this is peanuts. Retail is no different. When López de Heredia released its current vintage – the 1991 Vina Bosconia Gran Reserva – it cost under €100 a bottle. According to critic Stephen Tanzer, “For this much complexity in aged burgundy, you’d pay twice as much.”

Tanzer, of course, isn’t the only critic reporting on Rioja’s buried treasures. Several other key critics, including Robinson, have also been championing its cause on the back of a growing number of dinners and tastings that have more than reaffirmed its fine-wine credentials. For instance, in 2008, Christie’s hosted a press dinner in London in advance of a very special Marqués de Riscal auction going back to 1900. At the dinner, Riscal’s José Luis Muguiro and Luis Hurtado de Amézaga opened some astonishing older wines, including the centennial 1900, as well as their 1945 and 1964. Not only did Robinson bequeath the 1900 a perfect 20-point score, she also noted that it had showed “considerably better” than a previously tasted 1900 Margaux.

Then just last year, CVNE mounted a successful centenary tasting of Imperial Gran Reserva in London, with vintages back to 1917. The pièce de résistance was an almost unrepeatable tasting compiled in February by The World of Fine Wine magazine. It featured rioja’s greatest and most iconic producers in an extraordinary line-up of red and white vintages from 1982 back to 1939. The two invited Spanish wine writers, Jesús Barquín and Luis Gutiérrez, were bowled over by the quality. So too were the UK tasters, Berry Bros & Rudd’s Simon Field MW and Robinson. Indeed, Robinson described it as “one of the most inspiring wine tastings I can remember. What other region could produce a consistently high standard in similar vintages? Possibly Burgundy? Bordeaux would not,” she concluded. Field could only concur: “Early ripening, meek Tempranillo, soft of fruit and colour does not seem an obvious candidate for longevity, yet these have aged wonderfully.”

For David Elswood of Christie’s, the wines are also remarkably consistent. “The hit rate of old rioja has always been as good as, or better than, bordeaux and burgundy,” he says. “Nine times out of 10 they are in fantastic condition.”

With its long ageing in bottle and barrel, traditional rioja comes equipped with a ready-made maturity. This has struck a chord with savvy US and UK sommeliers. “Apart from being such great value, traditional, well-aged wines such as La Rioja Alta are just inherently food-friendly,” says Mike Laing, managing director of the UK wine merchant Armit. “They’re not too high in alcohol, have good freshness, ripe tannins and have this wonderful dry, savoury edge. It’s no wonder they’re being rediscovered in restaurants.”

In the US, López de Heredia’s wines are now firm fixtures in many of the country’s finest Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Daniel and The French Laundry. Thanks to its growing cult status, it has been actively competed over by American sommeliers who want to offer the biggest range and selection.

The aficionado market for López de Heredia is the demand driver as the brand has miraculously gone from zero to hero in the past two or three years. Now, there is no question that the word is out both in the wine press, on fine-wine blogs and in collector chatrooms. Maria-José López de Heredia finds herself in almost constant demand to put on vertical tastings on both sides of the Atlantic in London,

New York, Las Vegas, LA and Miami. And now it is spreading beyond the US and the UK, she says: “People also want me and my wines in Hong Kong, Singapore Thailand, Japan and South America.”

López de Heredia also sells a range of Vinos Historicos back to the 1947 vintage of both Bosconia and Tondonia. But supplies are starting to be depleted because of the sudden and growing demand. “Now, we have to do inventories of our older wines every 15 days,” says Maria-José. “And we have had to put our prices up because we are in danger of running out.” Even so, the 1964 Tondonia is still a steal at €600.

You can buy older vintages of López de Heredia at The Sampler, a small boutique wine merchant in London. “We sell as much López de Heredia as we can get our hands on,” says managing director Jamie Hutchinson. This is despite the fact that some vintages have now doubled or tripled in price. “But we also sell a lot of other well-aged riojas, dating back to the 1920s, which, of course, people can sample first.” They include all the leading bodegas (CVNE, Riscal, La Rioja Alta and Murrieta), but also wines such as Paternina, Berberana, Carlos Serres, Campillo Bilbainas and Vina Pomal: “Old rioja at £30-£100 a bottle is now one of our fastest-growing areas. But there has to be a finite supply of these wines from the early- to mid-20th century.”

Hutchinson sells modern rioja, too. However, sales are only a tenth of the traditional market. Is this significant? Few people seriously believe that what is still a tiny niche trend for traditional rioja will reverse the tsunami of new-wave wines in Spain’s most iconic wine region. But who knows? Many have noted a growing aficionado backlash against the ubiquitous “blockbuster” style that has overrun so many fine-wine regions, such as Rioja, over the past two decades. Now it is clear that these wines are beginning to pall on some collectors’ palates. In response, they are going in search of older, more unique and authentic wines that speak with their own distinct accents, together with a specific sense of place. Unquestionably, old rioja in general and the wines of López de Heredia in particular have proved a fertile and happy hunting ground for this type of aficionado.

Could López de Heredia’s renaissance signal a wider traditionalist revival in rioja? The wine writer Mike Steinberger certainly hasn’t ruled this out. Last year, he wrote a thought-provoking article in The World of Fine Wine in which he noted that “sales of higher-end Spanish wines are flagging”. He also pointed out that López de Heredia’s status as Rioja’s hottest cult wine cannot have gone unnoticed among the leading bodegas. “Old-school bodegas rushed to embrace the alta espresion trend when it became fashionable. Perhaps now the reverse will happen.”

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