La Rioja Alta is
one of the key wineries in the region, based in Haro, the heart of
the region. Haro is home to many of the classic Rioja producers,
such as Viña Tondonia, Muga, Cune, Roda and Bilbanas. Indeed, if
you visited the town you could do a proper Rioja crawl.
I visited both
the Haro facility, which is now mainly used to store barrels, and
also the newer Labastida winery where the wines are made, built in
Freshly harvested grapes
Rioja Alta began
life in 1890, when much of France’s vineyard area was ravaged by
phylloxera. This was the moment of opportunity for Rioja, and much
of its success was achieved through the gap in the market that the
devastation that phylloxera caused in Bordeaux.
Unusually in the
region, Rioja Alta is a major vineyard owner, with 360 hectares of
vineyards, although their production is large enough to necessitate
buying in further grapes. However, unlike most Rioja producers, they
are almost self-sufficient, and buy in only varieties such as
Mazuelo or Graciano which they are short of.
Barrel making facility
Since 2002 the
company have reverted to the old practice of making all their
barrels themselves, from American oak dried for two years. After
all, they need a lot of them. At the time of visiting, some 43 000
barrels were filled with wine in the large barrel halls at the Haro
and Labastida wineries. These barrels are filled, sealed and then
racked twice a year. In between they aren’t topped up or tasted,
like they would be in a typical boutique winery. This would be just
too much work.
interesting to see the racking process in action. It is done by
hand, using gravity. Each barrel has a hole on the end piece, into
which a tap is banged. The clean barrel is placed underneath, and
the wine poured into it via a splashing plate that collects and
aerates the wine. The smell of sulphur dioxide from the receiving
barrel is quite overpowering.
position themselves as a traditional Rioja winery. ‘Rioja has a
bit of everything,’ says winemaker Julio Sáenz. ‘You can find
very classic wines, modern wines, single vineyard wines.’ He feels
that for a while Rioja was losing its character, because of the
influence of Parker, and the emphasis on ripe, sweet, dense,
place on the map is to be more Rioja than ever,’ he states.
Julio Saenz, winemaker
And Rioja Alta
succeeds in making high-quality, traditional Rioja wines. These are
not flashy wines in the modern mould, but they are benchmark
examples of the typical Rioja style, with real complexity and
These wines are imported
into the UK by Armit
Barón de Oña
This winery was
purchased in 1995 and it took Rioja Alta a while to work out what
they wanted to do with it. The wine is aged in a mix of French
(50%), American (35%) and Caucasian (15%) oak. Sweet, smooth, ripe
and rounded with berry fruits, as well as some dense savoury
spiciness. Nice fruit intensity and savoury, spicy structure. 90/100
Marqués de Haro
wine, made with Tempranillo (85%) and Graciano (15%) aged in French
oak. Open berry and cherry fruit with some spice and mineral notes.
Nicely savoury with good density and freshness. A savoury style: not
showy, nicely balanced. 89/100
This was a hot
year and the only Alta wine made was this. Sweet, open, ripe nose.
The palate is sweet, ripe and berryish with some jamminess. A bit of
firm structure underlies the juicy fruit. It’s quite appealing in
an older-fashioned style. 89/100 (£17.95)
quite dense, mineral with freshness and bright berry and cherry
fruit. Nice grippy tannins. It’s a traditional style, but done
very well with complex earth and mineral characters. 91/100
Viña Arana 2001
Julio says that
the Arana is typical of the Rioja Alta, in that it’s quite light
with relatively low alcohol. ‘Unfortunately, this is a style that
is disappearing,’ he says. It has Mazuelo in it, a variety
that’s not easy to grow because it needs a slow maturation. It
brings elegant acidity when it has a good year, and helps fix the
colour. It’s also relatively low in alcohol. This wine has nice
sweet aromatics of cherries and herbs with subtle vanilla. The
palate is elegant with notes of cherries and minerals as well as
herb and spice notes and a warm tarry edge. A classic Rioja, done
well. 92/100 (£21.95)
three years in American oak. Quite dense, firm and spicy with tannic
structure and fresh acidity, as well as notes of tar and spice.
Brooding, savoury dark cherry aromatics with spice and meaty notes,
as well as subtle earthiness. Stylish, substantial and savoury.
A great vintage,
comparable to 1964 and 1973. Brooding dark cherry and plum nose with
subtle earth and spice notes. Smooth and ripe with some minerality.
The palate is really fresh and lively with plum and cherry fruit as
well as spice and mineral. Distinctly savoury and complex. 94/100
Gran Reserva 904
Four years in
oak. Beautifully aromatic: ripe and sweet with stewed plum and dark
cherry nose. Very ripe with appealing notes of tar and sweet herbs
and spices. The palate is complex and fresh with herbs, tar and
spice notes as well as lovely complexity. Mature and delicious.
Gran Reserva 890
Named after the
year Rioja Alta was founded (1890), this spends six years in oak.
Aromatic nose with sweet herbs, tar and fruit, coupled with taut
spice and mineral notes. The palate is dense and focused with nice
tannic structure, as well as wonderful spice and earth complexity.
Meat, herbs and spices here. Quite lovely with real complexity and
potential for further development. 95/100 (£100)