Rioja’s Old School

June 8, 2011

For the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, Rioja produced one of the world's most distinctive styles of red wine—a marriage of Northern Spanish grape varieties (led by Tempranillo) aged in American oak for up to six or eight years or even longer. With the delicacy of red Burgundy, but aromatics all their own, they stood the test of time, developing into wines of great style and elegance with age.

Like other traditional schools of winemaking, this classic style of Rioja was an accident of history, having been born in the 1870s and 1880s when Bordeaux needed to replace wine lost when Phylloxera ravaged its vineyards. Rioja was a convenient source, as it lay just 200 miles south of Bordeaux and was spared Phylloxera until 1899. Now-famous companies like López de Heredia, Marqués de Murrieta, and CUNE were founded-housed in exotic Victorian bodegas and drawing on hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of vineyards. They provided wine to the Bordelais but also to the world. And a singular style of winemaking evolved.

The Riojans proved that they could make wine as fine as those of France and do so on a large scale. But in the 1980s and 1990s, this traditional style of Rioja very nearly perished. As in other regions throughout the world, young winemakers abandoned the methods traditional to their area in favor of modern techniques perfected elsewhere. This change may have occurred with particular speed and passion in Rioja, as Spain looked to the future, coming out of its painful four decades under Franco rule.

There was an explosion of new wineries in Rioja, and virtually every one of them turned its back on the classic American oak barrels in favor of new French barriques. They also adopted vinification and aging techniques that we are more accustomed to see in California or Tuscany.

Fortunately for those of us who love traditional wine, old-style Riojas have not totally disappeared. A few diehard bodegas continue to turn out soulful Riojas like those made 50 or 100 years ago. The most notable example is of course López de Heredia, which refuses to give into fashion and has changed very little in the past century. But there are others who continue to make at least some wines that are essentially traditional, such as La Rioja Alta, Bodegas Riojanas, and CUNE.

But the other glimmer of light is that Riojas are among the world’s longest-lived red wines, capable of aging gracefully for 30, 40, or 50 years, with ease. And until very recently, old Riojas—lovingly cellared by the producers and great restaurants in Spain—could still be had at bargain prices.

For years, we’ve been buying old Rioja whenever we’ve had the chance, inspired by a tasting we’d attended in London in December, 1998, featuring wines from a private Madrid cellar. It was one of those wine epiphanies that changes us forever. Since then, we've been plumbing similar collections from Spain, paying sometimes laughably low prices for 30, 40 and 50-year-old treasures.

But such purchases may soon be impossible. With the greatness of these old wines becoming more and more appreciated, and since young wines are rarely made in this style anymore, prices are going up at a staggering clip. Part of the problem has been that the traditional producers themselves have been forced to protect their vanishing stocks of library wines as demand soars.

Interest in these great, irreplaceable wines is just beginning to build, and it’s looking like a repeat of what has happened with traditional Barolo and Barbaresco. For now, there are still bargains to be had, but the window of opportunity won’t be open forever.

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1982 Beronia Rioja Reserva 6 $49.95 add
1994 Beronia Rioja Reserva 12 $35.00 add
1964 Bilbainas Vendimia Especial Rioja Reserva 1 $135.00 add
1970 Bilbainas Vina Pomal Rioja Ltd $79.95 add
1973 El Coto Rioja 1 $45.00 add
1970 CUNE Imperial Rioja Crianza 6 $149.95 add
1982 CUNE Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva RJW96
6 $159.95 add
1994 CUNE Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva RJW93+
12 $89.95 add
2000 CUNE Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva JR92
6 $59.95 add
1981 CUNE Imperial Rioja Reserva 6 $145.00 add
1982 CUNE Imperial Rioja Reserva 6 $145.00 add
2000 CUNE Imperial Rioja Reserva 12 $54.95 add
NV CUNE Rioja 4 Ano (1960s-70s) 1 $89.95 add
1995 CUNE Rioja Reserva 6 $49.95 add
2001 CUNE Vina Real Oro Rioja Gran Reserva 1.5 L 6 $129.95 add
1988 CUNE Vina Real Rioja 6 $79.95 add
1970 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Gran Reserva JG94
6 $145.00 add
1973 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Gran Reserva 3 $145.00 add
1975 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Gran Reserva 6 $125.00 add
1976 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Gran Reserva 6 $175.00 add
1981 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Gran Reserva 2 $245.00 add
1981 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Reserva 7 $175.00 add
2004 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Reserva WA92+ 12 $54.95 add
1964 CUNE Vina Real Rioja Reserva Especial JG95 6 $274.95 add
1968 Faustino V Rioja Reserva RJW93 3 $89.95 add
1968 Franco-Espanolas Royal Rioja Reserva 3 $135.00 add
1970 Marques de Legarda Rioja RJW92 5 $65.00 add
NV Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Rioja 5 Ano (1970s Release) 6 $135.00 add
1976 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Rioja Gran Reserva AG95
2 $325.00 add
1981 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Rioja Gran Reserva JG95
3 $195.00 add
1954 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Rioja JG96
3 $395.00 add
1984 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Rioja 7 $79.95 add
1985 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Rioja 9 $85.00 add
1978 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Rioja Gran Reserva 6 $225.00 add
1981 Marques de Murrieta Ygay Rioja 3 $69.95 add
1991 Marques de Murrieta Ygay Rioja Reserva Blanco 1 $69.95 add
1994 Marques de Murrieta Ygay Rioja Reserva Blanco 3 $64.95 add
1973 Paternina Conde de los Andes Rioja Gran Reserva 4 $95.00 add
1978 Paternina Conde de los Andes Rioja Gran Reserva 9 $79.95 add
2014 Pecina Rioja Cosecha Tinto 3 $14.95 add
2006 Pecina Rioja Crianza 1.5 L JR91 12+* $39.95 add
2011 Pecina Rioja Crianza JR91 2 $19.95 add
2003 Pecina Rioja Gran Reserva 1.5 L JR93 12+ $79.95 add
2009 Pecina Rioja Gran Reserva WA94
12+ $37.95 add
2006 Pecina Rioja Reserva 1.5 L 12+ $59.95 add
2009 Pecina Rioja Reserva JG93+ 3 $24.95 add
2016 Pecina Rioja Rosado 12+* $16.95 add
2006 Pecina Rioja Vendimia Seleccionada JG94+
12+ $39.95 add
2001 La Rioja Alta Marques de Haro Rioja Seleccion Especial Reserva 12 $79.95 add
2001 La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Rioja Reserva 12+ $39.95 add
1981 Rioja Santiago Vizconde de Ayala Gran Reserva 9 $32.00 add
1994 Riojanas Monte Real Rioja Reserva JG93
12 $49.95 add
1995 Riojanas Monte Real Rioja Reserva RJW91 12 $39.95 add
1994 Marques de Riscal Rioja 12+ $38.50 add
1994 Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva RJW91+ 6 $42.50 add
2001 Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva 6 $35.00 add
2004 Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva 6 $39.95 add

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