Today’s wine world—especially in Rioja—sometimes appears to be a battle of extremes, with traditional wines, supple and savory, standing in opposition to rich and fruity modern versions.
La Rioja Alta, one of Rioja’s leading bodegas, is pursuing a difficult—and admirable—path: It’s searching for the middle ground. Founded in 1890, the bodega remains family-owned and committed to innovation rooted in experience.
“We have tried to adapt the style of our wines to a changing world,” said Guillermo de Aranzábal, president of the group since 2005. “We are making wines with more fruit than before, with more structure, while maintaining elegance and delicacy.”
Viña Ardanza, a label trademarked in 1942 and now La Rioja Alta’s most popular brand, most clearly illustrates this quest for balance. To celebrate Ardanza’s 75th anniversary, La Rioja Alta hosted a dinner at New York City’s new hotspot, the Grill, and served five emblematic vintages, non-blind.
From the beginning, Ardanza has been a blend of about 80 percent Tempranillo, harvested from the winery’s vineyards in Cenicero and Fuenmayor in the Alta region, with about 20 percent Garnacha from Tudelilla in Rioja Baja. The wines have always been aged in older American oak barrels for 30 to 36 months and carry the Reserva designation.
The 1989 (92 points, non-blind) displayed traditional style. Aromatic with dried fruit, spice and balsamic notes, it was supple, showing sweet flavors of cherry and strawberry, backed by vanilla and orange peel and balanced by lively acidity. It’s fully mature.
This vintage contains small percentages of Mazuelo, Graciano and even the white grape Viura, which were interplanted with Tempranillo at the time. Technical director Julio Sáenz, who joined the bodega in 1996, attributes the wine’s bright acidity to the Garnacha (even though it was harvested at a ripe 16 percent alcohol) and the trace of Viura.
The 1994 (91 points, non-blind) was deeper and richer, with plum and woodsy notes and a firm backbone of tannins. It showed a more modern style, which Sáenz said reflected the riper vintage more than any changes in the winemaking (though no Viura was included). I advise drinking within the next five years.
The 2001 (94 points, non-blind) is labeled “Reserva Especial,” only the third so named in Ardanza’s history, after 1964 and ’73. “It was different from the beginning,” Sáenz said. This vintage was the first time all the barrels used for aging the wine were coopered at the bodega.
The wine showed traditional flavors of bright berry fruit, orange peel acidity and spice, but with bigger structure and a firm spine, a lovely balance of muscle and grace. It has plenty of life and should drink well for a decade.
As the 2001 echoed the 1989, though with more depth, the 2004 (96 points, non-blind) resembled the 1994, though with more harmony. It showed rich, ripe plum and chocolate flavors, but with intriguing accents of underbrush and mineral. It should drink well for another 20 years.
Aranzábal acknowledged that 2008 wasn’t a top vintage for Rioja, but felt it was a great success for Ardanza. Key was the inclusion of Garnacha from their own vineyard in Tudelilla, the first vintage they harvested from La Pedriza. The wine (91 points, non-blind) showed the roundness and ripe fruit of the ’94 and ’04, but in a lighter style, compact and graceful; it’s still very young.
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, counseled that true happiness lay in finding the Golden Mean, or proper balance and proportion. I think he would enjoy drinking Ardanza.
Follow Thomas Matthews on Twitter at twitter.com/trmatthews.