• Harry Crowther: why La Rioja Alta is up for a vertical challenge

    If you are looking to discover more about the iconic wine region of Rioja then you really can’t go wrong exploring the back vintages of producers within the La Rioja Alta. It’s why wine consultant, Harry Crowther, jumped at the chance to delve into the history and the properties of this unique region, within wines dating back to 1991, all in the hands of chief winemaker Julio Sáenz.

    If you are looking to discover more about the iconic wine region of Rioja then you really can’t go wrong exploring the back vintages of producers within the La Rioja Alta. It’s why wine consultant, Harry Crowther, jumped at the chance to delve into the history and the properties of this unique region, within wines dating back to 1991, all in the hands of chief winemaker Julio Sáenz.

    mm By May 31, 2018

    Long since a cornerstone in fine wine sector of Rioja, the wines of La Rioja Alta need little introduction to the seasoned wine drinker, which is why Harry Crowther was jumped at the chance to take part in a vertical tasting of wines from across its properties. 

    With more than 125 years of winemaking behind them, the team at La Rioja Alta are steeped in tradition, and are famous for their careful approach to top quality wines with long oak maturation and ageing potential.

    The brand was born out of a merger between five wine-making families (from Rioja and the Basque country to the west), in 1890; in an attempt to respond to the Phylloxera epidemic in Bordeaux and much of France, the families saw this as a way to group together and meet supply demands for top red wines and create a Rioja Claret.

    This month I had the great pleasure of joining the team at Armit Wines to work my way through a vertical tasting and master class of La Rioja Alta’s Viña Arana Reserva, along with the wines from Torre de Oña, another project from the northern most sub-region of Rioja, the Alavesa. Just to add a bit of weight to our morning, winemaker Julio Sáenz was in attendance to speak about the wines personally.

    Torre de Ona is part of the La Rioja Alta family
    Torre de Ona is part of Rioja’s Alavesa region

    Torre de Oña

    The 48 hectares of Torre de Oña are amongst some of the highest altitudes of the region. Vine age is around 50 years old, the concentration of fruit coupled with the high altitudes provide ideal conditions for wines of good acidity and soft fruit.

    As with all the fruit from the La Rioja Alta team, everything is estate grown.

    The estate was purchased by La Rioja Alta in 1995, and in 2016 a new, gravitational winery was built.

    With a preference to French and Caucasian oak ahead of American, Sáenz aims to produce, “fruity, sweeter wines with less tannins”.

    Finca San Martin, Crianza, 2014

    100% Tempranillo. Youthful ruby colour with a nose of fresh red fruit and a touch of balsamic. An uncomplicated wine, easy drinking and lean, refreshing acidity

    Torre de Oña, Reserva, 2012

    Temranillo with a drop of Mazuelo in the blend. The wine sits in oak for about 18 months before bottling. Intense and rich, dark fruit profile with some lifted notes one would expect from a higher altitude wine. Medium body and very good structure with good ageing potential.

    Viñas en otoño, Rioja Alta, DOC Rioja, Haro, la Rioja

    A new Cru?

    The Rioja Alavesa is the closest of the three sub regions (of Rioja) to the northern coastline, and the Atlantic. The cooling influences of the ocean and higher elevation of the vineyards have allowed Julio Sáenz to create what he dubs “a Burgundy Style of wine”.

    Enter Martelo, the brainchild of Sáenz’s work and knowledge of the Alavesa region. The wine is a selection of seven hectares of vines, and only to be made in ‘perfect’ years. Fruit from vintages that don’t qualify for Martelo are used to make the aforementioned Finca San Martin Crianza.

     Sáenz one day hopes “the vision is to create a cru, Martelo wine… the best years for Martelo are dry all year round with a little bit of rain towards the end of the summer.”

    The vineyards of Martelo are a “completely different aspect, the wine is sweeter, fruiter and less tannic, the idea here is to create a Burgundy style of wine with Tempranillo, it is amazing for us to be able to make such varied styles of wine from a single estate”.

    When asked what he thought the ageing potential of his new project is, Sáenz commented that this is the first vintage of Martelo and therefore it will probably be one of the worst in their history and its too difficult to say. For me the wine is drinking well and will improve in another year or so.

    Martelo, Reserva, 2012

    Lifted and floral aromatics. Complexity through a red and black fruit profile and a balsamic backdrop. Crunchy acidity, medium bodied with soft tannins yet a firm backbone. The maiden vintage of Martelo, interesting to see what the future holds for this wine.

    The main event

    La Rioja Alta have their own cooperage in Spain. They import wood direct from USA where it is dried and made into barrels locally in Haro.

    As with Torre de Oña, all of the fruit is estate owned and harvested. Viña Arana is actually the fourth tier wine from the team and was introduced to the market in 1974. That’s a pretty astonishing fact, given the quality on show and potential for ageing as one can see across the upcoming vertical.

    With quality always in mind, La Rioja Alta only produces wines at Reserva and Grand Reserva level and will disqualify vintages that do not make the grade for their wines.


    La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana, 2009

    The current vintage in the market. A rainy September helped to lengthen the ripening of fruit. A ruby colour of medium intensity moving to a little bit tawny towards the rim. Spice, red fruit and a touch of mushroom on the nose. A lean wine with welcomed austerity with good structure across the mid palate.

    Above Viña Arana, which is a Reserva level wine (according to La Rioja Alta), sit the estates two Gran Reservas, the 890 and 904 and the Viña Ardanza Reserva. Viña’s Ardanza, Arana and the Viña Alberdi Reserva appropriately take their names from three of the five founding families of La Rioja Alta.

    Alberdi is made from 100% Tempranillo and the Arana has a 5% drop of Mazuelo. Given Julio and the teams approach to extended oak ageing, The Arana and Ardanza would usually qualify for Gran Reserva designations. Both sit in cask for at least three years and then a couple more in bottle; the difference between them is that Ardanza has an extra six months in oak and a healthy dose of Garnacha.

    La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana, 2005

    A great year for Mazuelo. Bottled in 2009. Showing some age with a touch of terracotta at the center. Lots of leathery notes and good fruit. Tannins are upfront and supported with good acidity. Drinking well now, although one of the more inferior wines from the tasting for me.

    The 890 and 904 Grand Reserva wines take their names from the maiden vintage of La Rioja Alta in1890 and the celebration of the merger between La Rioja Alta and the Ardanza Winery in 1904 respectively.

    Outside of extended oak ageing the wines receive at La Rioja Alta; great care is also taken through the racking process. “We rack all of our wines every six months, under candle light, in order to bring as little disturbance to the wine as possible” Julio advised the room. There is an element of tradition and romance to that; I can just see the juice seeping quietly from one barrel to another under the romance of a flickering candle.


    La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana, 2001

    “Arguably the best year for Rioja wines” maintains Sáenz . Perfect weather at all the right times delivered a perfect fruit set and it shows… A medium intensity of tawny from the rim to the center and a nose of caramel, toffee, sour cherry and molasses. The mouth feel is effortless, a perfect orchestra of power, poise and roundness!

    As I have touched upon in previous articles through The Buyer and Grape Times, an inherent sense of tradition comes with a responsibility to be current, and embrace new technologies in the marketplace. Julio argues that the company’s recent acquisition of an optical sorting table has helped the team separate “the good from the fantastic” fruit in their quest for optimal fruit selection.

    La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana, 1996

    Often an under rated vintage due to the success of ’94 and ’95 before it. That stops there, however. With the 2001, this was one of the best wines of the day. A tawny center browning out to the rim. More toffee, mosalles and confectionary on the nose, along with dried rose petals and freshly ground coffee! Light in body now that the primary fruit has all but fallen away. Powerful tannins with a smoky finish. A wine full of finesse.


    La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana, 1995

    Slightly browner then the ’96, with a sour cherry, currant nuance on the nose. The palate is fresh yet bitter on the finish, perhaps a little past its best but such an interesting accent of how ‘Reserva’ Rioja can evolve.

    Julio and Francisco Corpas, export manager for La Rioja Alta informed the room towards the end of the day, that through the 90’s, the estate would use 12-plus year old oak for ageing. “New changes in barrel cleaning means that our wines are a little less tired than before, and a new approach to our oak program sees us putting wines into four to five year old barrels”. 

    I asked Sáenz a little more about this after and he informed me that he is looking for less of that “funk”, and more “elegance” in his wines. “We want cleaner flavours”.

    La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana, 1991

    The last wine of the day. Brown throughout the glass. Oxidative notes of charred vegetables and tomato leaf. Past its best? Who cares. Still a bit of punch through the palate and acidity to make this wine a pleasurable piece of drinking history!

    • Special thanks to Angus MacNab and the team at Armit Wines for hosting the event and  for Julio Sáenz for the inspiring masterclass.

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