Lifestyle : Unmistakably Rioja

The La Rioja Alta “904” 2004 proved to be one of the crowd favourites at a recent Spanish wine dinner I hosted. This is one of the best examples of an utterly delicious Rioja from a recent outstanding vintage made in traditional style.

La Rioja Alta S.A. is without doubt one of the great estates of Rioja and one of the most well known in Spain, boasting over 300 hectares of vineyards in the Rioja Alta zone. The Rioja wine region located in northern Spain has three sub-regions with distinct microclimates and soil types- Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja, where elevation and vineyard orientation can impart unique traits to wines. Rioja Alta produces the highest quality wines, benefitting from some elevation with terraced vineyards of up to 700m above sea level, and consequently a cooler climate. The soil is- ideally for vines- infertile, and soil composition is typically a mix of chalk, iron and clay. The signature of traditional red Rioja winemaking is the practice of ageing wine made from primarily tempranillo grapes  in American oak casks, followed by extended bottle maturation. Older styles of Rioja tend to be unapproachably oaky- tempranillo itself has a special affinity for oak and the wine was aged for such long periods in American oak barrels that oak flavours masked the fruit profile of the grapes. The modern trend in Rioja has been to reduce overwhelming oak flavours, accentuating tempranillo’s fruit character, and bringing the wine more into balance.

La Rioja Alta produces two flagship Rioja wines- the “904” and the “890”, both of which are only made in exceptional years, historically three to four times a decade. “890” refers to 1890, the year when the winery was founded, and “904” refers to 1904, the year of merger with Bodegas Ardanza forming the modern La Rioja Alta as it exists today. Both the “904” and “890” are Rioja Gran Reserva wines, which means that they must go through a minimum of 24 months oak ageing with a further minimum 36 months of bottle ageing. Rioja Gran Reservas cannot be released to the market until they have seen at least a total of 60 months of maturation. Most premium producers tend to age their Rioja wines in excess of the legal minimum periods, when the wines are close to or at the start of their deemed drinking window. Compare this to premium Bordeaux wine, most of which is shipped out two years after vintage, and left to merchants and consumers to care for and age for another decade…

The two current releases of the “904” and “890” are the “904” 2004 and the “890” 2001. The “904” is comprised of 90% tempranillo from vines more than 40 years in age, and 10% graciano. La Rioja Alta is a traditional producer. The “904” spent four years maturing in used American oak casks and an approximately equivalent time maturing in bottle. It was bottled in 2009 and finally released to the Hong Kong market in 2014. The “904” underwent 8 rackings, which is a technique to transfer wine from one barrel to another, often through a form of siphoning. Racking is an importing element in maturation as it aerates the wine and removes the wine from its lees and other residue. The aeration helps in accelerating maturation and development in the wine, and is often regarding as a fairly agitative process not suitable for more delicate wines. Approx. 150,000 bottles of “904” 2004 were produced. The “890” 2001 saw 6 years maturation in used American oak casks and 12 rackings. It was bottled in 2008 and released in Hong Kong in 2014. Only around 15,000 bottles of the “890” 2001 were produced.

These are my tasting notes for the La Rioja Alta “904” 2004:

“Initially closed, quite sullen, arms folded. After an initial one-hour decant, followed by a double decant back into the bottle and then a further 2 hour decant at the restaurant., the wine finally started to  reveal itself- unmistakably Rioja- layers of soft dark fruit, damson, black and red plums, loaded with sweet spice and touch of leather. Signature American oak – vanillin and coconut- so integrated even at this stage. The wine is quite striking in its balance between fruit, oak, vibrant acidity and tannic backbone, evolving and unfolding over the evening with a lingering finish. It is only at the start of its drinking window and will surely continue to evolve over the next decade, perhaps longer.”

(18+; 16 Jan 2015)

The “904” 2004 is a relatively youthful wine and is at the start of its drinking window. It is enjoyable now, but you must give the wine a good aeration to open it up- this means a good long decant. Don’t be tempted to cut down the decanting time, as it does make a big difference to this wine.

Having experimented with decanting times with the “904” 2004 on a number of occasions, these were my findings:

Hours               Profile

0                    Completely closed; taut
1                    Minimal development
2                    Fruit emerging but still tight
3                    Displaying fruit, some spice, some leather, opening- lovely but not quite unfolded
5                    Fruit, coconut, vanillin in balance
6+                  Further development. Beautiful !

If you prefer to cellar your “904” 2004, I would recommend the “904” 2001 and “890” 2001, both of which are soft textured and drinking beautifully now too.