La Rioja Alta – Ancient and Modern

October 13, 2020

La Rioja Alta – Ancient and Modern

David Clark is a sixteen-year veteran Wine Connection staffer now working from home. This is the first in a new series of his thoughts on the world of fine wine.

Several years ago Dore Kraus opened a very curious old bottle of Spanish red wine for us at a Wine Connection staff party. It was an undated, multi-vintage blend bottled by Lopez de Heredia sometime in the late sixties.  The wine was very light in color, looking a bit like a light Pinot Noir, with very little sediment. The shocking thing was the rapid development of the nose! Within a few minutes of air, the most intense aromas of wild Strawberry fruit filled the glass and maybe the room as well. 

The palate followed with lively, bright red berry fruit and spice notes in an impossibly elegant frame! It filled my sensory world in a way I will never forget.

Fast forward to the summer of 2020 when Dore mentioned to me that he had secured 18 bottles of the La Rioja Alta Viña Arana “Sexto Año”, bottled around 1970, coming direct from Spain! “Sexto” means “sixth” in Spanish, and in this case means that this vintage blend was bottled after six years in barrel.  This traditional vintage blending practice disappeared in the seventies as “modern” ideas arrived in the region. Such wines as this are now true rarities. Like the true wine junky I am, I didn’t even ask the price. “I need that!”


La Rioja Alta, established in 1890, is among the top tier of producers in Rioja.  Located in the town of Haro, in the high-altitude Rioja Alta region, they have a reputation for balancing the elegance and delicacy of the traditional style with the riper fruit of the modern age. Their popular and highly rated Viña Ardanza Reserva could well be the poster child for this idea. 

Thus was born the idea for a dinner/tasting. 

My wife, Diane is adept at preparing meals to compliment just about any kind of wine you could imagine.  She decided on a Spanish Baked Chicken with Kale, and Manzanilla olives.  The dish called for Spanish chorizo, but we substituted a mild Mexican-style chorizo, which worked fine. In addition, we selected a wonderful Jamón Ibérico Spanish cured ham and the aromatic Chalerhocker aged Swiss cheese from our friends at Venissimo.  

The Viña Arana – Sexto Año, because of its’ age, was opened right before the meal.  Made from mostly Tempranillo with small amounts of Graciano and Mazuelo, it showed the bright red color profile of a much younger wine, with almost no sediment. It had fresh red fruits and vanilla aromas and flavors that soon developed complexity. The texture was elegant with a fresh tasting acidity and although it had spent six years in large barrels, the graceful vanilla notes were marvelously integrated into a seamless whole.  The interaction with the meal was phenomenal, the translucent flavors of the wine picked up and amplified the flavors of the olives, the cheese and especially the Jamón, which was a match made in Spanish heaven, in the old-fashioned way.

I decanted the 2010 Viña Ardanza Reserva – Seleccion Especial about an hour in advance, giving it time to develop a bit.  Ardanza is made up of 80% cool climate Rioja Alta Tempranillo and 20% Granacha (Grenache) grown in the warm Rioja Baja region to the south.  Dark in color, it boasted intense Granacha aromas of dark berry fruit, with leather and game notes. It had a big mouth-feel, but was kept quite lively with amazingly balanced acidity and velvety tannins.  As time passed, it simply became more complex, taking on a Burgundy-like character that called us back for another sip. Here was the modern fruit and the traditional elegance, both beautifully showcased!

Both of the wines, the rare classic from the dawn of Spain’s modern era in the ‘70’s and the great 2010 vintage Seleccion Especial were wonderful, but both Diane and I felt the most amazing and satisfying aspect of them was the way the wines interacted with the food, amplifying and reflecting the differing flavors on the plate. 

Should you feel inclined to explore the wines of Rioja, do yourself and the wines a favor and include a meal or at least a tasting platter!