La Rioja Alta - May 2012

La Rioja Alta Part 1: Aster- Ribera del Duero


See also blog from Uncorked about La Rioja Alta

Sam Paveley and I recently had the opportunity to visit our friends atLa Rioja Alta, one of the great estates of the region. Founded in 1890, the empire now stretches across the Ebro into Rioja Alavesa and further afield to Rias Baixas on the Atlantic coast and Ribera del Duero. Following a morning flight to Bilbao and a pit-stop in Burgos for lunch, it was in the Ribera that our visit commenced.
The 95ha of vineyards that today comprise the Asterestate were purchased in 1990 after an extensive search for the best sites, with planting following the year after. For the first six years of production, the grapes were sold in bulk as the young vines had not reached the quality level desired. In 1999, wine was made but was eventually sold off for the same reasons. This pattern of patience and stringent quality control is a recurrent theme in theRioja Altastory and only in 2000 did the first Aster winesappear, some ten years after the purchase. Today, a further twelve years later, the vines are now well established, with the different vineyard blocks clearly identified and the winery is state of the art, with capacity for the extended barrel ageing favoured here.
Aster Estate

The dry climate of the region encourages the vines to sink deep roots for their water source while the altitude (2500ft above sea level) helps to retain freshness in the grapes in a region which is accustomed to fierce heat. The soils vary between sandy-loam and clay-limestone and the grape variety is of course 100% Tinta del Pais (aka Tempranillo).


There are three wines atAster. The crianza comes principally from the sandy-loam soils and is aged for 20 months in 50% new French oak, 25% new American and 25% old American. The grapes for the reserva are from the richer clay soils and the wine sees more extended aging in barrel with a higher proportion (60%) of new French oak, the balance being aged in old American oak. There is also a single vineyard wine called Finca el Otero. This is in a totally different style, aiming to respond to the criticism that the other wines were too influenced by traditional Rioja. The wine sees malo-lactic fermentation in barrel, including an important proportion of new American oak, with regular batonnage over a three-month period before being transferred to new French oak for a further year. The resultant wine is silky smooth, modern style Ribera with intensity and swagger, fruit-forward, ripe and bold and made for drinking young despite clearly having the capacity for further age in bottle.

 

Fermentation Room at Aster

This winery has really come of age and the quality being produced here is now right up there with any in the region. In fact, this property has continued to advance while many of its more established neighbours have been content to stand still. There is a wildness to the region largely because of its unforgiving climate, remoteness and low population and this unruly, even uncivilized style can emerge in wines from Ribera.
Landscape of the Ribera

At Aster however, the wildness has been beautifully tamed, and whilst never losing the uniqueness nor the fiery glare, there is now refinement, depth and complexity to enjoy too. When the sun eventually emerges this summer and you are minded to put a leg of lamb or a juicy steak on the coals, I can think of few better companions.
With a nice bottle of Aster?


Day Two started started early at Aster, with the twittering of the birds the sole evidence of life across the vast expanses of terrain. After breakfast, we headed east, a two hour drive ending in Basque country at Torre de Oña, in the heart of Rioja Alavesa.
The Oña property was established in 1985, a project of passion by a Cuban businessman Don Leandro Vázquez. The first vintage of Baron de Oña was the 1989, put on the market in 1992. In 1994/5, Vázquez sold the property to La Rioja Alta and the team set to work on it, acquiring further parcels of land around the winery and upgrading the vineyards and production facilities.
Today the property totals some 54ha with a handsome guest-house (also used for weddings and events) giving it prominence, with the Sierra de Cantabria hills providing a dramatic backdrop. In 2005, the team mapped all of the vineyards using satellite imaging, clearly identifying three distinct soil characteristics and have adapted their vineyard and production regime accordingly. Finca San Martinis a Crianza made in an approachable style from 100% Tempranillo grown on the more water-retentive soils and given one year in barrel, one year in bottle. The flagship Torre de Oña Reserva, launched with the 2007 vintage, is a blend of Tempranillo and Mazuelo and comes from the higher, better drained land, producing a more structured wine that is given two years in barrel, two years in bottle. As ever, the choice of wood is important, with the cellar currently using 68% French oak, 16% American and 16% Caucasian.
Apart from the property itself being totally captivating, the changes that have been put in place now permit wines of greater complexity and interest to emerge rather than an agreeable “catch-all” estate wine, as in the past. Indeed, it is common place in Bordeaux nowadays to hear of two wines being produced on an estate, rather than a first and second wine, and where there are distinct difference in terrain within the boundaries, this approach makes a lot of sense. The Oña wines offer Rioja with greater immediacy but without losing the smoothness and sumptuousness for which the greater region is famed. The wines seem to reflect the individuality, passion and energy of the Basques (of which they are plenty!) and no self-respecting pintxos bar in San Sebastian or Bilbao would be without them!
La Rioja Alta was founded in 1890 and has its HQ in Haro with an important state-of-the-art production facility, built in 1996, 1.5km away at Labastida. With 360ha of prime vineyards in production in the heart of Rioja Alta, plus a further 63ha in Rioja Baja to provide the Garnacha, this is an important estate by anyone’s measure. We toured the extensive cellars, watching barrels being racked one by one by candlelight and tasting the young wine (2010 Viña Ardanza, looking very promising!). The winery is run like clockwork, certainly no “mañana” attitude here! The commitment really is quite staggering. We often joke when selling Rioja that the Spaniards are really rather generous, looking after the bottles for you until they are ready while the French prefer for you to buy the wine before it is even finished! It is when you apply this to a commercial context and see what extended maturation for many years actually means for 360+ha-worth of production, it is simply unimaginable that any business could be set up this way today (although Ch. Latour seem to be willing to give it a go…) With the equivalent of nearly 8m bottles quietly maturing in these underground caverns, the nearest comparison has to be with champagne houses. To get the consistency of quality on this scale is, quite simply, an enormous achievement.
The range is well known, with the Gran Reservas 890 and 904 rightly celebrated as some of the greatest wines of Spain. The Reservas- Ardanza, Arana and Alberdi, all named after the founding families- all differ in their composition, Ardanza with more Garnacha and up to four years barrel ageing, Arana with a little Mazuelo and three years in barrel whereas the 100% Tempranillo Alberdi only sees two years in barrel. Ardanza Reserva Especial 2001 has been a global phenomenon since its launch in early 2011, only the third time that the quality has merited elevation to the “Especial” level in the eyes of the team. With the very last bottles now on the market, the good news is that the 2004, which will be launched in the autumn, is of the same quality level, if not even a touch better. However, the team feel that two successive “Especials” wouldn’t be convincing and therefore it will be simply a ‘Reserva’. This will surely be one of the great bargains to look out for in the coming months. Also worth a mention is the about-to-be-released Alberdi Reserva 2006, a more substantial, meatier wine than the excellent 2005 and the perfect entry point into this already elevated range.
Our thanks to Guillermo, Javier and Francisco for an excellent and thoroughly memorable visit. Viva La Rioja Alta!

Blog by Mike Laing

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