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I had the good fortune yesterday to attend a substantial retrospective of gran reserva Riojas from some of the top producers in the region. I've long been a Rioja fan, and have for just about as long been convinced that traditionally styled Riojas are some of the best wines to cellar if you're interested in drinking older wines—they age wonderfully, especially from great years, and, relative to similarly long-lived reds, are distinctly underpriced.
First, though, I should give a shout-out to my fave affordable Rioja from the big tasting that followed the retrospective, which was the 2004 Bodegas Luis Canas Crianza, a juicy, cherry-filled, appealingly streamlined red that sells for under $15. Good juice.
Of the older wines, the winner of the day for me was the 1982 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904, pale red in hue, utterly classic with its aromas of dried cherries, leather, black tea leaf, and resinous spices. On the palate it added a coffee note to that mix of characteristics, and a silky texture and presence that was just gorgeous—drinking it was like a psychic transportation to Rioja. Which is pretty impressive, for fermented grape juice in a bottle...
The two oldest wines in the lineup were fascinating as well. The 1964 Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva (a blend of 75% Tempranillo with 25% Cabernet) was intensely luscious and deep to start with, full of sweet rich cherry and mocha notes, lush tannins, and a lightly resinous funky note—which, unfortunately, intensified as the wine opened and eventually left it pretty odd and stinky. Such are the risks of old bottles. On the other hand, the 1964 Faustino I Gran Reserva, which started out somewhat nondescript and a bit thin, opened up into a beautiful old Rioja, elegant in a noble way, with cool sweet berry notes, layers of herbal nuances, a hint of dark chocolate, and a really graceful structure. So, such are the benefits of old bottles...
None of those wines is really findable except, possibly, at auction (or in Spain). The 2001 Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial ($54), though, should be around and about, and was the star of the younger wines in the retrospective—cherry fruit with notes of licorice and forest floor, ripe and dense but not heavy, and a leathery-gamey hint on the end. All the richness of the '01 vintage in a classically styled wine, in a sense. I wish I had a case so I could see how it will be, forty years down the line. —R.I.