Headquartered alongside Bodegas Muga in the Barrio del Estación, the old railway quarter of Haro – a popular location for wine exporters during the phylloxera crisis in France - La Rioja Alta is one of the most resolutely traditional of the regions’s bodegas. It was founded in 1890 by a consortium of five families, including the Aranas, Ardanzas and the Alberdis (names now immortalised as Reservas. See below), and now commands an impressive vineyard portfolio of over 700 ha, comprising 470ha in the Rioja Alta, 65ha in the Alavesa, where Barón de Oña is produced, 63ha in the Baja, 74ha in the Galician denominación of Rías Baixas and 95ha in DO Ribero del Duero.
As the company expanded, it outgrew its premises in Haro, which now house corporate offices, a visitor centre and shop and a wine storage facility. The main business of La Rioja Alta takes place these days at its purpose-built winery in Labastida, a mile down the road, a strikingly handsome stone building completed in 1996. The fermentation tanks are set under the wooden floor of a stunning, light-flooded hall, the sparkling steel lids visible, Beneath them is a huge barrel-ageing cellar. It’s reckoned that La Rioja Alta have, at any given time, some 45,000 barrels on the go, and carry around eight years’ worth of stock. Sensibly, the company does its own coopering in house. Oak is imported from Ohio and Pennsylvania, but there is little reverse traffic, the company’s second biggest export market after the UK being not the USA but Mexico.
La Rioja Alta excels in classically-styled Reservas and Gran Reservas which are given considerable cask ageing. What sets this bodega apart from other traditionalists is that the wines succeed in retaining striking vigour and fruit whilst undergoing their lengthy period in cask. They are released for sale only when fully ready to drink and always have an air of graceful maturity about them.
Three wines are produced at Reserva level. Viña Alberdi is 100% tempranillo, aged fortwo years in cask, and two in bottle. Viña Arana is a blend of 95% tempranillo with5% mazuelo, made in the supple “Rioja claret” style and has three years in cask and two in bottle. With 80% tempranillo and 20% garnacha, and extra 6 months in cask, Viña Ardanza is the most traditional-tasting and in exceptional vintages (to date, just 1964, 1973 and 2001) has the additional description of especial. The extended ageing which is winemaking policy here would normally qualify both Arana and Ardanza as gran reserva, but this designation is reserved for the two top-of-the range 904 and 890 bottlings. The former, is 90% tempranillo with 10% graciano, aged 4-5 years in cask and a further 4 in bottle. 890, made only in the best vintages and presented in numbered bottles, is overwhelmingly tempranillo (96%) with a little graciano and mazuelo and has a whopping 6-8 years in cask and 6 in bottle.
Not surprisingly, we source The Society’s Exhibition Rioja Reserva from La Rioja Alta. Two years in cask and then further ageing in bottle results in a complex and mature wine, the concentrated, silky fruit and cedary character of which have won it a great deal of critical acclaim in the Press.