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Fully Mature Reds at Reasonable Prices? Think Rioja

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Wines from Rioja's "vintage of the century," 1964

I've written here a number of times about the unique beauty and mature flavors of aged wines. Once they have a few decades on them, older Bordeaux, California Cabernets from the '50s to early '80s, old traditional Barolos, mature Burgundies and Rhones, if they have structure and good acidity, basically converge into very similar, aged delights. They put on complex, mature flavors of cigar box, tobacco, leather and truffle. Their acidity allows them to remain lively on the palate while their tannic structure -- once very firm and now resolved into something rounded and elegant -- makes their taste linger a long time. It took just a few experiences with wines like these to totally hook me on the world of fine wine.

Unfortunately, another thing older vintages of wines like these have in common are incredibly high prices. Those of us who weren't provident enough to be buying and laying them down in our cellars a few decades back are looking at having to pay hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars for the privilege of tasting them now. That's because some of these wines, especially in Burgundy and Barolo, were made in very small quantities to begin with, and they are now sought after by increasing numbers of fine wine consumers worldwide, including China's burgeoning new market.

There is, however, one last value area remaining for those of us looking for our aged red wine fix without having to pay exorbitant prices. A region that has long made high-quality, ageworthy wines that, with a few decades on them, are very reminiscent of fine old Barolos and Bordeaux is Rioja -- Spain's illustrious red wine-producing region.

Older vintages of Rioja are, unfortunately, fairly scarce in the U.S. When they can be found, however, they tend to still be quite reasonable in price compared to other traditional style wines of a similar era, like Burgundies and Barolo. And if Mannie Berk's Rare Wine Co. has anything to do with it, these wines are likely to become a little more accessible in the U.S.

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Rare Wine Co.'s Mannie Berk

Last week I attended the third of three terrific dinners devoted to older Riojas from traditional producers organized over the past year by Rare Wine Co. in San Francisco. We convened at Piperade, a Basque restaurant that has terrific food and great wine service. Unlike the last two dinners, though, which Mannie put together with single bottles he'd collected here and there over several years, this one featured wines he'd been able to buy by the multiple caseload from a couple of restaurants in Spain on recent trips there. As a result, Rare Wine Co. will shortly have some of these wines available to buy, at remarkably low prices -- i.e., mostly from $40 to $95.

These wines are very representative of the best of traditional Rioja. They are all from longtime producers who were making traditional style Rioja at least through the 1970s -- with long macerations and fermentations in neutral oak, and then long aging in American oak barrels plus additional bottle aging before release. All the producers represented are still in existence, but while some, like La Rioja Alta and Bilbainas, remain focused on making traditional style wines, others have switched in recent decades to more modern-style wines, with less barrel aging.

Most of the wines were Reservas -- wines that were typically the flagship wines from that producer -- and some were Gran Reservas, from particularly good vintages and aged even longer than the Reservas. They also came from years that, except for one, had been designated as either very good or excellent by Rioja's regulatory body, the Consejo Regulador de Rioja. Our oldest wines were from 1950, while the youngest came from the two best vintages of the '90s -- 1994 and 1995. The wines had also been stored properly, at cold temperatures and with proper humidity, by the sources from which Mannie obtained them.

The quality of this spectrum of mature and maturing traditional Rioja was pretty spectacular. None of the wines were faulty and all showed great complexity, on the nose and palate, with plenty of acidity and structure to enable them to continue aging for decades more.

Tempranillo -- the great black grape which is usually blended with small amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan) and/or Graciano in traditional Riojas -- can age at a ridiculously slow pace. It's therefore the ideal grape for wines like these that were made to set aside for decades to develop that marvelous patina of aged flavors that great red wines are capable of.

My very favorite wines of the tasting came from three traditional producers who have continued to produce traditional style wines: Bodegas Bilbainas, Bodegas Riojanas and Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España -- abbreviated to CVNE, but known simply as CUNE by most Rioja lovers.

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Five great traditional style Riojas from 1994

The greatest wine of all in the tasting for me was a CUNE bottling, the 1950 Viña Real Reserva Especial. It was complex and hedonistic, with flavors that included dried berry, licorice, cigar box and dried cherry, and a remarkably long finish. It is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo.

For my detailed tasting notes on the 18 wines we tasted over dinner, and more background on the other traditional producers represented in the tasting, see the complete report on my blog here.

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