09/07/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rioja Gems Part V: La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta is one of Rioja's largest and most consistent traditional style producers. They produce about three million bottles a year, and are well represented in America by several distributors, so their wines are among the easiest of the traditional Rioja producers to get your hands on.

La Rioja Alta was formed in that period, following 1870, when the phylloxera louse was destroying the vineyards of Bordeaux and the rest of France while the vineyards of Rioja were as yet unscathed. In 1890, five grower families from Rioja and the Basque country joined together to start what they first called Sociedad Vinicola de La Rioja Alta. Rioja Alta is the name of the most western and northerly of the three Rioja regions, and the one where many of the finest grapes are grown. A year later they changed the name simply to La Rioja Alta. The founding directors also took the progressive step of naming the sole woman director, Doña Saturnina García Cid y Gárate, as their first president.

They started in a facility located on estates owned by two of the founding families, in the area near the train station that had recently opened in Haro, where Lopez de Heredia and Torre Muga are also located. And they hired a Frenchman, Albert Vigier, as technical director, to advise them on making Bordeaux style wines.

endless barrels of aging wine (photo courtesy La Rioja Alta, S.A.)

Although the company is now publicly traded and has other stockholders, it is still controlled by those five original families. I got to visit the original winery and headquarters in Haro on my recent trip to Rioja, and was very impressed by how much the winery's adherence to Rioja's traditions is reflected in the physical setup of their operations. One can definitely get a sense of stepping back in time to 19th century Rioja at this winery, thanks to the loving way in which everything there has been preserved.

old fermentation vats (photo courtesy La Rioja Alta, S.A.)

We visited the cooper's shop, where a team of five coopers made all their barrels from staves imported from the U.S. through the 1950s. In 1995, they returned to this tradition, importing the wood and drying it for two years, and continuing to use many of the same tools and equipment as they used in the past. The room containing the original oak fermentation vats, known in Rioja as tinas, is also still in place. These giant American oak vats were used for every vintage until 1996, when they built a fermentation room with temperature controlled steel tanks at their new winery in Labastida. We also toured an underground tunnel and vast halls where eight years worth of the winery's production is quietly aging, following their long aging traditions.

In the 1980s, the company decided to buck the then prevailing trend by increasing the aging of all of their wines, both in barrel and bottle. They also acquired additional vineyards, so as to have greater control over the quality of the grapes. They currently own over 1,050 acres of vines in the region.

underground tunnel (photo courtesy La Rioja Alta, S.A.)

Their initial and only wine for nearly two decades was known as Reserva 1890, commemorating the year they were founded. This wine is now the Gran Reserva 890 -- they had to drop the "1″ from 1890 after stricter labeling requirements regarding the identification of vintages went into effect. This remains their top wine, made only in what they consider excellent vintages. It is my favorite wine in their lineup, and one of the consistently great traditional Riojas. It is also very pricey by Rioja standards -- the latest vintage, 1995, sells for an average of $140 in the U.S.

The 1995 is composed of 96 percent Tempranillo, 3 percent Graciano and 1 percent Mazuelo. It's a terrific wine, redolent of incense and sweet tobacco, and showing dried black fruits and tobacco on the palate, with a long finish. It was aged six years in cask and bottled in July 2002.

Gran Reservas

In 1904, Alfredo Ardanza, one of the winery's founders and also owner of Bodega Ardanza, proposed a merger of the two companies. To commemorate the merger, a new wine, the Reserva 1904 was offered. It is now called Gran Reserva 904. It is typically 90 percent Tempranillo and 10 percent Graciano. It is aged four years in barrel and thought to be the longest-lived wine they make. Both it and the Gran Reserva 890 are under 13 percent alcohol. The current vintage is 1998, and it sells for an average of $49 in the U.S.

The Viña Ardanza bottling, which is named for one of the winery's founding families and which comes in a Burgundy shaped bottle, was created in 1942 and originally aged in oak 42 months, though this has now been cut to 36 months. It contains 20 percent Garnacha. The 2004 is the latest version of this wine, and it doesn't appear to be available yet in this country. The 2001 version, which we also tried, is classified as a "Reserva Especial," which has only happened twice before, in '64 and '73. It is quite good and available at a number of U.S. retailers for an average of $33.

The lesser wines in the La Rioja Alta stable include the Viña Arana Reserva (95 percent Tempranillo, 5 percent Mazuelo, aged three years in neutral American oak) and the Viña Alberdi (100 percent Tempranillo, aged two years in American oak). They also produce another Rioja wine under the Torre de Oña label, from a bodega in which they purchased a controlling ownership in 1995, located in the Rioja Alavesa region. These wines are more in a modern style, with less oak aging. They also produce a white wine, 100 percent Albariño, from a winery they acquired in Rias Baixas -- Lagar de Cervera. And in the early '90s they acquired vineyards in Ribera del Duera from which they are producing wines under the Bodegas Áster label.

The real stars, though, at La Rioja Alta are the traditional style wines they have been making for decades -- the two Gran Reservas and the Viña Ardanza.

For my detailed tasting notes on the wines we sampled at the winery, see the complete post on my blog here.