La Rioja Alta Winery, Wine at Another Level
La Rioja Alta is one of the most reputable producers in the already extraordinary Rioja. The winery produces some of the most outstanding wines in the region and sets the bar high for its neighbors. With a vinous history of over 100 years, there’s no doubt La Rioja Alta has played a vital role in Rioja’s history. The estate still carries the torch of innovation and tradition well into the new century.
If you want to taste a well-aged Rioja and an authoritative expression of the warm wine region, Rioja Alta will not disappoint. Most importantly, if you need to restock your cellar with age-worthy wines, La Rioja Alta will provide years, if not decades, of utmost satisfaction — these wines can age!
Here’s all you need to know about La Rioja Alta, its history, technique, wine grapes and labels. Needless to say, you’re about to get to know some of the most outstanding red wines in Spain intimately.
The History of La Rioja Alta
La Rioja Alta started as a joint effort between five grape growers in Rioja. Daniel-Alfredo Ardanza, Saturnina Garcia Cid, Dionisio del Prado, Felipe Puig de la Bellacasa, and Mariano Lacorte Tapia teamed up to in 1890 and La Rioja Alta was born.
In 1904, the relatively new winery merged with another project owned by one of the founders, Alfredo Ardanza and La Rioja Alta became the winery we know today. These two dates are essential, as the winery’s wines are labeled after them. Since then, La Rioja Alta has produced wines under its own label but has also undertaken new ventures in other wine regions.
- In 1974, the brand Viña Arana was introduced.
- In 1976, the group released the Riojan Torre de Oña.
- In 1978, they released Viña Alberdi.
- In 1988 they acquired Lagar de Cervera in Galicia.
- In 1990 they released Áster in Ribera del Duero.
The group is far from over, as they continue to expand to new wine regions to produce wines at all price points and quality levels. La Rioja Alta is often featured in wine publications, and its wines are always on the Top Wine Lists globally.
La Rioja Alta takes its name from Rioja’s subregion with the same name, the highlands, where it sources most of its fruit. The winery owns several estates in the region, including its original winery in Haro and a big compound in Labastida, where they make and repair their own oak barrels.
Rioja is a prominent wine region in Spain. Along with Priorat DO, Rioja is one of the few appellations or “Denominaciones de Origen” designated as DOCa, or Qualified DO, the country’s highest distinction at an appellation level. La Rioja runs along the Ebro River, the only Spanish river leading to the Mediterranean in the East. The Mediterranean warm breeze makes its way along the valley carved by the river, tempering Rioja’s otherwise dry and warm climate.
Rioja is subdivided into Rioja Alta (upper Rioja), Rioja Alavesa, a small part of the highlands within the Basque Region, and Rioja Oriental, formerly Rioja Baja. The highlands have a more marginal climate with colder nights, while Rioja Oriental is warmer. The climatic difference within Rioja has always allowed winemakers in the area to blend grapes from different sites to achieve a better-rounded expression of the terroir.
Tempranillo is king in Rioja and thrives at higher altitudes. The grape takes its name from the Spanish word “Temprano,” as the varietal ripens early. Tempranillo vines produce inky, concentrated grapes with high tannins, medium alcohol and medium acidity. With such concentration, it’s easy to see why wines made with the grape age so well.
Other leading varieties include Garnacha, which thrives in the warmer lower valleys; Graciano, used for its tannins and color; and Mazuelo (Carignan), prized for its acidity. Although most wines in Rioja rely on Tempranillo’s structure and full body, the small additions of the other allowed grapes make Rioja unique.
Viticulture and Winemaking
La Rioja Alta currently owns 425 hectares of vineyards in Rioja, although their holdings are significantly more prominent if you consider the group’s other estates nationwide. Still, the group keeps its yields low, at around 5,000 kilos per hectare.
Like most other winemakers in Rioja, the winery blends Tempranillo with Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano in different proportions, but it doesn’t always use all the grapes in its blends. The blending tradition in the area was inherited from French winemakers from Bordeaux, who influenced the region greatly during the late 1800s during the phylloxera plague.
Although Tempranillo from the highlands is particularly coveted by winemakers, blending it with Tempranillo’s noble stable-mates, Garnacha and others, is not uncommon. La Rioja Alta Winery blends most of its wines as well, as it’s the norm. La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 usually consists of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano whereas the Gran Reserva 890 is made with Tempranillo and small amounts of Mazuelo. The final blends vary from vintage to vintage.
It’s worth mentioning La Rioja Alta makes its own barrels with American oak imported from the United States. The estate’s wines age for extended periods, notably influencing the wine’s organoleptic profile. La Rioja Alta combines tradition with technology. They monitor each bottle with a state-of-the-art 360° vision system, but they still rack all their wines by candlelight.
Although La Rioja Alta Group produces other wines besides La Rioja Alta, we’ll focus on the wines made in the original Riojan winery.
Gran Reserva 890. This wine is made with old-vine Tempranillo, vinified with 3% Graciano and blended with 2% Mazuelo. The wine spends six years in the estate’s own American oak barrels, and it’s racked ten times. The best barrels in the batch become the 890; usually, only around 230 barrels are used. The wine offers cherry jam aromas with tobacco leaf, undergrowth, oak spices and vanilla over persistent but powdery tannins. Very elegant.
Gran Reserva 904. This is a blend of Tempranillo with higher proportions of Graciano of around 10%. The wine spends three years in used American oak barrels, and it’s racked eight times during this period. Expect a fruit forward and spicy nose with silky tannins and an impressive length in the back-palate.
So many wines to enjoy. We couldn't list them all!
Daniel, from Del Duero Wines.