A friend discovers a treasure trove of old Riojas.

It was seven o’clock when my wife and I arrived at my friend’s house for dinner. Somewhat early by Gibraltar standards, but amongst wine friends we have evolved an early dining ritual, allowing several wines to be tasted with accompanying food and still able to get back to our respective homes by midnight at the latest. The following day is therefore not impinged unduly by the previous evening’s activities which would not be the case with a later start.

My friend, like me, is fairly predictable in wine choices and will always start proceedings with either Champagne or off-dry German Riesling. As usual we will make polite conversation about this and that until we are ready to go down to his dining room when he will ask what we think of the wine and if we have any idea what the wine is. Inevitably both Champagne and Riesling are fairly easy to identify, but when it comes to the year and producer it becomes a hopeless task. After this little ritual we will go down to dine and further wines will be served (mostly old Burgundies) and similar questions asked with the occasional lucky guess on our part as to grape variety or wine region.

On this particular occasion the ritual was broken and before we had finished our Champagne, my friend asked me to go down to his basement as he wanted to show me something. I assumed we were on our way to his wine cellar but it was not wine he wanted to show me, instead his PC which I noted was already switched on and ready to go. It turns out he had stumbled on a small auction house, unrelated to wine, but which was offering a large collection of very old Riojas. The wines from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, offered in single bottles, had very modest estimates with many no more than £20 per bottle. We decided that the wines numbering more than one hundred must have been put together by a keen collector who would have ensured that the wines would have been properly cellared. If they had been improperly stored the wines would be undrinkable and would need to be poured down the sink. The labels however seemed in good condition and levels of most of the wines seemed commensurate with their age. We decided no keen collector would sell such treasures for so little money and the person must have surely died with his or her wonderful collection put up for auction by a teetotal family member. There and then we placed our bids and several days later we were proud owners of several cases of very old Riojas. These included: Monte Real Reserva ‘50, ‘65 and ‘67; Monte Real Gran Reserva ‘70; Vina Albina Reserva ‘42 and ‘56; Cune Imperial Gran Reserva ‘46, ‘48 and ‘55; Cune Reserva Especial ‘51; Bod Berberana Gran Reserva ‘50; Bod Pomeral Gran Reserva ‘53; Rioja Alta Reserva 890 ‘62 and Bod Ramon Bilbao Vina Turzaballa Elaboracion Especial ‘66.

The wines we have tasted so far have turned out to be exceptional and we have decided to have a charity event where the best of the bunch will be opened. Each participant, including ourselves, will contribute £150 with all proceeds going to charity. I am sure whoever the original collector was would be delighted that his wines will, in the end, provide help for those in need.

I have always been a great fan of Rioja. For me traditional Riojas like Tondonia represent the best Spain produces. These wines are light in colour and are lean and complex. Very long-lived, which after several decades in a bottle can stand side by side with the very best wines of Burgundy. In fact, were it not for the obvious American oak taste of Riojas it would be hard to distinguish one from the other. Today’s consumers demand more approachable wines made in a modern style and which are darker in colour, heavier, fruit driven but, in the end, simpler wines.

Modern Riojas first made their appearance in the early 90s. Many people believe that the reason for this can be attributed to an American lawyer turned wine critic Robert Parker. Parker became interested in wine as a young man during a holiday in France, eventually giving up his legal business to start a publication which he called The Wine Advocate. His speciality was Bordeaux wines, and after tasting he would rate these out of 100 – a rating system then unknown. The US is a critical part of the Bordeaux wine trade and Parker managed to increase his followers to such an extent that his scores begun to dictate wine prices in Bordeaux. The proud Bordelaise were less than happy!

Parker became a kingmaker able to make or break producers who loved or reviled him depending on his scores. He seemed to like full-bodied, almost bombastic wines and his detractors complained that subtler, but still exceptional wines, were being penalised by Parker. Little by little wine producers started to change their wine styles hoping that Parker would give their wines a high score.

In the late 80s Parker tasted Pesquera, a then little-known producer in Ribera del Duero, Spain. He rated Pesquera above 90 points describing the wine as the Chateau Petrus of Spain, propelling the owner Alejandro Fernandez to stardom and riches! The rest is history, as they say, with Ribera exploding as a wine region to what it is today. Mostly unexciting, fruit-driven, heavy wines served in just about every restaurant and bar in Spain. Rioja producers however wanted in on the act and hoping for some Parker attention started to make wines which today are almost indistinguishable from Ribera wines.

Riojas potential for serious, world-class wines is enormous with ageing capability of traditionally made wines second to none. Regretfully the authorities there seem to want a homogenous, generic wine and will not allow individual vineyards to be identified and marketed as such. Good and bad wines are sold as Rioja without distinction with an emphasis on regional production volumes rather than quality. French producers no doubt hope that this will continue for a long time; after all, they don’t need any competition for their exalted Burgundies or their super expensive Bordeaux clarets.