Remarkable aging of wines made from the Tempranillo grape variety

As a group of friends gathered to celebrate a special 50and anniversary in the first month of 2020, before Covid took over the world, anticipation of a 50-year-old wine about to be poured began to build within the group. The wine would be poured blind and the only clues were that it dated from 1970 and was obviously garnet red. The extraordinarily complex nose made one of the friends cry, “Pomerol!” as he remembered that the 70s Château Trotanoy, a Bordeaux Rive Droite located in the commune of Pomerol, was still magnificent but another friend noted that the ethereal and enchanting delicacy of the wine would suggest a Barolo from Piedmont, Italy, and maybe a great producer like Conterno added the friend; but another suggested Chappellet from Napa Valley with high-altitude vineyards in Pritchard Hill and she recalled that their 1970s bottlings had been showing very well recently.

Evidently many had done their homework by scouring the internet for bottlings from 1970 that were still in pristine condition before attending this festive celebration of life, as well as researching their own notes of wines older than they had been tasting for the past five years or so.

But the birthday boy who poured the wine smiled and said no one was close as neither the main variety nor even the country was guessed and he removed the paper bag disguising the bottle to reveal to shock everyone that it was a bottle of La Rioja from Spain; but not just any bottle of Rioja, it was a CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva which contained over 80% Tempranillo and the rest, most likely, being other local Spanish varieties commonly used in Rioja such as Graciano and Mazuelo.

Tempranillo in Rioja and Ribera del Duero

The Rioja wine appellation has done a spectacular job of introducing the world to the incredible Spanish Tempranillo grape variety that makes up the majority, sometimes 100%, of a Rioja red wine. But because the tannins of the Tempranillo grape can often seem well-integrated without too many harsh edges, combined with its moderate acidity, it is a wine that can be fully enjoyed young, whether Rioja ‘Joven’ wines see very little oak and displays the beauty of the red fruit of the grape or enjoyed older like a Gran Reserva Rioja wine which requires at least 60 months of aging (barrel and bottle combination) before it can be released to market and display the multilevel complexity of aromas and flavors that many would consider to be at their peak.

But even though the highest categories of wines such as Rioja Reserva and Gran Reserva have certainly become known and appreciated around the world over the past few decades, as they are advanced ready-to-drink wines, when it comes to acquire extremely older wines or keep them. for 20 years or more, Rioja and its Tempranillo grape have not topped the list of wines thought to make great old bones that would age gracefully into 50 years.

But these collectors of great wines from Spain know better – they know that a great vintage of CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva or Viña Real Gran Reserva can stand up to any great wine from Bordeaux, Barolo or Napa when it comes to to age gracefully for many, many decades. The grape varieties that dominate the top of the list of these wines renowned for their great longevity certainly start first with Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the wines dominated by Merlot in particular from Pomerol and of course the king of Italian grape varieties – Nebbiolo just behind – but there are still many wine drinkers around the world who don’t know the full power of Tempranillo.

CVNE’s fifth-generation CEO and family owner, Victor Urrutia, described Tempranillo as a “variety well suited to aging” and his opinion is rooted in the fact that his family has been making wines in Rioja since the “early the 20and century” that have stood the test of time. But the ability of Tempranillo to last a long time also depends on the health of the vines, the vineyards, the way the grapes are harvested as well as everything that happens in the cellars, according to Victor. CVNE is well known for having the best vineyards in Rioja and Victor has particularly drawn attention to their high altitude limestone based vineyards which are dry grown when it comes to growing high quality Tempranillo.

Victor explained that their Rioja wines which come from the heart of the village of Haro in the northern Rioja Alta region (one of the three areas of the Rioja wine region) tend to have a “leaner edge, more acid and lighter body” and overall they tend to be more “classic” Rioja wines; the Imperial CVNE is a good example. But another area called Rioja Alavesa “is more diverse” in the range of styles, as Victor explains, and in recent times there has been a range of producers producing “excellent wines from specific vineyards”. In general, he notes that the best wines from Rioja Alavesa are “more full-bodied” which generally have more “power”; and thus its CVNE Viña Real and Viñedos del Contino wines, located in Rioja Alavesa, are the other facet of the great Rioja.

The visionary and general manager of the legendary Vega Sicilia in Ribera del Duero (the other house of Tempranillo), Pablo Álvarez, spoke about his love for the Tempranillo grape saying: “It is an exceptional variety and for us the best variety in the world when it is ripened perfectly. But Ribera del Duero, which is about 200 km southwest of Rioja, has more extreme climatic conditions and intense temperature variations, where the risk of frost is much higher, produces grapes from the best vineyards in Tempranillo which have an incredible combination of concentration, structure and acidity which gives the wines great longevity. The famous “Unico” of Vega Sicilia which today is made up of 95% Tempranillo (called Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero) is generally released after ten years of aging in barrels and in bottles; although in the past, for example the 1970 vintage, there was less Tempranillo in the blend – although still 70% dominant – it was more about Pablo over time discovering how to get the most out of it Tempranillo vines on the Vega Sicilia estate so that he can increase his percentage in the blend. Unico has certainly won over many Bordeaux wine collectors and is considered one of the greatest wines in the world, not just Spain.

Although Pablo produces one of the most famous Tempranillo-dominant wines in the fine wine world, he is still fascinated by other areas of Spain such as the classic Rioja wine region and he also owns a winery called Macan in the northeast area of ​​Rioja Alta, near the foothills of the Sierra Cantabria mountains; Pablo loves the subtle nuances and overall elegance of their Macán estate which produces 100% Tempranillo wines. He’s still discovering what the vineyards are capable of and the different methods the winery uses to best express the terroir, but he’s excited about the future of these wines and the different kinds of greatness that Macán will be able to express.

But even a producer known for his high-value tempranillo in Rioja understands that it’s important to remind the world of the incredible aging ability of his classic house’s grapes to have true respect for its potential; and so Bodegas Montecillo, the third oldest winery in La Rioja at over 150 years old celebrated its 150and anniversary in 2020 by releasing bottles of a special 150and anniversary edition Gran Reserva of the 2005 vintage as well as recent bottlings of 1973, 1982, 1994 and 2001. Since their wines are widely known to over-deliver for their modest price, one tends not to consider their aging potential. Montecillo winemaker Mercedes García Rupérez explained that making wines built for aging has always been a priority in the winery from the very beginning, which is best represented by their 19and– century winery that has bottles of Montecillo that date back to 1926; yet when a producer repeatedly appears on top wine magazines’ “best value” lists, it’s easy to see how the aging ability of their highest quality wines is overlooked.

Surrender to what you’re meant to be

“It’s otherworldly…a world that values ​​quiet beauty and subtle complexity that requires being very still to truly understand its power,” noted the woman who tasted the blind CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja 1970. Once she discovered that it came from a wine region and a grape variety considered not to be equal to Bordeaux or Barolo in its tenacity to thrive for many decades, its face lit up with a big smile. Yes, Tempranillo doesn’t naturally have the harshness of rough tannic structure or fierce acidity in its relative youth that would traditionally be considered an ideal wine for the cellar, but that’s what makes it so heavenly because it does not pronounce his superiority loud and clear but on the contrary he comes with humility and generosity at each stage of his life.

It made this woman smile because it just reaffirmed that you have to stay true to yourself no matter how liked by the outside world because all she needed was one person in an instant to recognize her incredible potential beyond her sweet, kind face – because losing that sweetness wasn’t an option. As at that moment she fully recognized the power of Tempranillo in that glass…a glass of wine that fully allowed the world to see what it was and where it came from without trying to be anything other than what it’s supposed to be.

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