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For Reservas, No Cellar Required


Evan Sklar for The New York Times


IT’S accepted wisdom today that most wine drinkers do not have the money, the storage space or the patience to wait years as their bottles age to maturity. Consumers expect wines to be ready, or at least enjoyable, immediately after they buy them.


That’s a marked departure from the old days, when it might never have occurred to our wine-loving forebears to pull the cork on, say, a decent Bordeaux before it was 12 or 15 years old. As a result, many producers around the world have altered their methods in an effort to make wines that are more accessible when young.


That’s not to say you can’t still find young wines that will give you a puckering mouthful of astringent tannins. Plenty are still out there, like Barolo. Even though people say Barolos are more approachable these days, I don’t enjoy them young. In fact, if you do have the money, the storage and the patience, many wines from all over the world will still benefit greatly from prolonged aging.


Nonetheless, most people today don’t want to take the trouble themselves, and while some restaurants will bear the burden of aging wines, they usually charge forbidding prices for their efforts.


Surely this state of affairs must leave more than a few wine lovers frustrated. Who among us would not like the opportunity to drink aged wines without paying a fortune or waiting them out? What about tonight?


May I humbly offer a happy solution: Rioja reservas.


These wines are not necessarily well aged before they are sold. By law, a Rioja can be labeled a reserva if it is aged for a minimum of three years (at least one in oak barrels) before it is released. In practice, you can find a lot of Rioja reservas in stores right now from the 2007 vintages; fresh, minimally aged young things, mostly.


Yet what’s exciting is that some Rioja producers are not bound by the minimal-aging standards for reservas. Bless their hearts, they go above and beyond what’s required. This means, happily, that in stores it’s not hard to find Rioja reservas that are more than 10 years old. These are current releases, and in the great scheme of things, they really don’t cost much at all; mostly $30 to $40, half of what you might pay for a mediocre Napa cabernet.


Recently, the wine panel tasted 20 Rioja reservas from a range of vintages that are available in stores. We found that the best wines by far were already well aged by the time we bought them, mostly from the 2001 vintage.


For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Ashley Santoro, the wine director at Casa Mono near Gramercy Park, and Victoria Levin, general manager of the Tangled Vine on the Upper West Side.


Rioja, of course, is not the only wine region with requirements for minimal aging. Montalcino, for one, requires brunellos to be aged four years before they can be released, five for brunello riservas. Yet even when brunellos are released, they generally need years of additional aging before they are really enjoyable.


Rioja is different. The old tradition was for producers to age the wines until they were ready to drink, well beyond the minimal requirements. Only a few wineries still offer this service. But judging from our tasting, the difference is clear. Our top four bottles were all well-aged reservas from producers who continue to perform this traditional practice.


No. 1 was the 2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza, a wine that right now is absolutely delicious, but is also so much more than that. With lightly spicy fruit flavors, mellowed by long aging in barrels of older American oak, it was a brilliant example of a classic Rioja, with complexity and finesse. The 2001 vintage is widely regarded as great, and the producer, La Rioja Alta, thought so highly of this wine that it called it Reserva Especial, only the third time one of its wines has earned that designation, along with 1964 and 1973.


Our No. 2 bottle was also a 2001, the Reserva Señorío de P. Peciña from Hermanos Peciña, a tangy, pure wine that offered more fruit power than the Viña Ardanza, if not so much complexity.


The next two bottles were both from R. López de Heredia, the great bastion of traditionally made Rioja. One, the 2001 Viña Tondonia, our No. 4 bottle, was still youthful. Its straightforward fruit flavors have years of evolution left. Right now, the wine is earthy and mellow if not yet exceedingly complex.


By contrast our No. 3 bottle, the Viña Bosconia, was from the 2003 vintage, an odd year marked by excessive heat across Europe. This wine shows no obvious sign of the vintage, though. It’s exceedingly delicate, which is unusual for a Bosconia, and lovely right now, but is unlikely to age as long as the Tondonia.


The remainder of our top 10 were all younger, two bottles each from ’04, ’05 and ’07, and these bottles were illuminating.


For years, Rioja wines demonstrated a stark divide between the traditional and the modern, which were characterized by an inky density and power, and the overt use of small barrels of French oak. You can still find those very modern wines, though you might be hard pressed to identify them as Rioja. But even the top modern wines in our tasting bore the characteristic flavors and textures of the region. It’s fair to say that now, instead of a yawning gap, you have a diversity of styles clearly identifiable as Rioja.


“I was expecting a lot of black and a lot of white, and I was excited to find so much gray,” Victoria said.


Among these examples were younger reservas like the ’07 Unica from Sierra Cantabria, which offered ripe, rich fruit flavors without being too dense or heavy, and the ’07 Muga, which had classic fruit and oak flavors but clearly needed a few years to achieve harmony.


Even aged Rioja reservas, in a way, are starter wines that merely suggest the ultimate expression of traditional Rioja, gran reservas. These wines must be aged for six years after the vintage and don’t come into their own until, as with young adults, their early 20s. But that’s another story, and it’ll be worth the wait.


Tasting Report


La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Ardanza, $34, *** ½
Reserva Especial 2001
Wonderfully complex yet mellow and balanced, with great finesse and flavors that linger. (Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y.)


Hermanos Peciña Rioja Reserva, $33, *** ½
Señorío de P. Peciña 2001
Powerful fruit aromas, rich yet fresh, tangy and very pure. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet, Richmond, Calif.)


R. López de Heredia Rioja Reserva, $33, ***
Viña Bosconia 2003
Delicate, subtle and true, with great balance and finesse. (Think Global Wines, Santa Barbara, Calif.)


R. López de Heredia Rioja Reserva, $44, ***
Viña Tondonia 2001
Earthy and mellow with lingering fruit flavors; still youthful. (Think Global Wines, Santa Barbara, Calif.)


Martínez Lacuesta Rioja Reserva, $40, ** ½
Powerful yet balanced with mellow flavors of spicy red fruit. (Spain Wine Collection, Congers, N.Y.)


Luís Cañas Rioja Reserva, $29, ** ½
Selección de la Familia 2004
Structured and richly textured with spicy fruit flavors. (Henriot Inc., N.Y.)


Sierra Cantabria Rioja, $27, ** ½
Reserva Unica 2007
Bright aromas of ripe red fruit, with an enticing texture and well-integrated oak. (Jorge Ordonnez/Tempranillo, New Rochelle, N.Y.)


Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva, $23, ** 

2005 **


Spicy, mellow and a touch herbal; pleasantly light.

Evan Sklar for The New York Times

Importer: Allied Beverage Group, Carlstadt, N.J.

Spicy, mellow and a touch herbal; pleasantly light. (Allied Beverage Group, Carlstadt, N.J.)


Muga Rioja Reserva, $27, **
Flavors of smoky fruit and oak, yet a trifle disjointed. (Jorge Ordonnez/Tempranillo, New Rochelle, N.Y.)


Ermita San Felices Rioja Reserva, $26, **
Straight to the point, with silky texture and flavors of red fruit and vanilla. (T. Edward Wines, N.Y.)



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