Special moments and special bottles: La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva 2001

It seems odd to post about special bottles in back to back entries, but it just so happened that everything came together at once this month. Two years ago I bought two very special bottles of Rioja from my favourite Bodega in the region, La Rioja Alta. The wines are the 890 Gran Reserva range from 2001, the pinnacle of the winery and benchmark wines for the whole region. The reason behind purchasing them was a bit whimsical; myself and my girlfriend had decided to start a family and I wanted to put something away to celebrate when the time came. The idea was to purchase two wines, one that I could open when my first child was born and the second on their 18th birthday and share with them. This requires a few criteria in order to work properly:

1. A wine that is approachable with a certain level of maturity yet that can continue to age and evolve gracefully for at least 2 decades.

2. Something that should stand out in the memory for its style, quality and, frankly, how delicous it is.

3. Ideally it shouldn’t bankrupt me!

La Rioja Alta have been my favourite produce in DOC Rioja for a long time now and in fact were the first taste of what I consider ‘real’ Rioja to be. I suppose I should explain that. When I first started taking an interest in wine, there was a strong anti-Rioja sentiment in Barcelona and that was a formative part of my first interactions with wine. With context, I can see that it wasn’t a dig at the quality of Rioja wines but more of a push for local Catalan wines to take prominence in the local wine scene, which makes a lot of sense in itself. This was, for myself at least, compounded by the fact the first Rioja wines I tried were…well… terrible. Cheap and flimsy wines bought from supermarkets and corner shops made it easy to write Rioja off, especially considering I was drinking good Catalan wines, wines from Ribera del Duero and Jumilla at the same time. With all the confidence that only comes from knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re talking about, I was able to proclaim ‘Oh yes, I don’t drink a lot of Rioja. Far too thin and oaky for me.” Enter: La Rioja Alta.

Founded in 1890 as a joint effort between 5 wine-making families, La Rioja Alta has gone on to become one of the most famous bodegas in DOC Rioja. Fiercely traditional and unwavering in style over the years, it has remained a relatively moderate size and focuses heavily on quality, opening newer bodegas in Rioja, Rias Baixas and Ribera del Duero to expand rather than risk any change in the original production. All wines produced here are red, aged for extended periods in American oak and the vast majority of grapes are produced on land owned by the winery itself. My first experience was the 904 Gran Reserva range, a single step below the 890, from 2001. The complexity of the nose and palate blew me away, and having been introduced through wines that were pushing 15% alcohol, the cooler profile and smoother tannic texture was a lovely surprise as well. I immediately went out to purchase more of their wines and became a fan by the end of the week. Their 890 Gran Reserva range is only made in certain vintages and sits as their flagship wine, the crème de la crème of traditional Rioja.

La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva, 2001

Beautiful brick-red colour with an orange hue at the rim and an absolutely overwhelming nose; dried, brambly red and black fruits, sandalwood, dill, vanilla, baking spices, tobacco, caramel and some savoury, leafy aromas. Very heady and concentrated if still quite young. Masses of flavour intensity, acidity and a long, long finish with already quite integrated and smooth tannins. Probably the best Rioja I’ve ever tried, beating both the 1995 and 1998 vintages I tried over the last year hands down. Not a cheap wine but worth the money and a real indication of just how remarkable good Rioja can be.

Of course, the entire reason I opened the bottle was to celebrate the birth of my son, Dante. I’m not going to go into any detail about the wonders of becoming a father, as I’ll probably never stop, other than to say my heart has never been quite so full of love. I bought these bottles with the intention of celebrating the birth of my first child, and so I have, but for all the beauty and magic in the glass, nothing quite compares to seeing his lovely little face in the morning. It’s 18 years until we open the second bottle; I can only hope he’s found a taste for good wine by then, as it should be in a glorious place. Here’s to the future, my son, and everything it brings.

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