Rioja Gran Reserva

A classification with balance and contrast


When it comes to Rioja, there are no finer wines than the Gran Reservas or the rare Gran Reserva Especials. While I have mentioned that this classification simply refers to the time the wine is required by law to spend in barrel and bottle before sale, the truth is that the vast majority of Rioja Bodegas are only willing to make this huge investment with a product that will pay off in the end.

By pay off I mean a product that can actually benefit from this lengthy ageing process. At their best, Gran Reservas are all about contrasts. They are paradoxical wines in many ways, combining the nature of Tempranillo that is accented with several other grapes with the influence of winemaking decisions.

Photo courtesy Marcel Theisen via Flickr/CC
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Start with the flavors, which bring together the contributions of the grapes (fresh fruit notes of cherry and raspberry with aged fruit elements such as dried orange peel) and those of the long oak ageing (vanilla, tobacco, spice and smoke). The combination of fresh and aged, sweet and savory is what Rioja Gran Reserva is all about. The long, careful ageing ensures that all elements are given the time to come into a natural balance.

About that balance, Gran Reservas often lose much of the chewy richness young Tempranillo can show, trading it in for silky elegance. Don’t be deceived by the immediate appeal these wines can offer. Buried under the complex fruit lurks a surprisingly stiff and age worthy structure that will ensure a long life for the vast majority of Gran Reservas. I recently enjoyed tasting through a set of 1970 Rioja Gran Reservas, only some of which showed well, yet all of which showed that same structural resilience.

This is not to say that all Gran Reservas are some magical elixir. There are woefully underperforming examples from Rioja just as there are wines that are being forced to assume the identity of something other than Rioja. I’m not sure which is worse, but fortunately I am comfortable with avoiding both! Instead, I’ve focused on the wines that I like, and in 2001 there are enough to go around.

With an average price right around $30 a bottle, these are not inexpensive wines, yet they really have no peers. Aged for years before release, coming from a brilliant vintage, offering so much both today and in the future, these are wines that I urge everyone to try. Buy them for tonight, buy them for your cellar, just do yourself a favor and buy them!

Read on for the notes on my favorite Rioja Gran Reservas.

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