Rioja wines were one of the first wines that I was touted towards when I first started learning about wines, if I wasn’t going to have a Medoc. I mention this because, I had just read an article by Thomas Matthews in an article about Spanish wines in the Wine Spectator magazine. I remember that I became an early fan about Rioja wines.
Mr. Matthews wrote “In 1978, I was an aspiring novelist living in Grenada, in Andalucía…I often chose a red wine from Rioja that was sold in every corner store: Paternina Banda Azul…Back then, Riojas rarely displayed vintages. Instead they were labeled ‘3rd Ano’ or ‘5th Ano’ to indicate how long they had been aged before release.” This made me go and look up my early notes from my well dog-eared and falling apart book “The Signet Book of Wine” by Alexis Bespaloff (1971). Mr. Bespaloff wrote “Vintages in Rioja do not have the same significance as in some other countries. Rioja is often a blend of several years, and a date on the label – sometimes preceded by the word Cosecha, or vintage – might only be meant to indicate the wine’s relative standing among the grades marketed by that shipper. If a shipper has had success with the wine of a particular vintage, he may maintain that year on subsequent labels, using it as an indication of quality rather than as an accurate guide to age. Thus it is not impossible to find a young white wine the unlikely legend Reserva 1930.” Add to this another caveat by Hugh Johnson in his “The World Atlas of Wine” (1971); “Vintage years are treated lightly. If a vintage is stated it is a good one, even if there is no guarantee that all of the wine in the bottle was made that year. Among white wines look for the youngest, among red wines look for one ten years old or even more.”
While all of this information sounded quirky, it did not keep me from buying and tasting Rioja wines in my youth, especially because they were so affordable, even in a restaurant setting. That is why the second wine that I have in my scrapbook of wine labels is La Rioja Alta, S.A. Reserva 904 vintage 1959. Which leads me to Federico Paternina Banda Azul Ollauri vintage 1970, the first Rioja wine that I tried. Ollauri is a small town where the wine vaults for aging are held for the firm Federico Paternina. The Banda Azul was their labeled wine indicating that the wine was aged twelve months in Oak and then twelve months in bottle, before its release. Nowadays this wine would state “crianza” on the label, but that official designation was years later. This wine is the classic Rioja wine blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuela (Carignan) and Graciano. So you can see that some people refrained from Rioja wines, because of the writings of the day and it would make one scratch their head wondering what they were getting. I guess that I was rash and perhaps curious, so it never stopped me from trying the wines, and I still look forward to the next bottle of Rioja.