My guess is that the average FT-reading wine lover thinks of Cabernet Sauvignon as the grape that makes the longest-living reds in the world (there might be the odd vote for Nebbiolo). Think again. Spain’s most-revered grape, Tempranillo, is very possibly the strongest candidate. You may see the name on supermarket bottles costing as little as £5 because Tempranillo dominates Spain’s red wine grapes with more than 40 per cent of plantings. But the best examples can last for decades and arguably longer than most red bordeaux.
My eyes were opened to the longevity of the finest Tempranillo-based wines 11 years ago at a tasting organised by Spanish wine lovers Luis Gutiérrez and Jesús Barquín. They brought red riojas spanning from 1945 to 1982 over to the London flat of the editor of the World of Fine Wine, Neil Beckett, along with some even older whites. Tempranillo has long provided the backbone to all but a handful of red riojas, although the Garnacha that plays a minor role in Rioja is enjoying a modest resurgence.
Most of the best of these red riojas were made by CVNE, Lopéz de Heredia, La Rioja Alta and Marqués de Riscal, which famously still has copious stocks of its 1945. I wrote an article about this revelatory tasting, entitled “The most inspiring tasting ever”, and promptly appointed Gutiérrez the Spanish specialist on my website.
He has moved on now, though we met up again this month at an event that further bolstered my Tempranillo-trumps-Cabernet thesis. But before we got down to the tasting, he reminded me that, apparently, after that rioja tasting 11 years ago, I’d said I’d love to compare fine red bordeaux with riojas of the same, very mature vintages.
This planted the seed for an event last November: a tasting at Catalan fine wine merchants Grau of a dazzling array of 1947s from both Bordeaux and Rioja. (I couldn’t attend unfortunately.) This is a wildly famous Bordeaux vintage with Ch Cheval Blanc 1947 acknowledged as one of the greatest wines of all time. Gutiérrez reported with glee that, although all of Bordeaux’s most famous 1947s were in the tasting, the wines that shone most brightly were two riojas.
The most recent proof of Tempranillo’s superior ageing potential was also exhibited in Catalonia, at the world-famous El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Girona. And this time the venerable Tempranillos were not from Rioja but from Spain’s other great red wine region, Ribera del Duero on the banks of the river known as the Douro over the Portuguese border to the west.
Pablo Àlvarez, owner of the iconic (and for once that word is appropriate) Vega Sicilia, wanted to celebrate 40 years of stewardship of this emblematic Ribera del Duero estate founded in the 1860s. Wine writers from all over the world were invited to the Roca brothers’ calm temple of creative gastronomy to taste all of the previous 40 vintages of its most famous wine, Vega Sicilia Unico.
And this was not just any collection of bottles amassed from cellars around the world. All wines were presented in magnums direct from the estate’s cellars, from the next vintage 2014 back to 1960.
No Unico was made in 2001, 1997, 1993, 1992, 1988, 1984, 1978, 1977, 1971 or 1967 because the wine was not deemed good enough, so these are good years to head for Unico’s less expensive stablemate Valbuena 5°, into which the rejected wine will have been blended. The 2013 vintage of Valbuena 5°, incidentally, retails at £100, about a quarter of the price of a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico 2013.
Vega Sicilia is exceptional, and not just for being the pioneer of a whole wine region (one currently scarred by unwise investment in showy bricks and mortar rather than the vines to supply the raw material for these bodegas). The story of the Álvarez family, which acquired this ancient estate in 1982, has been one of constant investment and improvement in cellars and, especially, vineyards, but it has not dramatically changed the winemaking recipe. Vega Sicilia Unico is still one of the longest-aged wines before release, typically at about 10 years, after alternating between many months in large, carefully maintained wooden vats, then in part-new barrels, and then back in the large vats for a year or two before spending time in bottle. Ribera del Duero is basically a high plateau, its cool nights resulting in notable colour, acidity and tannins that need time to soften.
Only a crack service team, such as the one managed by the brother in charge of wine, Josep Roca, could have managed to pour all these wines so seamlessly, almost invisibly, for 37 of us. We were seated at several round tables, with double chevrons of usefully vintage-labelled Riedel Cabernet/Merlot glasses at each place. I was told that seven sommeliers and 17 waiters ensured that all these wines and, with the second half of the tasting, nine incredibly inventive dishes from Joan and Jordi Roca’s kitchens, were in the right place at the right time so that we could concentrate on doing justice to the wines with our notes.
Because these wines were up to 60 years old, some disappointments were to be expected, but there were remarkably few. The estate had sent two magnums just to be sure and the back-up 1972 had to be opened because the cork let down the wine in the first one. Both magnums of 1968 opened in the morning session were rejected as the wine in one bottle was oxidised and in the other it was corked.
Some measure of the attention to detail from the organisers came near the end of the afternoon session when a bottle of 1968 suddenly appeared. Apparently the Vega Sicilia team had rung round clients they thought might just be able to provide one and this bottle was solemnly driven 100 kilometres from one of the Vila Viniteca wine shops in Barcelona to ensure that we did indeed taste exactly 40 vintages.
Most of the youngest vintages, though impressive, are far from ready. But the 2010 is already glorious, as is the 2004 (though this particular vintage does contain a high proportion of Cabernet, 13 per cent, along with the Tempranillo known as Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero) and the 2003 (less affected by that year’s heatwave than most French wines).
Many of the wines made in the 1980s and 1990s are simply beautiful now. But the real stars that outshone red bordeaux from the same vintages in their quality and still with potential for further development were 1979, 1975, 1973, 1970 and an extraordinary 1965 that still has another 10 years to go by my reckoning.
Though I don’t guarantee that any of them will last 60 years . ..
Tanners Spanish Reserva 2017 La Mancha 13.5%
CVNE Reserva 2016 Rioja 13.5%
£13.95 ND John of Wales, £14.99 The Surrey Wine Cellar
Artuke, Finca de los Locos 2017 Rioja 14%
£95 for six in bond Justerini & Brooks
Basconcillos, Viña Magna 2020 14.5%
Tentenublo 2019 Rioja 14.5%
£17.95 Lea & Sandeman
Pujanza, Valdepoleo 2017 Rioja 14.5%
£18.21 (usually £23) Roberson
Contino Reserva 2017 Rioja 14%
Many stockists including £18.69 de Burgh of Scotland, and £25 Tesco
Finca Allende 2014 Rioja 13.5%
£22.35 Vinum, £26.95 Wine & Greene
Aalto 2018 Ribera del Duero 14.5%
£28.35 Vinum, £30 Focus Wines, £83.35 magnum
Telmo Rodriguez, Lanzaga 2017 Rioja 14%
£31 Highbury Vintners
Lopéz de Heredia, Viña Bosconia Reserva 2010 Rioja 13.5%
£33 Berry Bros & Rudd
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More stockists from Wine-searcher.com
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