The wines of La Rioja Alta, Rioja, Spain
Part 2 of a series based on a visit to Rioja


Inside the Labastida winery

La Rioja Alta is one of the key wineries in the region, based in Haro, the heart of the region. Haro is home to many of the classic Rioja producers, such as Viña Tondonia, Muga, Cune, Roda and Bilbanas. Indeed, if you visited the town you could do a proper Rioja crawl.

I visited both the Haro facility, which is now mainly used to store barrels, and also the newer Labastida winery where the wines are made, built in 1996.  

Freshly harvested grapes

Rioja Alta began life in 1890, when much of France’s vineyard area was ravaged by phylloxera. This was the moment of opportunity for Rioja, and much of its success was achieved through the gap in the market that the devastation that phylloxera caused in Bordeaux.  

Unusually in the region, Rioja Alta is a major vineyard owner, with 360 hectares of vineyards, although their production is large enough to necessitate buying in further grapes. However, unlike most Rioja producers, they are almost self-sufficient, and buy in only varieties such as Mazuelo or Graciano which they are short of.    

Barrel making facility

Since 2002 the company have reverted to the old practice of making all their barrels themselves, from American oak dried for two years. After all, they need a lot of them. At the time of visiting, some 43 000 barrels were filled with wine in the large barrel halls at the Haro and Labastida wineries. These barrels are filled, sealed and then racked twice a year. In between they aren’t topped up or tasted, like they would be in a typical boutique winery. This would be just too much work.  

It’s interesting to see the racking process in action. It is done by hand, using gravity. Each barrel has a hole on the end piece, into which a tap is banged. The clean barrel is placed underneath, and the wine poured into it via a splashing plate that collects and aerates the wine. The smell of sulphur dioxide from the receiving barrel is quite overpowering.  

Rioja Alta position themselves as a traditional Rioja winery. ‘Rioja has a bit of everything,’ says winemaker Julio Sáenz. ‘You can find very classic wines, modern wines, single vineyard wines.’ He feels that for a while Rioja was losing its character, because of the influence of Parker, and the emphasis on ripe, sweet, dense, concentrated wines.  ‘Our place on the map is to be more Rioja than ever,’ he states.

Julio Saenz, winemaker

And Rioja Alta succeeds in making high-quality, traditional Rioja wines. These are not flashy wines in the modern mould, but they are benchmark examples of the typical Rioja style, with real complexity and interest.  


These wines are imported into the UK by Armit

Barón de Oña 2005 Rioja  
This winery was purchased in 1995 and it took Rioja Alta a while to work out what they wanted to do with it. The wine is aged in a mix of French (50%), American (35%) and Caucasian (15%) oak. Sweet, smooth, ripe and rounded with berry fruits, as well as some dense savoury spiciness. Nice fruit intensity and savoury, spicy structure. 90/100

Marqués de Haro 2005  
An experimental wine, made with Tempranillo (85%) and Graciano (15%) aged in French oak. Open berry and cherry fruit with some spice and mineral notes. Nicely savoury with good density and freshness. A savoury style: not showy, nicely balanced. 89/100

Viña Alberdi 2003  
This was a hot year and the only Alta wine made was this. Sweet, open, ripe nose. The palate is sweet, ripe and berryish with some jamminess. A bit of firm structure underlies the juicy fruit. It’s quite appealing in an older-fashioned style. 89/100 (£17.95)

Viña Alberdi 2005  
Spicy, earthy, quite dense, mineral with freshness and bright berry and cherry fruit. Nice grippy tannins. It’s a traditional style, but done very well with complex earth and mineral characters. 91/100

Viña Arana 2001  
Julio says that the Arana is typical of the Rioja Alta, in that it’s quite light with relatively low alcohol. ‘Unfortunately, this is a style that is disappearing,’ he says. It has Mazuelo in it, a variety that’s not easy to grow because it needs a slow maturation. It brings elegant acidity when it has a good year, and helps fix the colour. It’s also relatively low in alcohol. This wine has nice sweet aromatics of cherries and herbs with subtle vanilla. The palate is elegant with notes of cherries and minerals as well as herb and spice notes and a warm tarry edge. A classic Rioja, done well. 92/100 (£21.95)

Viña Ardanza 2000  
This spends three years in American oak. Quite dense, firm and spicy with tannic structure and fresh acidity, as well as notes of tar and spice. Brooding, savoury dark cherry aromatics with spice and meaty notes, as well as subtle earthiness. Stylish, substantial and savoury. 92/100

Viña Ardanza 2001  
A great vintage, comparable to 1964 and 1973. Brooding dark cherry and plum nose with subtle earth and spice notes. Smooth and ripe with some minerality. The palate is really fresh and lively with plum and cherry fruit as well as spice and mineral. Distinctly savoury and complex. 94/100

Gran Reserva 904 1997
Four years in oak. Beautifully aromatic: ripe and sweet with stewed plum and dark cherry nose. Very ripe with appealing notes of tar and sweet herbs and spices. The palate is complex and fresh with herbs, tar and spice notes as well as lovely complexity. Mature and delicious. 94/100 (£35.70)

Gran Reserva 890 1995  
Named after the year Rioja Alta was founded (1890), this spends six years in oak. Aromatic nose with sweet herbs, tar and fruit, coupled with taut spice and mineral notes. The palate is dense and focused with nice tannic structure, as well as wonderful spice and earth complexity. Meat, herbs and spices here. Quite lovely with real complexity and potential for further development. 95/100 (£100)

Wines tasted 10/10  
Find these wines with

Part 1, Finca Allende
Part 2, La Rioja Alta
Part 3, Valdemar
Part 4, Bodegas Riojanas
Part 5, Remirez de Ganuza
Part 6, Ontañón

see also: Photographs from La Rioja Alta 

See a film based on this visit:



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