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Old Rioja is a considerable bargain in the wine world (although maybe not for much longer). Prices of back vintages from classical Rioja producers such as CVNE, La Rioja Alta, and López de Heredia have risen dramatically in the past several years, reflecting wine drinkers’ realizations of their underlying quality. But there are a slew of other Rioja producers whose wines remain under the radar and remarkably affordable.
At a recent tasting of many bottles from the 1970s and 1980s, I couldn't help but delight at their remarkably consistent quality, but also how well they've aged (not only the gran reservas, but also the entry-level crianzas). And even I was surprised by how well these lesser-known Riojas stacked against more prominent ones in the tasting: a 1970 Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva and a 1970 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva!
The wines of Bodegas Montecillo (based in La Rioja Alta) were consistent crowd pleasers (gran reservas from 1987, 1982, and 1981, and a remarkably fresh 1973 crianza). And a bright and lively 1971 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Etiqueta Blanca further proved the maxim that a quality-oriented producer often triumphs over a challenging vintage.
And fans of wine with age: these are ready-to-drink straight from the bottle, especially those from the 1970s! Jonas Mendoza
NB: The following reference books were invaluable in writing this article, and are excellent material for additional information on these and other Rioja producers: The Wines of Rioja (John Radford) and Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain (Jesus Barquin, Luis Gutierrez, and Victor de La Serna).
Bodegas Montecillo doesn’t own any vineyards (a business decision made by the Osborne family in the early 1970s), but sources excellent Tempranillo grapes from across the Rioja Alta region to make its wine. The winemaker Maria Martinez-Sierra has been at the helm for nearly 40 years, and her Riojas continue to impress with their consistent quality. The 1987 Montecillo Gran Reserva immediately asserts with savory flavors of smoked meat, tobacco, and leather, along with burnt cherry and dill undertones. This wine has considerable structure, not only a function of the winery’s dedicated onsite cooperage but also their use of traditional Bordeaux winemaking methods. This is another 1987 Rioja that’s fully mature, but stands to improve with several hours in the glass. Jonas Mendoza
Bodegas Montecillo was established in 1874 under the name "Hijos de Celestino Najavas" (by the sons of Celestino Najavas) and renamed in 1947 after Montecillo, a hill outside of Fuenmayor (Rioja Alta). Having studied in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the sons implemented modern French customs and techniques (e.g. tasting rooms, cooling equipment) in the pursuit of quality wine. In 1973, Osborne Wines purchased Montecillo and sold all of its vineyards. Maria Martinez-Sierra arrived in 1976 to take charge of winemaking. She is an advocate of chemical-free farming and restrained, classically-styled wines. Her 1982 has many years ahead, firm and layered, with dark, spicy cherries, raspberry patch, herbal garrigue, wild flowers, and rich black earth. Ariana Rolich
The 1981 Montecillo Gran Reserva was among the more powerful and forward of the older Riojas that we tasted from the 1970s and 1980s. With a deep brick red hue, the nose becomes quickly enveloped with deeply savory burnt tobacco and meaty notes. After about an hour in the glass, the palate becomes more fruit-driven with strawberry compote and wild blackberries, underlied by leather and sweet spices of clove and cinnamon. Medium bodied, the tannins are well-integrated, and the acidity drives both the savory and fruit flavors toward a graceful finish. This wine is ready to drink now: pair this with Manchego or simple preparations of lamb or beef. Andy Paynter
Bodegas Montecillo was established in 1874 under the name "Hijos de Celestino Najavas" by the sons of Celestino Najavas, and renamed in 1947 after Montecillo, a hill outside of Fuenmayor (Rioja Alta). Having studied in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the sons implemented modern French customs and techniques (tasting rooms, cooling equipment) in the pursuit of quality wine. In 1973, Osborne Wines purchased Montecillo and sold all of its vineyards. The 1973 is fully mature, with a delicate build, plenty of acidity, cedar, gently spicy berry fruit, and ferrous earth. Ariana Rolich
Marqués de Murrieta is named after Luciano de Murrieta, who established the estate in 1852, and is one of the founding fathers of modern Rioja winemaking. The winery is located near the southern tip of La Rioja Alta, nestled in the middle of the beautiful Ygay Estate. We often remark that producer trumps vintage, and for a year that the Consejo Regulador has euphemistically deemed “Average” (their lowest rating), the Etiqueta Blanca more than transcends this lowly year (the last time they deemed an vintage was “Average” 1972). The 1971 is fresh and lively, with blood orange and dried red cherry aromatics; the palate dances with riper red cherries and dried herbs on the palate. A mature Rioja, but still has quite a few more years ahead of it. Jonas Mendoza
The wine brand Marqués de Arienzo was created in the mid-1980s after the House of Domecq (one of Spain’s oldest winemakers) decided to build a winery in Rioja in the 1970s. Arienzo was the second effort by the company to launch a Rioja brand; it became both a commercial success within Spain and internationally. Domecq was later purchased in 2005 by the French group Pernod-Ricard; the Rioja winery, vineyards, and brand name were subsequently divested in 2010 to Bodegas Muriel and Herederos del Marqués de Riscal. With a brick red hue, this fully mature Rioja entices with dried cherry fruit and herb flavors, along with subtle hints of roasted meat, dill seeds, and balsamic. This wine will benefit from decanting, and stands to improve after several hours of opening. Jonas Mendoza
At the end of the 1960s, the Líbano family bought a castle in Sajazarra (in the most northern part of La Rioja Alta) in order to rebuild it and make their home there. They started making wine inside the castle for their own consumption, but later expanded. The new winery was built in 1973 (within the castle’s gardens); all of the nearly 50ha of vineyards are owned and cultivated by the winery. 1982 was a remarkable vintage in Rioja (one of only 10 vintages deemed “Excellent” by the Consejo Regulador in the past 50 years). The Libano Rioja shows astonishingly bright red cherry fruit for a more than 30-year old Reserva on the palate, rounded out along with mature flavors of hoisin and celery stalk. A Rioja for immediate consumption. Jonas Mendoza
Founded in 1894, Bodegas Palacio is a more-than-hundred year old winery located in the heart of the Rioja Alavesa. Glorioso was their first label, dating back to 1928. Michel Rolland started consulting for the winery in the early 80’s, so this vintage represents some of the last traditionally styled Riojas the winery made. With bold flavors of stewed red cherry and cherry tomato, savory dried herbs, and smoky undertones, this is mature Rioja to enjoy for immediate consumption. Jonas Mendoza
Bodegas Palacio was established by Bilbao businessman and politician Cosme Palacio, his brother Manuel, and father Angel, in Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa) in 1894. In The Wines of Rioja, John Radford tells a fascinating history: "This was not a good time in Rioja: no sooner had Cosme established his business than the phylloxera louse appeared and proceeded to decimate the vineyards. Some bodegas laid down and died, others fought the plague with every new idea at their disposal. Cosme's reaction was atypical: he simply moved his operation to Valladolid in Castile-Leon (where phylloxera would not strike for several years more), rented a bodega, and hired a promising young winemaker by the name of Txomin Garramiola to make a wine in the Rioja style, until he could return to Rioja. Txomin went on to make a wine called Vega Sicilia in 1915, and the region became the DO Ribera del Duero in 1982..." The bodega has changed hands a number of times since its initial sale in 1972, but the Glorioso lineup that was first bottled in 1928 persists to this day. The 1978 Reserva is 100% Tempranillo with a delicate floral and botanical nose, elegant tannins, and flavors of brambly purple fruit, savory chestnut meat, and salty earth. Ariana Rolich
True to its name, Bodegas Franco-Espanolas was founded in 1890 by a Bordeaux wine merchant with French and Spanish investors. Sold in 1973 to a large conglomerate, the Franco-Espanolas label persists to this day. Bottlings from the 1960s and '70s have been very popular with our Rioja-loving clientele and tend not to need much air. The 1975 Bordon is fresh and alive, with strawberry and tomato aromas, and flavors of tart red berries, green herbs, lemon-lime zests, and vegetal rhubarb with hints of sweet smoke. Ariana Rolich
Franco-Espanolas has long offered two premium lines of wine. “Royal” is the lighter bodied, more Burgundian style Rioja; “Bordon” is the more robust, tannic, and Bordeaux-inspired one. Despite being only a Crianza, the 1973 Rioja Bordon Crianza has aged remarkably (one could say astonishingly) well, and will please any lover of old-wine straight from the bottle. Full of brambly black cherry fruit, this full-bodied Bordon rounds out the palate with chocolate, carob, meaty, and savory flavors, while framed by finely grained tannins. Jonas Mendoza
Bodegas Berberana was founded in 1877 by the Martinez Berberana family, who ran the winery in its original location in Ollauri (Rioja Alta) for 90 years until its sale in 1967. It was sold once again in 1975, after which production expanded significantly. Researching blends is difficult for wines of this era, though it appears likely that this crianza has some Garnacha and Mazuelo in addition to Tempranillo. Silky and supple, this graciously mature vintage has lovely black cherry fruit and skin flavors, with delicate undertones of hoisin sauce and salty plum. The tannins have softly matured, allowing the intrinsic acidity to shine. A great example from this excellent Rioja vintage. Ariana Rolich/Jonas Mendoza