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This is not a conventional wine story. This is an ode to the great, traditional growths of Rioja that stand the test of time, unimpressed by fashions. Reflections by Carlos Delgado.

What about our classics? Those great Rioja growths that once founded the fame of Spain as a wine country, but which have been increasingly displaced over the past ten years by "modern" wines, dark, powerful wines that score the highest points in tastings? The question comes to me abruptly: I am chatting with Enrique Cortázar, with whom I have a long friendship, forged through large sips and long discussions about wine.

My latest discovery

Knowing that Enrique shares my love of music, I put on my latest discovery, the 7th Sonata by Beethoven - interpreted by Alfred Brendel. He should definitely listen to the second movement, almost nine minutes long and one of the most beautiful passages the brilliant composer ever put on paper. After the last notes have faded away, I offer my guest something to drink, something that fits this unique piece of music, is worthy of it. I open a bottle of Spanish red wine, one of the most highly rated wines of our time (whose sonorous name I wisely keep to myself), cited by myself countless times as a shining example of the wind of renewal that has been blowing through our wine landscape for some years now.

Enrique and I grasp the glass with a firm hand to check the wine against the light. Then we lower our noses indecently deep into the glass, we swirl and smell, once, again, penetrating right into the aromatic bowels of the dark liquid. Now we carefully take a small sip, let it roll around in our mouths, slowly and deliberately at first, then catapult it energetically against the palate with a precise flick of the tongue. A few more seconds, then we finally decide to swallow, enjoying every drop blissfully.

Have we lost sight of the unsophisticated consumer?

Up to this point, everything is perfect. The problem only comes to light when we discuss the matter animatedly for a while, leaving the glass to one side and not touching it again after that first sip. Worried, I take it again with my right hand and repeat the whole ceremony. Enrique joins me in silence. Swirling the glass, sniffing, slurping, tasting, swallowing. With renewed vigour we pick up our conversation, and again the wine remains untouched. What is going on here? Why can't this so highly praised drop be consumed with the lightness and cheerfulness that would be obvious given its fabulous qualities? Have we critics and spittoons lost sight of the uninitiated consumer who simply wants to enjoy the wine, extracting from it a range of aromatic and gustative impressions, but only for the purpose of being stimulated to drink more? I am convinced that the time has come to reclaim this hedonistic value that is the essence of every great wine. To go in search of wines that you want to drink to the end, unlike the "designer wines" conceived and created for tasting, unbearable condensates of pretentious attributes: Colour, concentration, body, fleshiness, tannin.

The story has a happy ending. I capitulate to the evidence that the supposed miracle wine has saturated us with only a few sips, and fall back on a red Rioja, of exceedingly classic cut, but vinified with sufficient mastery not to show the shortcomings of a misunderstood typicality. It is a '96 Viña Pomal, a wine released by Bodegas Bilbaínas to celebrate their 100th anniversary. A lesson in delicacy that envelops its firm structure, a prime example of harmony in the aromatic composition, velvety on the palate, with a pleasing progression that is only superficial in appearance, but in reality leaves a deep trail of delicate fruity flavour. It is the rediscovery of drinking pleasure - and the impetus for reflection: What is the state of our classics?

I could really only find the answer in one place: the station district of Haro. Because if anything symbolises Riojan classicism, it is the "barrio de la estación". There, to the left and right of the railway tracks, are grouped several wineries of the highest quality and prestige, houses that have made history and given Rioja splendour: CVNE, Bodegas Bilbaínas, López de Heredia-Viña Tondonia, Rioja Alta, Muga The wines they have been making for more than 100 years have set a precedent and become a model to be emulated throughout Spain. In the underground cellars of these bodegas lie wines that seem to enjoy the privilege of immortality, like the Imperial Gran Reserva from 1958, which still shows a surprising vivacity, an incredibly mellow palate and a whole concert of noble woods and spices. Equally indescribable is the experience of the 1969 Prado Enea: I am fascinated by the delicacy of its touch, moved by the supremely deep balance of the wine, which still whispers of the magic of its long ageing. Climbing the staircase of vintages, very few wines from 1985 can compete with the Viña Ardanza.

These are not wines that should or can or may be imitated, but witnesses from an era when wine-making was still an art that defied the flow of time. Today, the model is emaciated, a result of the Rioja wineries' urge to produce in response to the dizzying increase in demand; the wines have lost their "calves", as Isaac Muga would say, and instead of delicacy there is only emaciation, as in the case of those young romantics who once attained the opportune pallor by contracting a life-threatening anaemia - averse to any carnality.

Time moves in a spiral% and when you come back to the same point% it is always at a higher level.

It gets even worse when winemakers, chasing the latest trends and tastes, try to force the result, lapsing into excess. The result is irritating, and abundantly clear is the misjudgement of those who think that concentration can be achieved by "concentrators" that evaporate part of the water, because what these machines actually rob the wine of is its soul. Unforgivably, some growths that have to endure this are even praised as "terroir" wines. And what about the crazy alcohol levels in Tempranillo, which are only possible in Rioja when the grapes are harvested overripe? The result is pasty drops that run heavily down the throat.

Since Heraclitus we have known that the same river is always different and that without change there is no progress. And yet, on my journey to the station district of Haro, I feared that I might ultimately find only a sleepy classicism. For it is not the same to enjoy a well-preserved relic or to taste a young wine weighed down by too early age. Time moves in a spiral, and when you come back to the same point, it is always at a higher level. Everything else is standstill.

The first surprise comes from the hand of Isaac - his friends call him Isacín - Muga, whose shirt stretches over a bulging belly, outward proof that pleasure is not just theoretical here, but lived. Muga is not afraid to call a spade a spade, not even glossing over his weaknesses, he has clear ideas: "A Rioja must have buxom calves, it must not fall off the flesh so that it looks like a clarete, otherwise it loses all its qualities, but neither must the winemaker seek to achieve a fleshiness that bears no relation to the truth of the grape." His Prado Enea reveals a perfect evolution of taste without ever losing the classic cut that makes it so attractive. A tasting of the vintages 1969, 1973, 1976, 1981, 1987, 1991 and finally the latest 1995 bears witness to this evolution. For example, in the ageing, with oak that is now newer but at the same time more discreet than in the past, which allows the fruit to stand out on the nose, albeit wrapped up in a whole palette of developed aromas. I perceive the continuity best in the mouth, where the wine, more expressive in recent vintages, continues to show an enviable smoothness.

At López de Heredia-Viña Tondonia, I don't find the same effort to renew the wines, despite the fact that the bodega is run by a young, enthusiastic generation, headed by Marijose, but which seems to be forged in the classicism that made the house famous. Time seems to have stood still here. The winery still exudes the atmosphere of the turn of the century, as if the great-grandfather who once founded the house were jealously guarding his territory. It is the great-granddaughter, tiny and bubbly and suffering from verbal incontinence, who makes her thoroughly likeable, who keeps the blade of family tradition sharpened. In the gloomy underground cellar, we taste an excellent 1968 white, with an aromatic complexity as subtle as it is indecipherable. Then the reds from the 1964 and 1978 vintages, demonstrating what we already knew, that the wines of yesteryear can age for an incredibly long time, but always retaining their vitality.

Curious that the more recent vintages, namely the 85, give the impression of accelerated ageing, as if time was taking its toll even before time. It is a very personal wine, not a bit simple, and to appreciate it requires an intimate attachment to the house and its tradition. Is this just a phase? Perhaps. But what is certain is that it would behoove this renowned bodega to update its wines more, but not through adventurous transformation, but through natural evolution. Next to the façade of the house with its exotic oriental paint, weeds overgrow the old, rusting railway tracks on which no train has rolled for a long time. A metaphor that goes to the heart and is so cruel at the same time.

"Rioja wines have always been created through the art of combination% and we must not lose this tradition."

At the other end of the spectrum are Bodegas Bilbaínas, which, under the efficient direction of Pepe Hidalgo - creator of some of the best Spanish wines in different growing regions - and with the financial and distribution support of Codorníu, have purposefully renewed their historic brands. The best illustration is Viña Pomal, which in the 1997 vintage achieved a perfect balance between classicism and modernity. When it comes to modern wines, Hidalgo warns against the danger of "one-sided thinking" with a striving for concentration at all costs, which leads to such a homogenisation of the range that the growths eventually lose their original character. "When I order a Rioja, I like to drink a Rioja - preferably a good Rioja, of course, but above all a Rioja. That's why you can't use a crowbar." I like this philosophy, which approaches progress from the point of view of being true to the terroir.

I observe a more cautious change at La Rioja Alta. Guillermo Arranzábal shows visible satisfaction with the improvements he has introduced at the bodega, with particular attention to the experimental cellar, where new barriques made from different types of oak rest, inside them the traditional grape varieties, both varietal and blended. "Rioja wines have always been created through the art of combination, and we must not lose this tradition. Today it's about finding the ideal elements, respecting the origin and personality of each component."

Guillermo Arranzábal conveys certainty without dogmatism. He is like his wine, convincing through discretion, shying away from showmanship. Tasting different vintages of Viña Ardanza from 1970 to 1995, it becomes obvious that these red wines, elegant and round, could never prevail in a blind tasting. But beyond the first impression, they show a certain "something" that escapes logic. The '70, for example, to which the winery owes its fame, leaves an aromatic imprint full of magic and intensity despite all the incipient decadence; the '85, on the other hand, recites a whole catalogue of complexity that even includes mineral notes that are so uncommon in Rioja. These are the wines that have evolved under the influence of the trend towards "alta expresión", the wine of highest expression, towards a more present fruit and fresher wood. As an axis, they retain slenderness and suggestion.

The journey through the station district, in search of an unjustly forgotten classicism, ends at CVNE, the mother house of the legendary Imperial, which marked an entire era. The bodega still offers the image of the hulking giant who despises appearances. Here, historical greatness is not reflected in the elaborate, soberly efficient cellar facilities, which speak more of quantity than quality. This is perhaps the weak point of the bodega, which was once a leader in simple Crianzas - as with the CVNE Tercer Año - but always placed its Reservas and Gran Reservas above them. Basilio Izquierdo, an oenologist with heart and soul, a warm and approachable man who hides extraordinary wisdom behind his simple manner, happily agrees when I ask him for a vertical tasting of the Imperial and Viña Real wines. "We are not the focus of Robert Parker," he says as he opens the 1958, 1964, 1970, 1975, 1985, 1991 and 1995 vintages. And then I experience the wonder of condensed time, diving into a Rioja touched by grace. The aromas in the '58 and '64 are as delicately drawn as a Renaissance smile. In the wines of the 70s, the discovery of fruit heralds what was to come soon after. And from the last two, the '91 and '95, speaks quietly but insistently a carefully renewed classicism.

The hour of weighing has come, the hour of reflection. What has made our Riojas not only famous but also so delicious to drink, the delicacy, the elegance, the subtlety, the nerve, the lightness in the sip, all these are attributes I would not want to miss. But the times have also brought a more natural taste, a sensual presence of fruit, a more discreet wood tone, wines with "buxom calves". You have to play this keyboard to update our classics, as is currently happening in the Haro station district, but also elsewhere in Rioja. The weariness with which more and more wine lovers are encountering the overly concentrated drops, those wines that impress but do not convince, that are so the same because they so desperately want to be different, is a golden opportunity that the Rioja classics really must not miss now.


Classy classics

Fascinated by Carlos Delgado's declaration of love?
These five wines embody the traditional style of Rioja.

Viña Pomal
Reserva 1996
Bodegas Bilbaínas

Beautiful, lively ruby red with brick-red refexes. Open-hearted in the glass:
Immediately balsamic notes rise to the nose, the fruit is optimally ripe, the bouquet spicy.
On the palate, pickled sour cherries, full-bodied and well-structured with a nice backbone.
Noble tannins provide a slight astringency; they will surely grind off in the bottle.

Gran Reserva 1995
Bodegas CVNE

Cherry red with a brick-coloured fringe, yet quite muted. With great dignity this wine carries its reduction: notes of leather and wood, shy fruit at the beginning, but then unfolds, smells of jam, spice and cigar box (cedar, tobacco). Round in the mouth, well-built, balanced, with a long, elegant finish.

Prado Enea
Gran Reserva 1994
Bodegas Muga

The grumpiest of all wines, it takes a long time to show its face. Strong reduction, but this does not affect the aromas. Do not decant or aerate! Complex aroma, elegant course, good structure, body and melting, without disturbing corners and edges. The finish is bright and full of power.

Viña Ardanza
Reserva 1995
La Rioja Alta

Deep cherry red on a ruby red background. Notes of coffee, tobacco and undergrowth, initially quite closed, but after aeration open and complex. Ripe fruit and liqueur fruits; pleasant sweetness on the palate, which combines excellently with the rest of the flavours - the acidity, the tannin and the elegant bitter note on the finish.

Viña Tondonia
Gran Reserva 1985
Rafael López de Heredia

Classic profile. Brick red colour with orange tones. The wine is open, hardly
reductive. Aromas of cedar and tobacco, very elegant aldehyde notes, fruit aromas reminiscent of sour cherries in Eau de Vie. Velvety in the mouth, without rough edges, gentle and lively. The well-dosed acidity gives it freshness.

Deserving mastermind
Carlos Delgado has been editor-in-chief of the Spanish VINUM edition since 1997 and is the most respected wine writer in the country. The fact that he is taking up the cudgels for the classics from Rioja at this point is remarkable when you know how instrumental he was in the success of Spanish designer wines. "Thanks to this movement, Spain is finally gaining the international recognition it deserves," he said correctly at the time. When Delgado calls for the return of the classics today, he is - once again - influencing the further development of Spanish wine culture in a positive sense.

The above article was kindly made available to us by the Vinum editorial team. Many thanks for this. Please use the following link to order a free sample issue of Vinum:

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