La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza “Reserva Especial,” 2001

What can do a great wine justice? What words, what anecdotes? How can I summon the verbiage to explain the greatness of a perfect bottle? Or, as the greatest poet who ever lived, Stanley Kunitz, once put it: “Some things I do not profess/to understand, perhaps/not wanting to…” In the end, when wine is so good it becomes something I scarcely understand, what remains? What can I, a humble listener, say about the finest things in life?

I only know that if I did not try, I would regret it. And so here goes, a description of a bottle that defies easy definition: the 2001 Viña Ardanza “Reserva Especial.” First, something about the maker… La Rioja Alta was formed in 1890 by five quality-minded growers eager to exploit the vacuum left by the phylloxera epidemic, with French vineyards being ravaged by the deadly louse. Taking advantage of the newly built railway to Bilbao, the new bodega flourished, then incorporated Bodegas Ardanza into its holdings in 1904. Although Rioja has seen its ups and downs, La Rioja Alta has always been a source of top-notch Rioja wine. Even considering this, the 2001 bottling of their Viña Ardanza is something special indeed. I’ll let them say it in their own words, straight from the bottle:

En toda nuestra historia, solamente tres añadas de Viña Ardanza han merecido la calificación Especial: 1964, 1973 y 2001. La lluvia, el sol, el frío y el calor se alternaron de la mejor manera posible para hacer de Viña Ardanza 2001 un vino único.

But what makes this wine so remarkable? Besides long aging in new American oak casks, and the top-quality fruit (80% Tempranillo grapes, 20% Garnacha, both varietals which I often overlook for no good reason), this wine is an example of the benefits behind tradition. Because no French oak is used, the wines have a more pronounced vanilla note, which deepens into complex spice aromas after five or more years in bottle. Because these wines are unfiltered, they have a far more robust flavor and greater structure. But beyond that, the terroir itself, the perfect location that is Rioja Alta, is what allows Tempranillo to reach its fullest expression in Viña Ardanza, to the point where this bottle is one of only three vintages in over a century to receive the title “Reserva Especial.”

And let’s not forget to discuss why it’s so special: a nice ruby red in the glass, fading to brown at the rim, this wine just bursts with aromas. Leather, vanilla, baking spices, and a bright cherry which rings through like a bell. Some nice fig notes in there, as well. These aromas continued to deepen and grow more complex for over 30 minutes; I could have decanted this wine for an hour and still had time to let it sit. Brilliant. Then the mouthfeel: soft, supple, yet firm with a nice silky texture, and enough acidity to carry the day. Impeccably balanced, with the fruit riding the backbone of tannin just so. Long finish, tending towards dried fruit and spice, and just goes on and on. Pair with roast lamb. Yes, you could enjoy this wine with pancetta and Brussels sprouts pizza (which I did), or a nice herb-encrusted pork loin with roasted vegetables, but trust me… lamb. I managed to grab a few bottles for $28, but it normally sells for $35. Pray you find some.

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