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The 1998 Vina Ardanza shouts RIOJA! A blend of Tempranillo (75-80%) and Garnacha (20-25%) grapes, this classic Rioja Alta has been aged for 36 months in small American oak casks and then an additional 24 months in the bottle before release. A deep garnet color in the glass, the ’98 Ardanza foretells the ultimate gratification that is to follow. Before one even takes a sip, this wine’s highly aromatic profile, replete with a cigar box scent, emerges from a well-swirled glass, and places the Vina Ardanza into the elite category of truly great Rioja wines – an intensely pleasurable and decadent indulgence. On greeting the palate, this wine evokes deep fruity notes, such as plum, cherry, and fig, with enough room to taste the good earth that nourished the vines. However, be patient; the Vina Ardanza will surely evolve in the glass. Look for a coffee and mocha foundation to emerge from this rich wine, especially after aeration. And as the Ardanza reaches a crescendo, toasty oak, laced with a hint of cedar, rears its clever head to give structure and balance to this medium-bodied wine. It also defines the strong and distinctive finish that is the trademark of a quality Rioja. While this peak of flavor remains in the memory, the Vina Ardanza finishes gracefully with a distinctive, smooth and pleasant aftertaste. An excellent example from the Rioja Alta, the 1998 Vina Ardanza is best when afforded at least an hour to breathe in a glass or decanter before serving cool at no more than 66º F.
The good news when one thinks of food pairings for La Rioja Alta’s 1998 Vina Ardanza Reserva is that one is hard pressed to find a dish that will overwhelm it. While Rioja aficionados will appreciate an unadorned glass of Vina Ardanza, it is a wine that is meant to be consumed with a richly satisfying meal. Choose traditional Riojan fare, such as lamb, and dress it up with a roasted pepper, mushroom, and goat cheese sauce. The distinctive, succulent, and earthy flavors of this dish will both complement and highlight similar qualities in the Vina Ardanza. Other substantive choices include light game, such as duck or tender venison. Of course, a well-chosen peppered steak is always a good bet, too. Add a twice-baked potato and a light citrus salad, and you’ll have the ingredients for a superb gathering of friends around the backyard grill. Additionally, side dishes that will hold up to a classic Rioja are a thick gazpacho or a wild mushroom soup. For the adventurous, tap into the Mediterranean and Arabic influences on the Rioja region, in particular, and Spain, in general, and experiment with a boldly spiced chicken or rabbit couscous option. When served with cheese, a classic selection for Vina Ardanza is, naturally, a mild goat cheese. A final word of caution is that as long as one avoids serving it with an extremely delicate dish, it’s easy to construct a fabulous menu with Vina Ardanza in mind. Salud!
Founded by five local families, La Rioja Alta has been a paragon of excellence in the Rioja for more than a century. It is a property totally dedicated to quality, yet run practically. The keen business sense and resiliency of the company is illustrated by the firm’s history. Shortly after its founding in 1890, the phylloxera scourge attacked local vines. In the face of certain devastation, La Rioja Alta winemakers acted quickly: they grafted American rootstocks onto local varietals, such as Tempranillo, to produce plague-resistant vines. Another testament to the astute business sense of Rioja Alta producers and to serendipity as well, is the story of how the tradition of aging Rioja wines in 225-liter American Oak, as opposed to French Oak, barrels began. At the end of the 19th century before the Spanish-American War, Rioja wine was traditionally transported in barrels to America and bottled at its destination. The positive effect on the quality of the wine imparted by aging in American-oak barrels on a long trans-Atlantic passage was duly noted and adopted as a standard practice for all Rioja wines of distinction. Thus, today the noticeable oak flavor and tannin content of Rioja wines is an expected and desirable trademark – thanks to La Rioja Alta and American oak.
Today, La Rioja Alta takes care to protect the consistency and the quality of its various labels. Each January at the first manual racking – the transfer of wine from one barrel to another – of the previous fall’s harvest, the bodega’s expert oenologist tastes each barrel’s contents to determine their final destination, as a Gran Reserva, Reserva, or Crianza. Since La Rioja Alta is determined to produce only the wines and corresponding labels for which the grapes are suited, the bodega does not produce all of its labels every year. So, when you pick up a bottle of La Rioja Alta, S.A., you are assured of ultimate quality. You are free to dream of a land at the crossroads and know that your gastronomic journey will only be enhanced by the product of the vine within.
From the moment Roman legions marched up the Ebro River valley to displace tribes of Celtic origin in the 2nd century, the status of the Rioja region of Spain as a crossroads has been reaffirmed many times. And like many geographic areas that occupy points where cultures meet, the Rioja has been inhabited and controlled by various people throughout its history. Arabs invaded the area in the 8th century, Castile and Navarre traded control of the region from the 12th to the 15th centuries, the French armies of Napoleon conquered the valley during the Peninsular War, and finally, after the death of Franco, the Rioja’s current boundaries were affirmed. Despite the potential for unrest, lingering trauma, or schizophrenic identity that might be expected in a region that has seen so much political turmoil in its history, the people of the Rioja have taken the best of what each occupying culture brought to the region and forged a lifestyle and culture that is rich, distinctly their own, and remarkably practical, yet tradition bound.
Located squarely in north-central Spain along the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and at a point that linked the north of Europe to the Mediterranean and northern Africa, the people of Rioja astutely sought to cater to the needs of travelers and pilgrims. Of course the production and sale of wine was a local cottage industry that served the pilgrimage trade. Yet, despite a long history of wine production, it wasn’t until the second-half of the 19th century that wine became a major industry of the Rioja. When French wine makers fled the devastation of vineyards in Bordeaux by phylloxera in 1870, they chose the climate, soil, and geography of the Rioja as an ideal location to reestablish commercial production. Since then, the prominence of the Rioja region has grown so that when people around the world think of Spanish wine they often think Rioja. Within Rioja, three identifiable growing regions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa, are distinguished by elevation and soil composition. La Rioja Alta, S.A., the producer of this month’s selection, Vina Ardenza Reserva, is, as its name suggests, a producer of wines in the Rioja Alta subregion, the most elevated of the three areas at around 1,500 feet. Based in the town of Haro since its foundation in 1890, La Rioja Alta, S.A., exemplifies the characteristics of Rioja culture and illustrates why Rioja vintages garner such renown.
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