Based in Haro, La Rioja Alta is one of Rioja’s most famous, traditional producers – alongside the likes of López de Heredia, Muga and CVNE.
The company was founded in 1890, when five growers based in the La Rioja Alta region formed the “Sociedad Vinicola de la Rioja Alta” – including members of the Ardanza, Arana and Alberdi families (which give their names to the three Reserva cuvées, and remain involved in the business today).
At the time, France had been struck by phylloxera – and they saw a gap in the market for well-made, modern Rioja. They hired a Frenchman – M. Vigier – to help them make wines that would meet this demand. Their winery – located right next to the railway station – was well positioned to take advantage of the new rail link to Bilbao and slake the thirst of Europe’s fine wine drinkers.
While La Rioja Alta has been producing wine for over a century, little has changed – with tradition at the very core of its philosophy. The name was officially changed to La Rioja Alta, S.A, in 1941. They started estate bottling in 1952, and a new winery was built in 1996, in Labastida (just down the road from Haro), where the wines are made today. The original Haro facility is now mainly used for barrel storage and to welcome visitors.
While most producers in Rioja don’t own their vineyards, La Rioja Alta owns 360 hectares in the region – mainly in Rioja Alta, but with smaller areas in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja – which are farmed organically. The estate-owned vineyards provide most of the fruit for their wines, however it is supplemented with smaller volumes of purchased grapes (often less significant varieties such as Mazuelo or Graciano).
Since 2002, the property has had an in-house cooperage to allow them to make all their own barrels. They use exclusively American oak (sourced from Ohio and Pennsylvania), which they feel is key to the unique style of Rioja. The barrels are all racked twice a year by hand, by candle light – a full-time job for eight teams, given the volumes involved.
At any given time, the winery has over 50,000 barrels and 6.4 million bottles in its cellars – around eight years’ worth of stock. While the property produces large volumes of wine, quality is not sacrificed. The wines are bottled un-filtered and aged in bottle prior to release. While only released once mature, the wines can be cellared much longer.
While the region as a whole has had a spotted history – with periods where quality dipped, La Rioja Alta has remained a constant, consistently producing outstanding, classical Rioja that ages beautifully.
The estate is known for its Reserva and Gran Reserva bottlings, which manage to retain vibrant fruit even in their maturity. The focus is firmly on red wines, with Tempranillo dominating the blends, complemented by smaller portions of Mazuelo and Graciano.
There are three Reserva cuvées. Viña Alberdi is pure Tempranillo, aged for two years in barrel and two in bottle. Viña Arana is a blend of 95% Tempranillo with 5% Mazuelo, aged for three years in barrel and two in bottle. Viña Ardanza is the most traditional of the three, and the only cuvée which includes Garnacha in the blend (normally around 20-25%), with the rest Tempranillo, spending three and a half years in barrel, then two in bottle. In exceptional vintages, La Rioja Alta produces Viña Ardanza Especial. While both Arana and Ardanza technically qualify as Gran Reservas, this designation is reserved for the 904 and 890 bottlings.
Gran Reserva 904 was first made to celebrate the acquisition of Bodegas Ardanza and its vineyards (some of the finest in the region) in 1904. A blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano, it spends four to five years in cask and an additional four in bottle. The Gran Reserva 890 takes its name from the year the company was founded (1890), and is only made in the best vintages. Normally 96% Tempranillo, with a little Mazuelo, it spends between six and eight years in oak, then six additional years in bottle prior to release.
Today, they also own properties in Ribera del Duero (Áster) and Rías Baixas (Lagar de Fornelos, S.A.), and produces a more modern style of Rioja at its Barón de Oña estate in Rioja Alavesa (purchased in 1995).