Old school RIOJA dinner - Portland Restaurant, London
Guests gathered for a rather special evening of rare, older Rioja vintages at the Portland restaurant, a one-star Michelin restaurant serving food in an informal style of family-service.
The plates were delicious, and although a couple of the starters - buttermilk and smoked cod’s roe - worried the table in light of the venerable bottles, there was no arguing with the deliciousness of every plate served. The main course of beef was simply outstanding, served with melt-in-the-mouth heritage carrots and brown buttered cauliflower.
The wines were opened 90 minutes in advance, and with so many crumbling corks, insecurity got the better of us and we held off decanting until the last minute in most cases.
Starter course 1
Ygay Etiqueta Blanca 1970
2 bottles were served, one of which opened with a musty nose, the other was much more energetic with purer character.
It’s always worth leaving old bones some time in the glass to recover from the shock of opening, and sure enough, the musty character blew off, but without the zest and purity of the second bottle.
Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial 1970
By comparison the Castillo Ygay, bottled we think in the late 1990s or 2000s, and with a fresh cork to prove it, seemed rather clunky and thick. It was as if the extended barrel ageing has rubbed out its finer lines, leaving it smudged.
There was no arguing with the richer fruit, but where was the definition or class?
Starter course 2
Berberana Rioja Gran Reserva 1950
From a private cellar in Richmond, this wine was served from a decanter, having been filtered through muslin to strain a few pieces of crumbly cork that the operator of the Westmark cork puller had failed to pull out cleanly.
Arguably the star of the show, this ethereal wine showed intensity allied to a sense of weightlessness. It improved in the decanter over 2 hours and wowed the entire table.
Rioja GR Honorable Gomez Cruzado 1964
Similarly to the Ygay Etiqueta Blanca, a dustiness blew off with time in the glass to reveal pear drops and an earthy, more savoury character.
Bodegas Bilbainas 1964
Fruity and balanced with an alluring freshness and utterly delicious. A surprise since no one had encountered the producer. One to seek out and is very good value.
Vina Real CVNE 1964
This was the other wine that vied for wine of the night along with the Berberana.
Energetic, deep and pure. Burgundian texture with a brilliant complexity of fruit that carried though into a long and deeply satisfying finish.
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1964
An absolute dog of a bottle, sadly. Devil’s juice.
Rioja Alta 904 Reserva 1964
A comparatively rich fruit profile on this wine compared to the other wines of the flight, but perhaps somewhat lacking in definition if we were to be critical. This less developed – perhaps worth revisiting in the future?
Corral Reserva 1987
Perhaps a touch of rusticity here, but with plenty to like, with a pungent, rose petal quality to the nose.
Corral Reserva 1991
Richer and less evolved than the 1987, this made an interesting comparison. Tasted on its own this would no doubt have seemed excellent, but slightly overshadowed by the context here I fear.
Plus a mystery wine served blind – 1988 Valbuena 5
Elegant and pleasantly evolved with remarkable balance between richness of the Douro fruit and a dry, firm structure reminiscent of cool climate claret, even down to a persistent saline note on the palate lending freshness. Certainly supports the reputation of the producer.
What we learned
1. The dinner challenged the blanket reputation of 1964 as immortal - it isn’t. Delicious though several were, they are not destined to remain so.
2. A common understanding is that Gran Reserva is better than Reserva, that is better than Consecha. Price follows the length of description it seems. Based on this tasting, the length of time aged in wooden vats does not necessarily improve the quality of the wine. The Etiqueta Blanco vs Gran Reserva Especial, both 1970, certainly supports this thinking. Th Etiqueta Blanco was the finer wine, by far.
It doesn’t help that definitions seems to have changed over the years. Our 904 1964 was a Reserva, and possibly all the better for it, whilst other bottlings of the same year are described (in a Bid for Wine auction a year ago) as Gran Reserva. More recent vintages of 904 are described as Gran Reserva.
3. You don’t need to just follow the wines of the biggest Rioja operations, such as Rioja Alta, Marques de Murrieta and CVNE. The least well known producers on this showing delivered very good value for such old wines.
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