Old wines make great gifts. They’re a piece of history in their own right, giving drinkers the opportunity to taste a summer that happened 10, 20 or even 50 years ago. Unlike many affordable wines — which are pre-aged through micro-oxygenation and meant to be drunk within a year of release — the wine locked inside a truly aged bottle has had the chance to settle into itself and mature and evolve into flavors and textures that must be experienced in order to understand.
The problem is that old, aged wines are extremely expensive, often starting at $100 for a bottle with a decade of cellaring behind it. So, how do you buy a special bottle of wine for someone that’s ready to drink, but wont bust your holiday budget? The answer, this holiday season, is in Rioja, Spain.
Like Bordeaux, Rioja wines are blends, primarily tempranillo (usually 60 percent), followed by garnacha tinta (grenache), mazuelo (carignan) and graciano. What makes them different from Bordeaux, aside from the grapes involved, is that the good folks of Rioja pre-age the wines for you. Instead of micro-oxygenation, however, they do it the old-fashioned way — actually holding the bottles in their cellars at the wineries for an extended amount of time before releasing them.
The wines of Rioja come in four age categories:
Joven Rioja: Often labeled as simply “Rioja,” this is the youngest of the category, spending less than a year in oak (if at all) before being bottled. Joven (young) Rioja tends to be fruit-forward with tannic structure thanks to the tempranillo, and a certain jammy richness that comes from the granacha.
Crianza: Wine that has been aged for two years, at least six months of which has to be in oak barrels. Crianza tends to be the most available of the Rioja wines. Still alive with a good amount of tannin, and fruit-forward but usually restrained on the oak flavors, crianza-aged wines are like the high-quality treasures you’re always looking for when you hunt for that under-$20 Napa cabernet, since crianzas are usually around $15.
Reserva: Wine that has been aged for three years, including at least one in oak. Slightly harder to come by, since they come from only the best vintages, reservas are the aficionado wines because they’re not as jammy as the younger crianza and joven wines, thanks to their age, yet they're still available for about $25.
Gran Reserva: Wines that have been aged five years with at least 18 months in oak, and 36 months in bottle before release. Since most winemakers exceed these standards, it isn’t uncommon for the newest release of gran reserva to be at least a decade old. These wines are a bit more rare, since, like the reserva, they come from only the best years. But that’s another cool thing about them – you never have to wonder if they were from a good year because they were. All of them. Dusty and tannic, the gran reserva bottlings of Rioja are the perfect bottle for a holiday gift because the wine is old enough to drink the moment it's pulled from the gift bag, and it still has enough structure to stand up to the smokiest cut of meat. On the other hand, it can still age quite nicely for another 30 years or more (yes, 30!). A 15- or 20-year-old gran reserva can run north of $35 a bottle, often hanging in the $50 to $75 range.
2009 Lorinon Reserva ($20)
Red fruit notes on the nose developing into meaty balsamic and toast, while on the palate the wine is fleshy, with medium tannins and an earthiness of damp wood and underbrush mingling with vanilla, cinnamon and spicy cherry compote.
1998 Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva ($50)
Notes of herb on top of cherry and black plum with hints of potpourri, vanilla and a touch of cloves on the nose, followed by chocolate cordial and red fruit on the palate firmed up by dusty tannins that are just starting to back off.
1994 Cune Imperial Gran Reserva ($75)
Notes of cherries covered in dark chocolate and baking spices on the nose, interwoven with hints of leather and a touch of smoke, make this aged gem worth savoring as it opens. On the palate, the wine offers flavors of wild game, crumbled stone, cigar box and pepper as a backdrop to the fumes of dark fruit still alive in this bottle. Slightly easier to find than the famed 2004 Cune Imperial Gran Reserva, which was named wine of the year for 2013, and at about half the price, too, with 10 years of age to top it off, the '94 is the perfect gift for any wine enthusiast at any level.