Old Rioja's taste revolution

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 May, 1999, 12:00am

Cast your eyes along labels at a wine shop and scan the dates. Most vintages on sale in Hong Kong were picked, crushed and bottled in the past couple of years. That's fine for most whites, but for a big-bodied red it's almost criminal to drink these juvenile wines.

There's no such worry with Marques de Caceres gran reserva ($258). This was picked and pressed in 1989. The winery in Rioja has a policy to keep this wine for a decade until selling it. This means when you buy this superb red it is ready to drink.

Cellaring large amounts of expensive wine, first in oak casks and then in bottles, is a very expensive business. That partly explains the lofty price for this aristocratic wine. But despite the cost, it's value for money.

That evocative grape that dominates Rioja, tempranillo, makes up 85 per cent of the blend. The other grapes are graciano and garnacha, giving the elegant wine smoothness and a hint of sweet fruit.

The chief executive of Marques de Caceres, Christine Forner, was in Hong Kong recently. She told me the grand reserve is made only in vintage years classed as 'excellent'. The wine ages for more than two years in French oak casks, then for up to a decade in bottles.

The estate and the Forner family each have an interesting background. The family made wine in Valencia, but when Franco's nationalists won the Civil War in 1939, the Forners were among the many who tramped dejectedly over the border to France.

They worked hard and prospered, first in Corbieres not far from the Spanish border and then in Bordeaux where Enrique Forner, Christine's father, eventually bought two abandoned chateaux. He set about bringing Chateau Camensac and Chateau Larose-Trintaudon back to glory.

When Franco died and exiles could safely go home, Enrique headed to Rioja, Spain's most renowned wine region. It was sadly run down. He headed a movement to rejuvenate the region.

A new wave of imaginative and ambitious winemakers kept the traditional vines - tempranillo, garnacha, graciano, viura and malvasia - that had made Rioja famous. But to this wonderful fruit, they added skills learned in Bordeaux.

The wines got lighter, finer and more elegant. New whites and roses were added to the portfolio. Education of peasant grape-growers stressed the need to produce crops of higher-quality grapes.

That revolution in the vineyard and the winery saw a speedy increase in quality.

Three decades after Enrique went home, Rioja vintages are now the proud standard bearers of the new wines of old Spain.