It was August, 2007. A co-worker friend and I were sitting at a hotel bar in South Beach, Florida, after the first day of a trade show. We decided to relax over a bottle of wine, and he, knowing that I knew all sorts of things about libations and had a decent palate for them, asked me to choose the wine. But this was long before I had ever considered entering the wine world, and in fact, I was only a few months out of college, where whatever wine we drank was, let’s say, not quite fine. So, what my friend did not know, because I had cultivated a façade to the contrary, was that my wine knowledge was barely a step and a half above that of a casual guzzler, and that I was unfamiliar with every last producer on the hotel’s wine list.
I did, however, know what to expect from a good Rioja. There were a couple on the list, and I picked the one that said "Reserva" on it, to up the odds that it would be a good one. I was also sure to order it with a self-consciously confident trill in the Spanish language for the sake of my audience, you know, just to put a bow on how well versed I was in everything I was doing. (To give you an idea of how preposterous that was: among the bartender, my friend, and myself, I was the only non-native Spanish speaker, and we all knew it.)
Out came the wine, pop went the cork, and with a toast to health and life, my friend and I took a sip. It was outrageous. Starting out sublime, it just got better and better as the minutes and hours ticked away. As best as I can remember, tannins and fruit managed somehow to surround each other, and the herb notes, which were strong, brought balance and complexity to the whole thing. The wine was dark but not heavy at all, and the interaction of the notes, which were in constant (though not frenetic) motion relative to each other, just made the whole thing beyond belief.
I had always liked wine and I had always liked Rioja, but now I loved wine and loved Rioja. To this day Rioja remains my favorite type.
The wine in question was Viña Ardanza Reserva 2004. We were sure to write it down, but when we got back to New York neither of us could find it in any wine shop. A few months later I read somewhere that it had sold out. Sorely disappointed, I gave up the search, hoping perhaps to stumble across it again somewhere in the future, but not expecting to.
Fast-forward to the present day, minus two or three months. I am still no sommelier by any means, but I am a wine representative for Angels’ Share Wines, so I have been exposed to the best, and know my way around a wine conversation. The love of my life asks me if I will accompany her into a wine shop near her work and help her choose holiday gifts for her employers. In the shop, which was new to me as a consumer and outside my professional territory, I find a couple of wines from ASW’s book and recommend them to the lovely lady.
And then I see them. Two bottles of Viña Ardanza Reserva 2004 sitting on the shelf in the Spanish section. I must have spent twenty minutes staring at them, just to make sure they were in fact what I thought they were. The store charged me $35 each; as far as I am concerned, it should have charged a hundred times as much.
Those who know me must be so proud: I, the least patient and most goofily impulsive man on planet Earth, did not head straight home, fly through the door, rip out the cork on the fourth or fifth try, and pour the wine across countertop, glass, and floor. In fact, I did not even open them that evening or weekend. I put the bottles on my shelf and let them sit there for a few weeks until it was the right time to try them: a slow evening that I had all to myself, a full stomach, and the right mood to really sit back and feel out a wine.
I set the bottle on the table and looked at it. It was really cool to see my first wine love right in front of me. "This is what it’s all about," I thought. But what if it disappoints? That's the kind of negative thinking to which many aficionados – of anything, not just wine – fall victim when preparing to experience a personally meaningful find. It is also a thoroughly pointless type of concern. "Don't bother with expectations," I told myself. "Just dive on in and have fun with it." And so I did.
At a little over ten years of age, the Reserva is different, but no less sublime. The aroma shows it age beautifully. I won’t quite say that it does so gracefully at first – it is in a funky sort of age – but in a good way, as an older person who still has verve and energy and life. The notes are of typical Rioja herb and spice, principally cedar, very nicely expressed. These fruits, are they all awry? No, but they are old. Strawberry and plum, and oh, some vanilla! Oak, welcome! These aroma notes all come out evenly, well balanced, and sophisticated (or, at least, properly complex; maybe even impressively so). The oak, which can easily dominate a wine like this, does no such thing just yet.
The most striking thing about the palate is how light it is – I found it to be no heavier than a Pinot Noir. But the Tempranillo notes hold up, and together, perfectly. The fruits and oak are identical to the corresponding notes on the nose; the spice is similar, but more pungent, though without overwhelming anything else. The tannins and acidity are both moderate, and quite lovely. The tannins, in fact, play especially well with the fruit, and the other notes also get along quite nicely together. This whole is many times greater than the sum of its parts.
What a superb wine.
After breathing for twenty minutes, the Reserva’s nose mellows out a little, with the oak emerging as the dominant note. The fruits have not changed even an iota; the herb/spice, though, has nearly dissipated. The palate remains light as ever, with increased acidity, and unchanged or perhaps even diminished tannins. Oak prevails much as it does on the nose, but here it has teamed up with the herb/spice of cedar etcetera, while the fruits have become little more than an undercurrent. The specific notes have not changed, though the oak, being so augmented, has opened itself up to much more nuance than the simple sliver of vanilla that we had twenty minutes ago.
I cannot express strongly enough how insufficient the written word is to describe the sublimity of the Viña Ardanza 2004 Rioja Reserva. I can pile adjective upon adjective; I can blither on with aroma and tasting notes; I can depict the scene and create the mood to make everything come together; and so I have. Or I could have stuck with pith: “The ’04 has gotten light in its old age, showing tannins and acidity, and combining with artful sophistication fruits, herb, and an oak profile that starts small but comes to dominate after only a short while of aeration. Good show!”
None of it is good enough. With poor wine, describing the notes is pointless, unless as an exercise. With good wine, fleshing out the tasting notes becomes a ton of fun, and also a very useful tool in that people can distinguish it from similar wines and know what to expect if they pair it with food and/or occasion. But with wine at a higher plane, bothering with such words becomes pointless again: The wine has transcended so far past the sum of its parts that to focus on those parts actually distracts from accuracy and relevance. The only way to know what a wine like this tastes like is to actually taste it.
I have written this article because I love writing, especially about wine and other beverages; I have wanted to contribute again to The Nice Drinks In Life for a long time now; and as soon as I sipped the Ardanza I knew it would be too much to resist pouring my heart into a paean to it as a renewal of my activity on the site. But I would be wrong not to include this disclaimer, if you will. The wine is above the words about it. It is just better. Better than what? Yes. It makes me weep. I actually got choked up (and no, it did not go down the wrong pipe or anything).
Shortly after I had the first bottle, I took the second to my parents' house to drink with dinner. They are Rioja people, in that they typically drink whatever popular-label current vintage is on the store shelf. Don’t get me wrong; though I am a snob, I drink those Riojas, too. But I was concerned that this older, unknown (to them) Rioja would disappoint them, which would embarrass me a little. It is lighter than young Riojas by a lot; oakier after a short while; just different. Would they like it?
They loved it. My dad snapped a picture of it on his phone to show his friends. I heard about it for a week. Even my mom, somewhat less adventurous than others in her family, took a second glass. All listened as I told them the story from Miami in between sips, and then we took the occasion to recall a few Riojas that we drank together in Spain on a trip some years back.
That evening was everything that is special about wine, everything for which we wine lovers stand. Everything. So is the Viña Ardanza 2004 Rioja Reserva.