Way back in 1980 and for a year or three, having graduated from Edinburgh University the year before, my first job was, as the sole Spanish speaker within a tiny but most successful high turnover London-located enterprise.

It was dedicated to the importation and distribution of wood-based products from a handful of major Spanish manufacturers – chipboard, plywood, sawn pine, MDF and what have you – not just to charter complete vessels, accompany mega buyers on visits to primarily Galician factories, and interpret at board meetings; but the most fun I had was probably in providing our many clients with sumptuous gift cases of Xmas wines – for which I had an important budget.

This I did largely through a now sadly defunct outfit called Laymont & Shaw who were perhaps the first UK importers of seriously good Spanish wines thanks in no small degree to the fact that its founding duo consisted of two big wheels at English China Clay of St. Austell, Cornwall, who – with serious exports to Spain – as of about 1973 decided that the containers they were sending out to Spain might usefully come back filled with something Spanish.

The two behind the plan were Cornwall-based John Hawes, the Hispanic Export Manager, and his key Spanish contact José Montelay-Irastorza; and as my father, Jan Read, had that very year just published the first ever English language Guide to the Wines of Spain and Portugal, their Agency portfolio kicked off most spectacularly with headliners Vega Sicilia, Juvé y Camps and La Rioja Alta as John Hawes had clearly done his homework and was a welcome and regular guest at our privileged wee flat in Knightsbridge for as long as I can remember.

Why La Rioja Alta?

A no brainer perhaps as during a time that quality Spanish wines were still very much unknown in the UK, the populist British consumer was only just beginning to switch into ‘wine’ – the ghastly Lutomer Riesling (for coca cola fans), 2 litre bottles of Valpolicella, and from Spain the most basic offerings possible often also in large bottles.

Mass travel and cheap flights were still years away, so it was only a privileged upper middle class minority who really knew anything about what life had to offer beyond our shores.

This benchmark winery was therefore absolutely perfect for someone looking for traditional top quality and ready to inject the necessary enthusiasm into such a pioneering project. It was established on July 10th, back in 1890, when its initial five founders constituted, in the presence of Haro notary Don Vicente García y Calzada, the Sociedad Vinícola de La Rioja Alta with an initial capital of 112,500 pesetas (€676) of which only 20 per cent was initially spent. Based to begin with exclusively at premises leased from French négociant, Alphonse Viguier, in the Barrio de la Estación in Haro, the winery went on to make its name with such firmly established classical wines as ‘Cosecha 1890’, ‘Cosecha 1904’, and the perennially popular ‘Viña Ardanza’ – their wines by then in Spain a long established household name.

Worth noting too, incidentally, that the founding of this excellent bodega was not the only momentous thing to happen locally back in 1890, for it was also in that very year that – ahead of anywhere else in Spain – electric lighting came to both Haro and Jerez. This gave rise to a number of local refrains, the politest of which was – to describe the new wonders of the world –¡Haro, París y Londres!

Meantime, nearly a hundred years later, by the mid-1980s La Rioja Alta, S.A. had accumulated some 250 hectares of its own local vineyards, had no fewer than 23,000 barricas, and was producing around a million bottles.

Today, still a byword for smooth, rounded, balanced oaky reds, production is significantly larger, and they now own 386 hectares in the Rioja Alta, 67 in Rioja Alavesa, 46.2 in Rioja Baja (recently renamed Rioja Oriental), 88 in Rías Baixas, and 87.3 in Ribera del Duero – for they have wisely expanded in other directions in order to add a more modern dimension to their impressive catalogue of traditional wines.

The mother ship – production has been based in Labastida since around 1996, with their charming and picturesque Haro base now a most convivial reception centre in addition to being a mega barrel store – with three other quite distinct wineries now in the equation – now boasts some 30,000 barricas and has, typically, some eight years’ of stock quietly ageing in its underground cellars. Coopering has been in house for some years now – since 2002 – the oak (all American) imported primarily from Ohio and Pennsylvania; and the chief winemaker is Albert Vigier.

A Selection

Pazo de Seoane 2017 (Rías Baixas) – 12.5%

68% Albariño from their vineyards in O Rosal, together with 11% Caiño and Treixadura plus some 10% Loureiro; this is full-flavoured, of an attractive greenish yellow hue, and with a wonderful flinty, aromatic, floral fragrance, fresh and tingly flavours, and an admirable lightness of touch. The 2018 will be out shortly and is a worthy successor.

Production approximately 50,000 bottles. Consumer price in Spain around €9.

Viña Alberdi Tinto Reserva 2012 (Rioja) – 13.5%

The simplest and most supple Rioja Alta style. Pure Tempranillo from three different vineyard sites in Rodezno and one in Labastida located at altitudes of between 500 and 600 metres. With two years in American oak, this is a joy on its own or with all manner of simple dishes: long and satisfying, replete with toasty syrupy cherry fruit, and very easy-drinking. The 2013 was recently released, has perhaps a more pronounced primary fruit zing (strawberry/currants and raspberries), and is as accomplished as ever notwithstanding such a wet year. Note that in Spain this style is always labelled Crianza.

Production approximately 500,000 bottles. Consumer price in Spain around €12.

Viña Arana Tinto Reserva 2009 (Rioja) – 13.5%

95% Tempranillo with 5% Mazuelo and from two estate owned vineyards in Rodezno planted in 1973, this spends some three years in barrica and is distinctly more savoury yet still super friendly, riper, and with appreciably more richness, and attractive underlying hints of tobacco, caramel and spice. Peg up the accompanying food a notch to bigger flavoured, casserole orientated offerings. The 2011 was recently released and has similar attributes given the similarity of the vintages. 2010 (skipped) was famously cold in Rioja, its wines in general tougher and slow to reveal their potential.

Production approximately 150,000 bottles. Consumer price in Spain around €16.

Viña Ardanza Tinto Reserva 2009 (Rioja) – 13.5%

80% Tempranillo from 30-year-old vineyards in Fuenmayor and Cenicero & 20% Garnacha from a specific high altitude vineyard Rioja Baja/Oriental, these low yielding vineyards produce one of the winery’s most emblematic styles. Big, dry, elegant and super savoury with toasty cherry and blackcurrant notes, heaps of spice and a healthy measure of tannin. Prior to blending, the Tempranillo spends around 36 months in three to four year old American oak and the Garnacha around 30. Exult and partner with game, roast meats, barbecues and powerful cheeses.

Production approximately 600,000 bottles. Consumer price in Spain around €21.

Martelo Reserva 2014 (Rioja) – 14.5%

This is a radical departure from any of the aforementioned and ample evidence that this impressive, now umbrella company moves with the times and can cater for shifting tastes. In essence, a dark, well-structured old vine Tempranillo with 5% mixed Mazuelo, Garnacha and even Viura, representing this single vineyard’s very own traditional blend; and made by Julio Sáenz, who has been with the group since 1996. Primary fruit orientated yet vanilla-imbued and bursting with energy; dried rose petals, and vivid raspberry fruit intertwined with chocolate vie with fine-grained tannins and an almost tar-like grip.

Production approximately 80,000 bottles. Consumer price in Spain around €24.

Reserva 904 Tinto Gran Reserva 2009 (Rioja) – 13.5%

One of Rioja Alta’s true flagships, this is made from 60 year old Tempranillo plus some 10% Graciano grown in Briñas, Labastida and nearby Villalba. With some four years in used American oak, and bottled in 2014 this is a sumptuous, complex and mature wine of medium intensity with great mouth-feel and markedly oaky and balsamic characteristics that should be enjoyed now.

Production approximately 150,000 bottles. Consumer price in Spain around €40.