Rioja Wine Producer Showcases Wine Vertical Going Back to 1970
By Cathrine Todd, Forbes, Published June 21, 2023
As the guests sporadically entered the space, there was a slight gasp and each had to remind themselves to continue to breathe, as the room was on the top floor of the 50 story Ritz-Carlton in the middle of Manhattan. Copper color fixtures gave the space an amber glow enhanced by the greenish-blue colors reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea. The 270-degree views allowed one to take in New York City in all its glory with the mixture of dilapidated buildings intermixed with historic structures with golden ornamental tops and new construction of skinny, tall architectural feats that seemed to defy physics. The pulse of the city’s electricity seemed to find its way up, over 500 feet, to give this rooftop cocktail bar an otherworldly vibe that could only be created in a city that was this diverse.
This jaw-dropping cocktail bar, called Nubeluz, is the creation of the award-winning chef José Andrés and it is a beacon of light in the sky which is fitting considering its name, a combination of the Spanish words “nube,” meaning cloud and “luz,” meaning light. It was an ideal place for the Spanish Rioja wine producer Bodegas Montecillo to showcase a vertical of their wines back to 1970.
Bodegas Montecillo is the third oldest winery in Rioja, Spain, and celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2020 by releasing a bottling of a special 150th anniversary Gran Reserva edition of 2005. Their wines greatly over-delivered for the price, especially considering their longevity. And to prove their wines’ ability to age, they have taken to releasing back vintages onto the market; in their 19th-century cellar, they have bottles that go back to 1926.
As one sat there, in the stunning beacon of light in the sky, tasting the Montecillo wine vertical that was led by winemaker Mercedes García Rupérez, tasting each vintage, telling its own story, a journey started to unravel that transported one to crucial points in Rioja’s history. Beginning with the 1970 wine, which was still vibrant and fresh, representing a time when the dictator Franco was still ruling Spain since 1939 and then the 1982 vintage, “one of the most important vintages in Rioja,” according to Mercedes, taking place seven years after the death of Franco, when Spain was traveling the bumpy road to democracy.
Before 1979, Montecillo worked with their own vineyards, around 170 acres, as an unstable economy took hold; Spain was trying to build a foundation for their democracy and they were forced to sell a part of their vineyards to survive. Yet it allowed them to work with some of the local growers, who may have lost everything if they didn’t have a winery buying their grapes and today, many of these old bush-trained vineyards are still owned by the same family due to Bodegas Montecillo.
Mercedes said that the 1994 vintage was “one of the most recognized” – the beginning of modern Rioja and it is when the world realized that Rioja could make wines that could rival the greatest in the world. The wines are intensely concentrated as the region only harvested half of the yield compared to an average year. And the excellent 2005 vintage was released to celebrate the 150th anniversary, which was supposed to be released in 2020 but was delayed due to Covid. 2005 has a special bottling that displays a green label that goes back to the original label from 1870 and it has a green wax top to provide it with even more aging potential.
Life in the Bottle
“The bottle has life!” exclaimed Mercedes with a passionate voice that struck a cord within the wine tasters in the room as it gave a deep meaning to how sacred each bottle is; each one ages slightly differently, even if all are kept in optimum conditions. Each vintage is like a set of friends that were born, raised and evolved in the same place, in the same way, yet there are differences between each friend; all the subtle nuances that differ are an expression of how various stages of life were uniquely processed.
The 1970 Montecillo Gran Reserva showed its age in its color with a garnet hue and a compelling complexity of layered aromas such as leather, cigar and tar. It had a silky texture as all the rough edges of its youthful structure had melted away yet it was every bit as fresh and vibrant as its much younger counterpart. It had all the wonderful characteristics of age, with nothing to prove, so it is not in one’s face with structure and flavor but it is still optimistic in its vibrancy. A wine that has seen so much: Franco, the collapse of an economy, the uncertainty of whether Rioja could survive as a wine region, worldwide success and glory and the celebration of 150 years. Maybe some other bottles would not be as optimistic but this one certainly was at that moment. It was profound to taste something that had survived such horrible times to come out the other end still filled with life.
When one tastes such a wine, it is a humbling moment filled with gratitude as that bottle will never exist again and there was no better place to honor those seven different vintages that were tasted that day. As Nubeluz is not only a monument inspired by the greatness of the US, it also speaks to that same greatness of Spain; both countries married together in an extraordinary space.
Bodegas Montecillo has been releasing back vintages onto the US market so that consumers can experience the incredible ageability of their wines.
1970 Bodegas Montecillo, Gran Reserva Selección Especial: 80% Tempranillo, 15% Mazuelo and 5% Graciano. Garnet color with a light rim that had layers of complexity with new leather, grated nutmeg, cigar and tar with a silky texture and rich blackberry flavors with tobacco leaf and coconut shavings with a bright acidity.
1973 Bodegas Montecillo, Gran Reserva Selección Especial: 70% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and 15% Mazuelo. Brick color with dusty earth on the nose, hints of grilled bacon, and juicy black cherry fruit on the palate with soft tannins balanced by crisp acidity.
1982 Bodegas Montecillo, Gran Reserva Selección Especial: 100% Tempranillo. It was one of the most important vintages for Rioja, even though there were some exceptions for conscientious producers but much of the 1970s was considered mediocre, so it was the first great vintage since 1964. A spicy nose with aniseed and coriander with sandalwood in the background, very fine tannins, and a touch of zingy sour cherries on the palate balanced by strawberry preserves and a long, savory, spicy finish.
1985 Bodegas Montecillo, Gran Reserva Selección Especial: 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano. A pale color with an intense smoky minerality on the nose and bright cranberry flavors on the palate layered with baking spices and underbrush, a nimble wine with lots of verve.
1994 Bodegas Montecillo, Gran Reserva Selección Especial: 100% Tempranillo. One of the most recognized vintages worldwide as it is considered when modern Rioja started. Smoldering earth, cloves and wildflowers are enchanting on the nose, with lush red fruit on the palate, such as cherry pie and strawberry compote with plush tannins balanced by fresh acidity with a long, flavorful finish.
2001 Bodegas Montecillo, Gran Reserva Selección Especial: 100% Tempranillo. From the very first sip, this wine is all elegance and finesse with an excellent balance between concentration and aromatic lift; rich cassis flavors that have complex notes such as forest floor and wild sage with good mid-body weight, velvety texture and an expressive finish with a saline minerality mixed with juicy fruit.
2005 Bodegas Montecillo, 150 Aniversario Gran Reserva Selección Especial: 70% Tempranillo, 20% Graciano and 10% Maturana Tinta. This bottling celebrates the 150th anniversary of Bodegas Montecillo and the green label brings back the color used for the early labels over 150 years ago. Only a little over 2,800 bottles were made with 80 exported to the US. This wine had a deep color with ruby highlights that had a lifted black pepper note on the nose with black tea leaves that had juicy black cherry and mulberry flavors with intriguing notes of balsamic vinegar and freshly carved cedar with a nice amount of weight on the palate balanced by sculpted tannins.