A tasting of Rioja from the great 1964 Vintage



The 1964 vintage in Rioja, considered the greatest of the 20th century, was not met with any fanfare in America nor in England.  It was not because the top wines, only bottled in the 1970s and released as late as 1980, were unavailable to taste.  Throughout the 1960s Rioja was still viewed as the best wine of Spain but it was the opinion, as expressed by Ronald Avery, that in the hierarchy of wines Rioja was equivalent to “a decent little claret”.  As such Rioja only received attention as an alternative inexpensive wine.

This was not always the case.  Between the World Wars the Bodegas Paternina Rioja Riserva cost as much as Chateau Lafite in America.  When Bordeaux prices soared in America during the early 1970s, attention turned back to Rioja.  Still viewed as the “less sophisticated cousin of Bordeaux” low prices meant the wines of Rioja became imported in increasingly larger quantities.  In 1976, nearly three dozen Rioja producers hired a public relations firm in America.  Success must have been achieved for the next year Frank J. Prial wrote in The New York Times that “Red Rioja Wine Is Excellent”.

There was widespread coverage of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Rioja vintage.  Decanter magazine found it a vintage to drink soon with some wines tired but the best wines are “still fruity and intense”.  I decided to host my own tasting based on my positive experience with several different bottles shared by Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co.,  and my recent CVNE Viña Real and Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva from 1976-1964 tasting.  This past weekend I gathered a group to explore nine different wines from seven different producers.  This is no small feat for there were just over two dozen producers who bottled the 1964 vintage.

We departed from our usual Champagne start to one of very old German wines.  At the CVNE tasting, the Rieslingfeier event and scarcity of old vintages was of topic which prompted one very generous guest to share three 100+ year old wines as well as a bottle from the 1964 vintage.  This unprecedented vertical of the vintages 1964, 1915, 1905, and 1898 are all Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Auslese from Weingut Franz Karl Schmitt.

These four bottles were purchased at the Sotheby’s auction of the Don Stott cellar.  Our generous guest has drunk wine with Don Stott so with knowledge of the cellar and the uniqueness of the opportunity, the wines were acquired.

Weingut Franz Karl Schmitt was founded in 1549 and has been in family possession ever since those days.  It was in 1900 that Franz-Karl Schmitt, grandfather of the current owner, produced the first trockenbeerenauslese in Rheinhessen from the Flaschenhahl vineyard in Hipping.  The four bottles we tasted bear variations in name: Franz Karl Schmitt, Hermann Franz Schmitt, and Hermannshof.  They are all from the same winery bearing new labels and corks.  The later marked with Herrmannshof Neuverkorkt 1998.

The label on the oldest bottle from 1898 does not indicate the grape.  Nierstein is home to Sylvaner and in 1910 only 15% of it was planted with Riesling.  It is possible this is a blend of Riesling and Sylvaner which echoes a comment Michael Broadbent made about the 1921 Niersteiner Hermannshof TBA.  I should also point out this bottle is a Cabinetwein indicating a special wine historically kept in a separate part of the cellar.

The wines were served one at a time out of purposefully procured small wine glasses.  This gave us the collective opportunity to taste the wines within minutes of the bottle being opened and individually decide if we wanted to keep the wine around any longer.

All of the wines are in much better shape than I expected.  The 1898 Franz Karl Schmitt, Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Auslese Cabinetwein, Rheinhessen  with honied aromas and medium body, quickly recalibrated my expectations.  There is pure pleasure here.  Delicacy came in the form of the 1905 Hermann Franz Schmitt, Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen which did soon fade to reveal piercing acidity in the finish.  The 1915 Hermannshof, Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen is unequivocally great from the nose to the pure marmalade flavors, minerals, and unctuous, glycerin filled body.  At 102 years of age, the higher residual sugar and acidity will ensure many more years of pleasure.  In fact, the dregs of the bottle drank well at the end of the evening.

With respect to the three oldest bottles, vintage variation aside, there is a sense of continuity in flavor from herbs and apricots.  In returning to the wines I was left with the feeling that the 1898 and 1905 were made using similar methods whereas the 1915 was made by a different hand.  However, vintages do matter which accounts for the unctuous 1915 and round, racy 1964 Hermannshof, Niersteiner Kehr Und Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen.  These wines deserve a closer historical look so I will write a follow up post in the near future.

We cleansed our palates with the textured NV Grands Comptoirs Champenois, Champagne Brut Comte de Vic.  This is a late 1980s to early 1990s release with fully mature flavors, yeast, and never-ending texture.  I found it best on the second night, once again highlighting that a non-vintage Champagne may deserve careful aging.

Fate finally caught up with me for four of our 1964 Rioja bottles were affected by TCA leaving five to be enjoyed.  All of these wines were double-decanted before being served in flights of three.  The most surprising wine is the 1964 Campo Viejo, Rioja which is the basic wine made just one year after the founding of the winery.  In fact Campo Viejo switched facilities in 1965.  This wine still reveals ripe fruit mixed with spices made possible by the comparatively short time spent in oak.

My favorites include the 1964 Riojanas, Monte Real, Rioja Gran Reserva, the 1964 Gomez Cruzado, Honorable, Rioja Gran Reserva , and the 1964 Bodegas Montecillo, Vina Monty, Rioja.  Incredibly, the Monte Real appears to still be developing due to youthful focus.  The Gomez Cruzado never lost all of its bottle stink but in the mouth it is crisp with wood notes and certainly a wine to try again.  I found the Montecillo, the only all Tempranillo wine we tasted, the roundest.

These particular wines show the success achieved with Tempranillo based blends based on old, dry-farmed, bush vines raised with the traditional method of long oak aging.  This method of winemaking developed in the 19th century based on Bordeaux techniques and adopted to what was best for Rioja.   They are not fragile when exposed to air and all have a good spine of acidity which allows them live on.  The tasting also reminds us that there are no guarantees with old bottles.

Please find my tasting notes below.  You will notice a larger than usual number of dinner wine notes at the end.  The Madeira collector Bob Stern, whom I first met several years ago, was in town and able to join.  He has taken his passion one step further and is now importing Madeira from H. M. Borges. Thus he could present an array of samples for us to taste.

I could not have organized this tasting without Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co., offering me his precious bottles of Rioja.  I must also thank our generous guest who, in sharing his German wines, ensured a once in a lifetime experience to taste three German wines older than one century.


A German Start

1898 Franz Karl Schmitt, Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Auslese Cabinetwein, Rheinhessen
Shipped by Allyn & Scott Wines.  Imported by Wine Cellars.  Tagged The Don Stott Cellar.  Recorked in 1998. New labels.  A very clear, tawny amber color.  The nose is touched by boytrtis with honied aromas, fresh herbs, and tea.  The flavors are drier than expected, of medium body, and of sharp yet focused acidity.  The body speaks of remarkable condition as tangy, lemon citrus flavors come out in the middle, all of it persisting through the long finish.  ***(*) Now.

1905 Hermann Franz Schmitt, Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen
Shipped by Allyn & Scott Wines.  Imported by Wine Cellars.  Tagged The Don Stott Cellar.   Recorked in 1998. New labels.  A very clear, lighter tawny amber with a touch more yellow.  There is a botrytis touch as well but this is the most delicate wine of the quartet of old Germans.  It too is dry with fresh and bright acidity, herbs, and a savory, short finish.  It dries out quicker revealing piercing acidity in the end. ** Now.

1915 Hermannshof, Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen
Shipped by Allyn & Scott Wines.  Imported by Wine Cellars.   Tagged The Don Stott Cellar.  Recorked in 1998. New labels.  The darkest being tawny in color.  This still smells great.  In the mouth it is unctuous and mineral infused with plenty of forward body.  Flavors of apricot and peach mix with orange marmalade.  This is a good wine with round, glycerin body.  **** Now – 2027.

1964 Hermannshof, Niersteiner Kehr Und Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen
Shipped by Allyn & Scott Wines.  Imported by Wine Cellars.   Tagged The Don Stott Cellar.  Recorked in 1998. New labels.  Of yellow straw the color is the lightest and the nose the most subtle.  One is not prepared for the much sweeter and rounded flavors in this unctuous wine.  There is still ripe fruit, fine tea notes, and a racy character. **** Now – 2027.


Palate Cleansing Champagne

NV Grands Comptoirs Champenois, Champagne Brut Comte de Vic
Imported by The RareWine Co.  Alcohol 12%.  A very clear amber color.  It is best on the second day. There are very fine, strong bubbles which quickly form a mousse that adds ripe texture to the start.  Flavors of ripe white then yellow fruit mix with yeast and mature notes.  With air ripe spices come out in the watering finish. ***(*) Now but will last.


1964 Rioja

1964 Bilbainas, Clarete Fino, Rioja Gran Reserva
Founded in 1901 by Santiago Ugarte, the son of a wine negociant, during the Rioja phylloxera epidemic.  The main winery was built at Barrio de la Estacion in Haro.  This wine is a blend of 65% Tempranillo and 35% Garnacha that spent 9-10 years in American oak barrels.  TCA.  Not Rated.

1964 Bilbainas, Vendimia Especial, Rioja Reserva 
One of the top wines this wine is a blend of70% Tempranillo and 30% Garnacha sourced from the Zaco vineyard.  It spent 18 months in large wooden vats then 6-8 (or 9-10) years in American oak barrels.  This is a bright wine with tart red fruit and a grippy nature.  The wine is still youthful but the leather notes speak of age.  *** Now but will last.

1964 Bilbainas, Vina Pomal, Rioja Reserva Especial 
This label has existed for over 100 years and always featured fruit from the Vina Pomal vineyard between the Ebro and Tiron rivers.  Apparently Winston Church drank it regularly.  It is a blend of 70% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha, and 5% Mazuelo, Graciano, and Viura.  It spent 1 year in tank followed by 6-7 years in American oak barriques.  TCA.  Not Rated.

1964 Campo Viejo, Rioja 
Founded in 1963, Camp Viejo moved from Rioja Baja to an industrial part of Logrono in 1965.  The Crianza is typically a blend of mostly 80% Tempranillo followed by 20% Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano.  It spent 18 months in large vats followed by 30 months in American oak barriques.  A fine nose makes way to a fruity start that is still ripe and flavored by spices in the finish.  The relatively short aging in wood results in this wine having the most fruit out of all tasted.  Perhaps not the most complex flavors the wine is, nevertheless, a fine drink with finely textured, ripe flavors.  *** Now – 2022.

1964 Franco-Espanolas, Excelsos, Rioja Gran Reserva 
Bodegas Franco-Espanolas history begins in 1890 when Frederick Anglade Saurat came to Logrono from Bordeaux.  Once his vineyards were in full production he founded the Bodegas, with Spanish capital, in 1901.  The Excelsos is the top gran reserve released only in the best vintages.  This rare wine is a blend of 80% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, and 10% Mazuelo that spent 18 months in large wooden vats and 6-7 years in American oak barrels.  It was released in 1980.  TCA.  Not Rated.

1964 Gomez Cruzado, Honorable, Rioja Gran Reserva 
Founded in 1886.  This is a blend of 65% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha, and 10% Mazuelo and Graciano.  This is fermented and raised in large wooden vats for 24 months followed by aging for 5 years in old American oak barrels.  It was bottled in 1972.  Quite stinky at first then a transition to an attractive funk.  However it is clean in the mouth where there are very lively flavors, crisp fruit, and wood shavings.  A delight in the mouth.  If I am picky, the finish is a little short.  ***(*) Now – 2025.

1964 Bodegas Montecillo, Vina Monty, Rioja 
Founded in 1870, Bodegas Montecillo is one of the oldest firms in Rioja. The Vina Monty is the top wine.  Produced solely from Tempranillo it spent 6 to 12 months in large wooden vats then 48 months in American oak barrels.  The 1964 vintage was produced at the old winery pre-dating the Osborne acquisition of 1973.  A good nose of fruit and mixed herbs.  There is round, red fruit, bright acidity, and a fine wood note. ***(*) Now – 2022.

1964 Frederico  Paternina, Rioja Gran Reserva
Founded in 1898, Frederico Paternina owns no vineyards. This is a blend of 70% Tempranillo with 30% Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano.   This Gran Reserva spent up to six years in American oak barrels and other volumes.  TCA.  Not Rated.

1964 Riojanas, Monte Real, Rioja Gran Reserva
Founded in 1890.  A blend of mostly 70% Tempranillo, 15% Mazuelo, 5% Garnacha, 2% Graciano, and 3% Viura and Malvasia.  It spent 12 to 18 months in large wooden tanks then aged for 4.5 to 6 years in American oak casks and other sizes.  Part of the fruit underwent carbonic maceration.  A touch musty at first but cleans up to reveal aromas of broth.  The bright flavors of cranberry are fresh and grippy.  The wine is driven by acidity.  This is the most youthful wine of them all, still focused and on the upslope of development. ***(*) Now – 2025.


Dinner Wines

1970 LAN, Lanciano Rioja
Founded in 1970. This wine is a blend of 80% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, and 10% Mazuelo that spent 18 months in tank and 2 years in American oak casks.  Imported by The Rare Wine Co.  Quite comforting with a combination of wood box notes, mature yet freshly delivered red fruit, and garrigue.  The flavors become meaty with air.  There is moderate weight and though the tannins are largely resolved a bit of structure comes out in the finish.  ***(*) Now but will last.

1978 Torres, Gran Coronas, Penedes Reserva
Imported by Chateau & Estates.  This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that was fermented in stainless steel then aged for 18 months in American oak casks.  It was bottled in 1980. Alcohol 12.5%.  There is a tart, assertive start that is infused with some funk.  The wine soon becomes weightier with prominent acidity, green pepper notes, and tons of grip.  Quite fun to drink.  *** Now but will last.

2007 Bonneau, Chateauneuf du Pape
Imported by Bordeaux Wine Locators.  Alcohol 15%. This lively red wine is bright in flavor and poised for many years of development.  I particularly like the fine mixture of Christmas spices which add complexity to the red fruit. A real treat, I wish I had tasted it some more. **** Now – 2027.

NV Rare Wine Co, Henriques & Henriques Imperial Reserve Malmsey
Imported by The Rare Wine Co.  This Madeira is a blend of old stocks of Malmsey from Henriques & Henriques. Mannie created the blend with John Cossart shortly before he passed away. It was released in honor of John Cossart in 2008.  Alcohol 20%.  There are pungent aromas of orange marmalade.  In the mouth is a rounded, dense start followed by powerful pungent flavors and racy residual sugar.  Supporting this is acidity to match.  The wine is incensed with Christmas spices. I imagine this will slowly develop for a few more decades.  ****.

1990 H. M. Borges, Sercial
Imported by Next Chapter Wines & Spirits.  Alcohol 20%.  An amber-tawny color.  Slightly pungent on the nose it is off to a round start that immediately unleashes piercing acidity.  There is lovely body weight which adds tension to this acidity driven wine.  Complexity comes from baking spices.  ****.

NV H. M. Borges, 15 year old Verdelho
Imported by Next Chapter Wines & Spirits.  Alcohol 19%.  There is a low-lying, deep nose.  In the mouth are taut orange citrus flavor and round body with piercing, laser sharp acidity.  Sweet and tense.  Good future potential.  ***.

2005 H. M. Borges, Tina Negra Colheita
Alcohol 20%.  Bottled in 2017. A very good, deep nose.  A racy, weighty start brings ripe flavors and sweetness in this round, tense wine.  A cherry middle makes way to a sweeter finish.  Good stuff. ***(*).

1998 H.M. Borges, Malmsey Colheita
This wine was aged in casks for over 8 years.  Bottled in 2006/7. Alcohol 19%.  A touch of satisfying pungency on the nose.  In this mouth this is a powerful wine with fruit, nuts, and piercing acidity. ***.

1995 H. M. Borges, Bual Colheita
This wine was aged in oak casks for at least 5 years.  Alcohol 19%.  A pungent, piercing nose.  In the mouth are spicy flavors delivered as a tense core.  Notes of evergreen and Christmas spices add complexity before the textured finish. ***(*).

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