Two weeks ago I was all set to take part in a virtual Zoom tasting of Bodegas LAN’s top cuvee, a reserva named Culmen, with a group of other wine writers and representatives of the winery. (https://bodegaslan.com/en/) As with too many things in this plague year, my day fell apart and I was unable to participate. And that ended up being a good thing. Yes, I missed seeing many familiar faces and enjoying a glass or two with the people who had made the wine, but I think it turned out in my favor after all.
In the past several years, whenever I get a sample to review from a winery or a public relations group, I have more often than not given the wine only a day or two to show its stuff. Taste on day one after opening, and then maybe another look-see 24 hours later to see if it had held up, possibly improved, or if it had completely fallen apart. Unfortunately too many of the wines I gave this little bit of extra scrutiny to failed to seize the moment or rise to the occasion. Most of the time, my initial impression turned out to be correct. Apart from a few pleasant surprises, wines that were clumsy, hot, or oddly unbalanced on day one usually stayed that way.
My sample pile is much lower these days, fewer chances to dig into the unknown, so in order to entertain myself, I figured I’d give the Culmen at least an extra day to show what it was made of. After day one, I realized that I would be able to give the wine three or four days to introduce itself. Why? Well, on day one this dark, brooding Rioja was tighter than a frog’s bottom, which we all know is water-tight. It was going to need more than a quick decant and a few swirls of the glass to get it to start talking.
Before we take a look at how the wine performed over the four days, here’s a little bit about the wine itself.
Culmen is a blend of 88% tempranillo and 12% graciano. The former variety can show low acids even in a wet year, but 2011 was a drought year in Rioja and the tempranillo was under tremendous stress. Yields were low and the fruit showed substanial concentrations of polyphenols (in the simplest terms, those compounds that eventually provide a wine with color and texture, aroma and flavor). As expected, acids were low and pH high. The graciano, as is its wont, provided the lion’s share of the wine’s acid, and thus its eventual brightness on the palate. It also made a generous contribution to the wine’s rich color. The grapes were sourced from estate vines grown at an elelvation of nearly 500 meters, which are between 40-60 years old, and trained in traditional Riojan bush or head-pruned style. Much of Rioja enjoys the protection of the Sierra Cantabria mountain range to the north and west, and thus a more moderate climate than many regions around Spain. This location provides warm days and cool nights, a steady diurnal swing that allows for optimum grape development.
The grapes were hand-harvested and hand-sorted, followed by fermentation in small, cone-shaped tanks to maximize color extraction, then by malolactic fermentation and an initial aging of 26 months in new French oak barrels. The wine was bottled and allowed to rest for nearly another two years. As a reserva, the wine is required by law to age at least three years in cask and bottle, and at least one of those years must be in oak barrique. The Culmen is produced only in those years regarded as superior by the LAN winemaking team. The 2011 release is the most recent vintage available of this label. $60-65 SRP. 13.5% abv.
So, onto the show…
In the glass the wine is opaque, deep maroon lightening slightly only near the rim. On the nose there are intense aromas: red cherry, cherry pie, oak and vanilla, with bits of graphite and some fresh flowers. In the mouth, intense remains the operative qualifier. This is a massive wine, not showing more than a year or two of age out of the nine it’s been alive. Not quite primary but still so, so youthful. There is a fascinating tension between its nearly impenatrable concentration and the refreshing fruit flavors it offers. There is plenty of tannin to go around but that’s balanced by loads of bright acid to create an impressive structure. The alcohol seems a bit desperate for attention at this point. The finish is long and lingering. A powerhouse of a wine.
The aromas remained unchanged, with cherry, vanilla, oak, and pencil shavings still prominent. Underlines in my notes on oak and cedar; vanilla and pencil shavings. Likewise, the acid and tannins are still at attention; happily the alcohol is a bit more well-behaved. Still super-concentrated, and the finish remains long, if not a bit longer today. In the margins — “chocolate thunder!” and “black beauty!”
I was disappointed but intrigued to see that little had changed in 24 hours. The wine remained unmoved, stolid, and still intense. Forty-eight hours since opening has had little effect. Underlined previous comments on concentration, youth, and size. In the margins: Massive.
Nose is getting a bit heavier with notes of baked cherries, but after several minutes in the glass out pops brighter fruit; the texture lengthens and gets silkier. Notes of black pepper, a bit of stoniness; tannins still powerful but now micro-fine and tight. Quite a transformation, certainly unexpected. Forty-five minutes later there are growing aromas of dried herbs, and increasingly complex red and black fruit notes. This is a wine with many years left in it. I’d love to see it in another 10 years, but certainly grateful for the chance to see it in its youth.
**Wine was sample from Bodegas LAN via Gregory+Vine, New York NY
**Featured photo and vineyard overhead courtesy of Bodegas LAN. Bottle shots property of The Grape Belt. Photos cannot be used without express written permission.