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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
23 Jun 2008

Last week I had a real thrill, watching a bottle of red rioja made in 1900 being opened, with a fair amount of palaver, and then finding it tasted absolutely amazing, in the company of the descendants of those who made it but had never tasted it before. The (none-too-clear) picture on the right shows the bottle being opened with port tongs that had been heated up on a naked flame and applied to the bottleneck below the cork in case it crumbled. In fact the cork was in perfect shape and I still have it, branded clearly 1900. Below is Adam Lechmere of filming the bottle with his new Flip video in the Christie's boardroom.

The 1900, which tasted very considerably better than a supposed Ch Margaux 1900 I had a few years ago, had never been recorked apparently. Nor had the wonderful 1945 that was also served last week, although Riscal's consultant Paul Pontallier, coincidentally of Ch Margaux, advised them to recork the 1964 we enjoyed.

In the 1980s Marqués de Riscal was well known for having had a problem with too many, too old oak barrels but has since had a clean sweep and nowadays is most famous for having commissioned world-famous American architect Frank Gehry to design a ground-breaking modern monument and hotel (see Julia's excellent pictorial record) in their tiny village of Elciego in Rioja Alavesa but it is also well known for having an almost incredible amount of stock of older vintages locked away in their cobwebby cellars. On my pre-Gehry visit there with purple pager Victor de la Serna in 2000 I was told they had about 180,000 bottles of old vintages back to 1862. "Now what shall we try?" mused our host as we looked at stack after stack of ancient bottles. "'45," said Victor, quick as a flash, adding. "and '36 was awfully good too. In fact we had a duff bottle of 1945 before opening a healthy but amazingly youthful one – very much less developed than a glorious 1947 from the year of Victor's birth. 

Why are all these bottles sitting here? According to José Luis Muguiro, who was at Christie's, London, last week with Luis Hurtado de Amézaga to signal the fact that the auctioneer is to sell off some of this stock, "our fathers didn't like to open old vintages – they just wanted to keep them." He told me that 1958 and 1964 were the only vintages they had in any real quantity, adding that he didn't know how many bottles of 1945 they had in the cellar. "105," snapped David Elswood of Christie's from the end of the table. He has been sniffing around the Elciego cellars because this Thursday 25 Jun Christie's will be auctioning 12 bottles and one magnum of the famous 1945 vintage, the same amount of the 1964 vintage, and one precious bottle of that 1900.

But this is just a preamble to a much more ambitious charity sale and wine weekend that will take place in the Gehry hotel, run by Starwood, in Rioja on 24-26 Oct 2008 at which a lot containing wines from every single one of 132 vintages will be auctioned. This is believed to be the most comprehensive collection of vintages of any wine sold ever and is designed to celebrate Marqués de Riscal's 150th anniversary while raising money for UNICEF and an American charity. More details of the Super Vintage Weekend at

See my tasting notes of ancient Marqués de Riscal vintages tomorrow.