Bottle ageing is a process of reduction which gives a wine that has undergone excellent wine-making and barrel-ageing processes a certain smoothness and an infinite range of aromatic nuances that constitute its bouquet. Even our most commercial wines spend a minimum of six months ageing in our cellars before being released for sale.
Bottles ageing in our cellars
More commercial wines are the result of blending of various vintages to obtain an average age, a process which is carried out at the end of the barrel ageing process. Gran Reserva wines, on the other hand, which have spent many years in bottles, are not blended. The year of their vintage is shown on the Appellation region label.
Not all vintages are chosen to be "great wines"; two or three per decade at the most are chosen because of their excellence. Making these wines takes at least seven years, at the end of which they are clarified with fresh egg whites. They are then immediately bottled directly from the barrel, without any filtering, and closed with a long cork.
We only use fresh egg whites to clarify our wines.
The corks are further sealed with wax to prevent any contact with the exterior during their many years in the cellar. It is only in this long rest period that they acquire the category of "Gran Reserva", like perfect gentlemen who have nobly grown old, while still maintaining some of their youthful characteristics.
Why our great wines are sealed with wax?
Since 1877, we have kept wines that, due to the extraordinary quality of grapes, have been better disposed to ageing. These are our “Gran Reservas” (Special reserves) or “Great Wines”. We make a special selection in certain years, and only from the Viña Tondonia estate (where we make Gran Reserva whites and reds), and the Viña Bosconia estate.
It would be absurd to even think of sealing young wines with wax, when they are meant for immediate use. Why waste time sealing a bottle that is going to be drunk in a few days time? It would be more of a nuisance than anything. But the Gran Reservas, being more ambitious wines and specially selected for quality, need to be perfectly sealed – they are, after all, going to be kept for several years. Thus they also need a good quality cork to help them develop from youth to adulthood and on to maturity – and then aged – even if they do not reach what we call a “Great Wine”. Great wines need, first and foremost, to be “truly old”, and then “perfect”, within the various criteria that could contribute towards this perfection in each vintage or wine. These “Great Wines” deserve to be treated with “reverence”, adorned and presented in the most dignified and respectful way.
In order to achieve this noble title, they need to be nurtured – in the crib where they sleep, the room that is their abode, the air that they breathe, the temperature within which they nestle, the hands that stroke them, the container in which they are kept, the cork that seals them, and of course with their own personal seal. Needless to say, all of the processes in this long chain need to be natural. As the main protagonist, the wine should be carefully aged, the barrel which accommodates it should be made of good quality oak from selected origins, and similarly the cork should be carefully selected.
Even after all this pampering and care on the part of the bodega workers; after being poured into an elaborate bottle (similar to the old fashioned blown bottles weighing more than 700 grams with a fortified glass base) and after being corked with a natural, long, compact and flexible cork, the wine is still not great yet. It needs to spend many years in the darkness of a bottle ageing cellar, where the relatively high humidity causes mould to form on the exterior of the bottle. The wine will slowly evolve in this environment, and after 6, 8 10 or even more years, it will become a great wine with an exceptional personality.
Experience has shown us, however, that no matter how good the cork’s seal, it can never be perfect under such conditions unless it has an additional external cap to protect it. Experience has also shown us that the ideal product to protect the cork from mould and insects in drier environments is sealing wax. Sealing wax ensures that we do not have to replace the corks.
Gran Reserva white wine bottle waxed and sealed with wire
Our experience has also shown us that with the top waxed, a good cork has as long a life, if not longer, than the wine itself – and sometimes the wine deteriorates before the cork’s sealing powers diminish. The sealing wax, on the other hand, is a solid paste with a physical make-up that cannot be attacked by the various agents in the environment of the bodega. Without it, the damp atmosphere of the bodega (through a process of endosmosis) can give the wine a strange taste. Other substances might mould perfectly to the cork, neck and top of the bottle, but, over such a long period of time, can form chemical compounds that penetrate the cork and taint the wine.
Finally, the sealing wax is the signature that guarantees the origin of the wine it seals. For centuries, all valuable documents were stamped with the seal of the institution they represented. A valuable document without a seal was inconceivable. An envelope with a seal and stamp meant that it deserved special attention; it was not to be taken lightly. Similarly, a bottle with a wax seal and stamp implies that it is something exceptional, and what’s more, guaranteed – not only by the regulating authority in its region, but more importantly, by the seal of its creator.
One last thought. Dress is also important, and just as a Great Wine’s bottle is robust and special, so too must its accessories be special. A serious and dignified dress code must also be complemented by the adequate headgear, and what better hat than a cardinal’s cap to accentuate its look of dignity?
How do you open a bottle that has sealing wax? There are two ways: either hit it with the back of the corkscrew, and then clean the remains off with a clean cloth – this is quite a dirty way as you will find out; or, better, simply screw the corkscrew into the wax and then cork, and with one hand, remove the pieces of wax which fall down as you pull the cork out. You need to open the bottle slowly, taking great care not to let any pieces of wax fall into the wine, and then carefully clean the rim of the bottle with a clean cloth, from the inside to the outside.
Text written by D. Pedro López de Heredia, third generation for "Cursos Rioja" on December 13, 1985.