1996 Faustino I Gran Reserva Rioja



There is a saying among vintners that bottled wine is a time capsule – everything that happened during the vintage is held within the bottle, waiting on us to enjoy. And like most time capsules, it reveals treasures, some forgotten and some strongly remembered, of ourselves, our friends and families, and our pasts. Perhaps no other region on earth is more dedicated to making these liquid time capsules than Rioja, Spain.

Although there is evidence of Romans farming wine in Rioja, modern winemaking really took hold in the 1850s with the immigration of many French vintners. The vine louses of powdery mildew and then phylloxera struck Bordeaux in the 1840s and 1860s, dramatically reducing yields and destroying large amounts of vines. Fleeing these twin threats, many French vintners settled in Rioja, planted vines, and began to make wine on a large scale.

Being from Bordeaux, these new immigrants set about making wine like from the old country – meaning wines that were deliberately made to be aged until perfectly mature over many years or even decades. As this style developed in Rioja, the aging process became both time in cask as well as in bottle before release, with the best of the best wines sometimes being released long after the vintage. These aging times later were codified into law, with the labels Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva representing successively longer aging for the best possible wines.

One such family to embark on this aging process was Eleuterio Martinez Arzok, founder of the now-150-year-old winery Faustino, which is run by his descendant, Don Julio Martinez, today. Today’s bottle, Faustino I, is their top bottle, which has now been aging a splendid 276 months for us to enjoy. It’s like bottled poetry:

Here is a classic, fully mature Rioja in all its glory – aromas of rose petals, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla pod all intermingle with notes of cedar, forest floor and walnut. It is a heavenly, pronounced expression of wine that is utterly engaging. The palate is a thing of beauty. There is a certain smoothness that can only be achieved as a wine ages, a harmonious glow on the palate that creates a huge depth of flavor, while remaining lithe. It is a powerful richness—one without weight. I admit it – I love Gran Reserva Rioja, but the combination of palate weight, vibrancy and aromas is not for everyone. But for those of you who, like me, treasure old wine, this one is a superlative experience.

This is, of course, ready to drink now but there is no rush. I have tasted enough aged Riojas to believe that this 1996 Faustino I Gran Reserva will last at least an additional 23 years in your cellar.

Where were you, and what were you doing, 23 years ago? Take a sip of this Faustino and stroll down memory lane. Or, as the New York Times put it in 1967, “to take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.”

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