Tutored tasting of CVNE and Contino old and rare Riojas
by winemaker Jesús Madrazo Mateo
St. Stephens Club, London SW1, 21 March 2001
"I was chuffed bordering on surprised at my apparent organisation surrounding three days of events from 20 – 22 March: train ticket from Manchester purchased sufficiently in advance to get the £20 fare, several tastings slotting neatly into place around the big Spanish affair including a tutored Italian on the Wednesday morning, if I/they got my/their skates on. Then the above, last minute-ish invitation landed in my inbox (I’ll resist any facetious speculation about second-tier bums-on-seats). I thought about it for perhaps 1.6 seconds – sorry ICE (Italian trade office) but I guess I’m a tasting-slut. So, time to squeeze in the Swiss first... “I’m afraid, sir, we’re going to have a problem… you can’t wear jeans upstairs,” informs the ‘bouncer’ at the Institute of Directors. Pity they didn’t mention that on the invitation, methinks. Still, there’s nothing like some time to kill in a wet and miserable Westminster to enhance your anticipation (caught a wet and miserable cold afterwards, from memory). On to St. Stephens Club – looks a bit posh. I wonder if you can wear jeans…"
Viña Real Gran Reservas – sourced from their vineyards close to El Ciego in Rioja Alavesa in the north of the region. (E = excellent, VG = very good and G = good, according to official vintage rating by the Rioja Consejo Regulador. Approx retail prices per bottle indicated after notes.)
1964 (E) – showing greater depth of colour in the middle with brown/orange outside. Beautiful classic mature Rioja nose with plenty of volume of intense ‘cheesy’, leathery dried fruits; concentrated red fruits on the palate give way to liquorice with a bit of alcohol on the finish and moderate tannins still adding grip. Lovely length, the fruit is still rich and lingering. (£80-85)
1970 (VG) – not as deep in appearance as above but perhaps displaying similar age character; pungent and leathery on the nose the fruit is less obvious. Fuller in the mouth with more extract and firmer tannins on the finish, again liquoricey but perhaps it’s more closed (or less concentrated). However the flavours certainly linger with warm alcohol and higher acidity. (£72-78)
1975 (VG) – looks older and thinner with odd herbaceous asparagus aromas; this carries through to the palate but supported by some liquorice and surprisingly cooked fruit. Firm tannins rather contrast and jar with rapidly maturing fruit. (£35-45)
1981 (VG) – appears quite brown and light with some red in the middle; caramelized sweet liquorice aromas but fruit is also a bit reticent (and minty too). Smooth vanilla texture enhanced by red fruits but it’s beginning to oxidise; fading tannins manage to keep it up on the finish for the moment. (£50-60)
1982 (E) – much deeper and less advanced in colour; bit 'dusty' on the nose but rather closed although there are hints of game and spice. Rich and concentrated in the mouth, again liquorice and red fruits, with lovely length and quite firm finish; this still needs time! (£92-98)
1991 (VG) – showing just a hint of browning, the first bottle is a little more farmyard-y than you might like (we conclude it’s brettanomyces.) but full with sweet oak. The second has greater volume on the nose, rich and gamey but lots of sweet fruit too; lush and smooth, big concentrated fruit with liquoricey hints and great intensity and weight. Moderate to firm tannins but silky and good acidity too. The ’91 is made from 80% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and Mazuelo, and 5% Graciano. 5 days fermentation in stainless vats controlled at below 33 degrees, followed by malo-lactic fermentation in barrel and 4 years ageing in American and French oak. (£18-25)
Comments – the winemaking is very similar between VR and Imperial; it’s a question of "source material" determining the style, although perhaps they do a slightly longer maceration with VR. Both are racked every 6 months or so. All are fermented with indigenous yeasts and the malo usually starts naturally too.
Imperial Gran Reservas – made from 50+ year old vines yielding around 4 tonnes/ha; 85-90% Tempranillo, about 10% Graciano and a tad of Mazuelo (all Rioja Alta fruit from their high vineyards around Villalba northwest of Haro.)
1970 – quite intense big colour but browning a touch; full and gamey nose, attractively pungent but with plenty of dried fruits too. Lively ripe red fruits in the mouth; concentrated, smoky and herby and offering quite firm tannins on its sound length. Lovely. (£65-75)
1975 – looks older than above, very perfumed with a hint of mushroom but also sweet red fruits, which carry through to the palate; rich and velvety with concentrated cherry and liquorice plus a tad earthy too, super length and quite firm but less grip than the ’70; fair acidity and alcohol complement the finish. (£35-45)
1982 – big colour and still fairly youthful, powerful nose delivering lots of wild fruits with floral and spicy nuances; getting gamey but ripe and sweet too, reasonable grip coupled with nice fruit, weight and length. Very good but perhaps lacks the elegance/class of above, then again it might develop better. (£85-95)
1987 (VG) – showing just a hint of age, surprisingly intense colour; full-on ripe fruit with vanilla wood lurking in the background and light ‘cheesiness’ too. Rich and earthy, lots of fruit to counter the oak with gamier finish, firm dry tannins and high-ish acidity. Needs time. (£32-38)
1991 – similar colour to above, perhaps a shade more orange; quite sweet fruit on the nose and oaky with it, but that sweet fruit is quite concentrated in the mouth although actually oxidising a bit too; quite firm and long with some noticeable acidity, but lacks elegance somehow. (£20-25)
1994 (E) – very deep and full, red/purple; quite closed aromas, a tad herby and minty with black cherry fruit. Fiery and rich, very concentrated with monster tannins, oak and acidity too and bold elongated finish. A long way to go yet! (£25-30)
1995 (E) Real de Asúa Reserva – pretty youthful looking but less intense than above, perfumed toasty vanilla oak and up-front black cherry fruit followed by more wood, extracted and fruity. Attractive now but lacks elegance (nearly 14% too). Fermented in barrel and left for 5 weeks in total, then transferred to (more) French oak for malo. (£40-50)
Contino Reservas – the first single-estate Rioja they produced, the grapes come from a 62 ha property near Laserna in the Alavesa, which is owned 50/50 by the family and CVNE. The old (11th Century) farmhouse and cellars were renovated in 1974 and a new winery fitted in situ to re-create a ‘Chateau’ concept. Vintage is usually earlier here than elsewhere in Rioja due to the "special microclimate" formed by proximity to the river and vineyard aspect; combine this with old vines (some 70 years) and low yields and the result is higher fruit extract, acidity and alcohol, we were told. The wines are matured for 2 years in a mix of French and American oak.
1974 (G) – quite orangey/brown in colour; gamey nose, lightly herbaceous too, with mature liquoricey notes; smooth and mature, a little dried out actually but there’s some red fruit there blended with dried herbs, then finishing with overly dry tannins. (n/a)
1982 – deep dark red gives way to a shade of brown/orange; pretty farmy and rustic on the nose, warm and pruney with big fruit concentration balanced by maturing earthy tones; quite high alcohol, firm tannins, fair acidity, great structure and length with lingering liquorice fruit. Fantastic, needs more time as it’s just beginning to open up. (£92-98)
1985 (G) – (1st bottle) similar colour to above but perhaps less intense and appearing a tad ‘older’, rather closed with light leathery aromas. The fruit is resiny followed by chunky tannins and grip with liquorice undertones, not sure if it has the concentration to survive those tannins.
2nd bottle is more open and gamey on the nose, it’s not as hard on the palate with richer fruit to balance those tannins; still attractively resiny and liquorice but perhaps fades quickly in the end compared to the alcohol and firmness of tannins. (£45-55)
1994 – quite youthful complexion with maybe less depth than the Imperial; rich dark cherry fruit reveals itself, quite peppery and leathery too but distinctly fruity (although with baked edge); firm but ripe tannins, hot-ish alcohol and long finish. (£25-30)
1996 (VG) – deep purple (“…smoke on the water”… sorry, couldn’t resist it), chocolatey oak and damsons on the nose; lots of sweet fruit, ripe and concentrated and also juicy with dry but ripe tannins to balance, finishing quite smoothly with reasonable length. Very nice now, maybe lacks finesse to go long term. (£18-25)
1996 Viña del Olivo Reserva (a ‘special project’ experiment using 60% French oak, 39% American and 1% Hungarian, medium-toast) – purpley black colour, pretty toasty aromas but fruit is rich underneath. Ripe and sweet, the spicy oak is softened by attractive fruit; moderate grip with quite high acidity and alcohol but good length. Lacks subtlety perhaps but style is towards in-your-face ‘modern’; some bitterness from the oak (?) on the finish (must be the 1% Hungarian!) (£40-50)
Oddball finale – 1939 (a ‘standard’ vintage apparently) white Rioja (made from Malvasia and Viura late harvested in December, re-corked in 1970 with 15% of wine from that vintage added): It’s mushroom-y, lightly oxidised, showing coconut oak and alcohol / volatile notes on the nose, quite intense with a touch of botrytis rot character too! Oxidised undertones in the mouth but also plenty of citrus fruits and dried apricots, just a bit of sweetness with quite high acidity giving back some freshness, plus actually a little wood tannin too! Weird but wonderful.
Further tit-bits of info:
CVNE farms 530 ha of vineyards making it one of the biggest vineyard owners in Rioja; the highest yields are around 6 tonnes/ha (so what? Yields huh...). A new winery was finished for the ’91 harvest at the original bodega in Haro, extending capacity to enable them to vinify separately by grape variety, vineyard and quality. Just to show off, they’re building another one at Assa close to the Ebro not far from Logroño, where production will start from this year’s vintage. Fruit from the river vineyards close to Torremontalbo are used for CVNE Reservas. Jesús Madrazo Mateo is a fifth generation descendant of the Real de Asúa brothers, joint founders of CVNE in 1879.
UK stockists include La Vigneronne (London SW7), Lay & Wheeler (Colchester), Berry Bros & Rudd, selected branches of Bottoms Up, William Morton (Glasgow), SWIG (NW3) and Nickolls & Perks (Stourbridge).