domingo, 20 de enero de 2013

Bodegas: Cvne - Viña Real - Contino


The rather grandly named Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (Northern Spanish Wine Company) is generally best known by its abbreviated form, CVNE. It was created in 1879 in Haro, the capital of the Rioja wine region, at the peak of the boom, when wineries sprouted up every other day to supply a France devastated by oidium and phylloxera. The founders were two brothers from Bilbao, Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa, together with a friend from Rioja, Isidro Corcuera, and other minor stockholders. In fact, the company was called Corcuera, Real de Asúa y Compañía for a while. Today, the descendants of the founders are still managing the company from their base in Haro’s Barrio de la Estación.

In the early days of its existence, the company acted solely as a négociant, but it soon started buying and planting vineyards and making wines (and brandies). As the years went by, the company gradually moved away from bulk wine (and brandy), and the CVNE name soon morphed into a brand, the more pronounceable CUNE. Master blenders were brought in from Reims in Champagne to make “sparkling Rioja”, and the company started winning awards and medals at the universal exhibitions so popular at the time (Barcelona, London, Brussels, and Paris). It wasn’t long before names that would become classics and pillars of the company, such as Monopole, Viña Real, and Imperial, were born, establishing CVNE as one of the great bodegas not only of Rioja but of the whole of Spain.

The company has always been forward-looking and modern and has always been prepared to buy the latest technology and experiment with new viticultural or winemaking methods. This pioneering mentality, which persists today, has served it well and is certainly one of the factors behind its continued success.

All early example of this innovative spirit was the construction of a new cellar as an extension to the winery between 1890 and 1909. Designed by the legendary Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, it was a startlingly original, innovative building in terms of both form and function. Conventional stone or brick columns were replaced with a metallic structure under the ceiling, which, as well as being spectacular, made working with barrels a lot more comfortable, with more space for moving, manoeuvring, and racking. It has been used to age Imperial in oak barrels ever since it was built.

Imperial has been CVNE´s flagship wine since the 1920s. It took its name from the imperial pint, since some bottles of that size were used to sell the wine. It is the archetype of Rioja Alta: a base of Tempranillo from Haro, Briñas, Briones, Villalba, Cenicero, Ollauri, and so on, balanced by some Mazuelo, Graciano, and even Viura to create a wine with good acidity, somewhat austere, and at around 13% alcohol, presented in a Bordeaux bottle. Traditionally it was two thirds Rioja Alta and one third Rioja Alavesa, while Viña Real was one third Alta and two thirds Alavesa. Nowadays, Imperial is made exclusively with grapes from Rioja Alta, and Viña Real with grapes from Rioja Alavesa.

In July 2004, King Juan Carlos I inaugurated the impressive Viña Real winery at Laguardia, the main building being a huge barrel room designed by the French archi tect Philippe Maziéres. Since then, Vina Real has been a separate company and winery, on the other hand, Viña Real has played a key role in the history of CVNE. Contino is also part of the CVNE group, but it has always been independent, and its wines have therefore been profiled in a separate entry.

Viña Real was initially called Castillo San Mateo. (Other old brand names include Rioja Clarete, Cune Clarete, Rioja Toloño, and Lanceros.) A blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Mazuelo, this is a powerful wine that ages for a greater time even than Imperial. The brand name was finally registered in 1940, and in the best vintages it was designated Reserva Especial.

Almost 130 years after the company was created, the same family is still running it, with Victor Urrutia the managing director and his sister Maria Urrutia in charge of sales and marketing. The bulk of the production is today based on Viña Real Crianza; Cune Blanco, Rosado, Crianza, and Reserva; and Monopole. Corona Semi-Dulce is produced in very small quantities, Viña Real reservas and grandes reservas can be around 150,000 bottles, and Imperial, in the years when it is produced, ranges between 150,000 and 300,000 bottles.

The family owns 24ha (590 acres) of vineyards, mostly around Haro, but they also buy grapes from local growers. Given the quantity of wine the company produces, not to mention the extension of the vineyards, the variability of vintages, and the existence of some brands only in certain years, it is impossible to follow a fixed formula from vineyards to wines. But we can make some general points. The Cune brand, for example, is produced from grapes in Sajazarra. A large proportion of Viña Real comes from 105ha (260 acres) of vineyards in Laserna, planted between 1940 and 2001, that have been cultivated by CVNE for more than 30 years but that do not belong to the company CVNE´s own vineyards in Laguardia also contribute to Viña Real. As for Imperial, the raw material is sourced from Villalba, Haro, Zarratón, Briones, and the oldest vines in Torremontalbo. Real de Asúa comes from grapes in Villalba, northwest of Haro.

Old vintages of Imperial and Viña Real are still available in shops and restaurants in Spain, and though prices vary lot, you can find some bargains. The obvious question when you drink a superb Imperial of 68 or a Viña Real Reserva Especial 1962 to name just two magnificent examples. A typical question is: Would the wines from today age like this? To answer this question, we need some perspective. Old vintages from the 1920s through to the 19605 were bottled between 10 and 12 years after the harvest something that is completely out of the question today, because of the financial cost and the spare required. Until the 1970s, wood aging was never shorter than six years, and it was progressively reduced during the decades of the  and 1980s. Nowadays, the wines age in barrel for about two years, Andd it is not simply the way the wines have been aged that is different, Many other things have changed in Rioja, too.

The answer to our question, therefore, can only be, “It depends,” Not all old wines are good, and not all the wines from today will age faster. Todays wines, when (hey are made from high-quality grapes and when they are vinified and raised traditionally, will age like the old ones. When there is a good vineyard, the wine will always emerge, regardless of how it was made. Some of the early new-wave Riojas from 1992 and 94 have a classic profile today.


- Monopole: Created in 1915, Monopole is the dean of white-wine brands in Spain. Though the first vintages were undoubtedly aged in barrel, the wine was originally intended to be fresher, fruitier, and paler in colour than traditional whites. Today, the Viura grapes are given a soft pressing and cold clarification, and the
must is then fermented in stainless-steel tanks at low temperatures to keep the primary aromas of fruit and flowers. All this counts against the wine’s aging potential, but Monopole is intended to be consumed young.

- Imperial: Imperial is one of the icons of Rioja and one of the strongest and most prestigious brands in Spain. It is produced as Reserva and, in exceptional years, Gran Reserva, though the latter will most probably disappear in future, leaving only one Imperial. The wine was fermented in oak vats until the beginning of the 1940s, when the company changed to concrete, before coming back to oak tinas for the
2001 vintage. Current vintages age for at least 36 months in oak barrels, which is considerably less than used to be the case: until 1970, the wines spent at least six years in oak, and double that or more earlier in the century, imperial is archetypal Haro: serious, austere, subtle, refined, fresh, and balanced. It ages magnificently and, along with Viña Real, remains our favourite of the CVNE wines, even though the company now has more expensive wines in its portfolio. We were lucky enough to taste (and drink) in 2010 a wide range of vintages of Grandes Reservas from 1928 to 2004.

- Real de Asúa: The Real de Asúa label was created with the 1994 vintage as a tribute to the founders of the company (it bears their surname) and it's made only in exceptional vintages from grapes from CVNE’s vineyards in Rioja Alta. What makes it different from all the company's other wines is the aging process, which takes place in 100% new French oak.

- Viña Real: Viña Real means Royal Vineyard, a name that comes from the vineyards located around the Camino Real ("Royal Way") in Elciego, the source for the initial vintages of the wine. Brands were quite volatile in the past, and trademarks were even more of a rarity in the early days of Rioja, so it’s not clear which was the first vintage of Viña Real, it seems it was used during the 1920s and 1930s but not properly registered until 1940. Today, Viña Real is the name of a company, a winery, and a full range of wines, which includes three reds: Crianza (also called Plata, or “Silver“), Reserva (also called Oro, or "Gold*), and Gran Reserva, and a white, Blanco Fermentado en Barrica, a barrel-fermented pure Viura. The wine has always been dark and powerful, hearty and higher in alcohol than Imperial, somewhat hedonistic and bottled in a Burgundy bottle, symbolizing the wines of Rioja Alavesa. Originally the oak was American, but nowadays it’s both American and French in the same proportion. Great bottles from 1954, 1962, or 1964 can still be found and enjoyed. Gran Reserva 2001 is our favourite of the current releases. The Viña Real Reserva 1998 or the more recent 2005 have a good quality-price ratio, are easy to find, and can be enjoyed now.

- Pagos de Viña Real: This prestige cuvée was born with the excellent 2001 vintage and was the first to be vinified in the new Viña Real winery. It is 100% Tempranillo from pagos (vineyards) planted with old vines around the winery, with malolactic fermentation and aging in 100% new French oak, very much following the international taste and style, but somewhat against the traditions of the region.

- Corona: Corona, made from 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia, is only produced in years when the weather permits it, and as a semi-sweet wine, it’s something of a rarity. Sweet wines are always an exception, but they are even less frequent in Rioja. The grapes should have developed some botrytis and are fermented and aged in new American oak barrels. It’s usually consumed young.

CVNE (including Viña Real)
Area under vine: 344ha (850 acres)
Average production: 5 million bottles
Barrio de la Estación s/n, 26200 Haro, La Rioja
Tel: +34 941304 800
Fax: +34 941 304 815

Writen by Hugh Johsnon (The finest wines of Rioja)  

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