I've a little story about Rioja and the wines made by three sister properties in CUNÉ, Viña Real and Contino which I've come to know and love over my years in the wine industry.
In early 2008, I was very lucky to go on a trip to vist the winery of the Compania del Viticulture del Norte de Espana... or 'CUNÉ' for short. They are based in the heart of the historic town of Haro in Rioja, right next to Muga.
They have been making wine since the 1870s when winemakers from France went in search of vineyards free from Phylloxera, the mite that killed so many of Europe's vines in the 19th century.
Travelling by train, the closest town with good vineyards (and a train station) was Haro. The CUNÉ building is still to this day right beside the station! This fortuitous sequence of events, coupled with good winemaking, led them to purchase different sites in Rioja - one more in Rioja Alta at Contino and another in Rioja Alavesa, where they began Viña Real.
Three vineyard areas each with totally different soils and microclimates, but with a very united concept, to produce the highest quality Rioja that each vineyard area can yield. But, because each is so different, you end up with three amazing, top of the range Riojas. Magic! You can see why I liked my visit so much.
Now: the three wineries and their styles...
CUNÉ who have Impérial as their flagship wine, are a traditional Rioja Alta winery. Rich and concentrated and deliciously smooth. Yum!
Viña Real is from Rioja Alavesa and the winery is very, very modern, but with no electronic pumps at all. How? It is a winery on top of a hill that has been dug into the hill to make it one colossal gravity-fed winery: grapes go in at the top, barrels fill at the bottom. The wines are typified by a svelte elegnace and softness and wonderful complexity - far more Burgundian if you will, to Imperial's Bordeaux. Their Gran Reserva can age impeccably for decades. The name comes from the Real de Asua family who founded the winery.
But Contino is the one that really stole my heart - it was Rioja's fist single-vineyard winery and it is, really, a 'garage' winery. Pretty small and in a cluster of farm buildings, it has the feeling of being run as a Leaving Cert project - casks all over the place with some wines that break the regulations and others that are at the pinnacle of what Rioja can stand for.
It's in a hook of the Ebro river and the huge Galet-like stones at the water's edge, in which the vines grow, are just like the Rhone valley. In fact, in the 1970s, at a Chateauneuf du Pape tasting, the Contino winemaker slipped an unmarked bottle of Contino Reserva Rioja into the line-up: it was the judge's favourite 'Chateauneuf du Pape' of the day! These wines are very special and contain a much higher than usual percentage of the Graciano grape, giving structure, colour and depth of flavour.
Oh, and in the middle of the vineyard is a walled area in which stands an olive tree that is about a thousand years old. I have the photos!
I've put together two boxes (6 bottles in each) for you to choose from:
- The icons: the highest-quality Rioja with two bottles of each of Viña Real Gran Reserva, Contino Reserva, and Imperial Reserva (only made in exceptional years).
- The classics: three bottles of Viña Real Crianza and three of the Viña Real Reserva, to give you a delicious view of how elegant and complex their version of Rioja is.
I asked the Contino winemaker, Jesus de Madrazo, if he drank Contino all the time, like, it's pretty intense stuff... he asked me "when?" and I said, "you know, like, what's your Tuesday night wine?"
He stepped back and looked at me and replied as though I had brought an epiphany "Tuesday Night Wines?! What a fantastic idea! Yes... I will make a category like this for Tuesday nights... Fantastic". I still don't know what he drinks though.
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