Understanding Rioja – F+R takes a trip to the Ebro Valley

Rioja is a wine I love, so I was delighted when the team and I had the opportunity to visit the heart of Spain’s most well-known wine region. And reflecting after a few days spent exploring the towns of Haro and Logrono, the wineries of CVNE, Vina Real and Contino and their myriad of mid-harvest vineyards, I grew to learn about the region at a deeper level.

Crossing the Cantabrian mountains from Spain’s green belt and into Rioja is a complete change of scenery. Where the rain falls heavily in Bilbao, suddenly the land is dry and the climate continental by the time I reach Haro. Rainfall at Contino is around 400mm a year, (half of what falls in Bordeaux) and the dust on my boots while wandering around the early autumn vines was telling. This is Rioja Alta – the most westerly part of the region, home to the highest and driest vineyards producing wines of elegance. Rioja Alavesa, almost a sub-region of Alta, lies just to north of Haro and Logrono, on the northerly banks of the Ebro river and produces wines of more depth and power. Rioja Baja, the biggest of the three areas, shows much more of a Mediterranean influence, as we head towards Zaragoza.

But I’m in town with CVNE (or CUNE as affectionately known) – short for Compana Vinicola del Norte de Espana and we are very much in Alta and Alavesa. Still family owned and run, I spent some time chatting with current owner Victor who, after years working as a consultant in London, returned to take over the family winery from his uncle and now runs it alongside his sister. Victor never had any plans to do this while younger but, perhaps with the calling of his homeland, took on the estate a decade and a half ago.

The company is a massive operation; four wineries and four very different personalities, each run in their own way and in their own spaces.

CVNE in Haro feels like the home winery. Centred around a beautiful courtyard, it is peaceful yet sizeable, with cavernous cellars that date back to times when the area was under Arab rule. The reserves of wine are vast and covered with thick mould. Behind locked iron gates there is even a collection of wines dating from 1879 to 1979, locked away to celebrate the centennial of the winery, the key thrown into the Ebro.

I’m here to experience CVNE’s Gran Reserva Imperial. We taste from 2011 and 2010 to 2004, 1995 and 1988 and the wines are holding up well. Remarkably so. The 1976 knocks me out and 1968 is another level. Wine of this standard, with this complexity should break the bank. I’m reminded of old Echezeaux from the 60s, the Asian spices, soy and deftness of the wine is sublime. Imperial is imperious – when young it is superb, but by god if you can find it with age, hoover it up.

In contrast, the Vina Real winery is James Bond-esque. The cavernous cellars extend into the mountainside, a mind boggling feat of engineering. This is big business large scale Rioja and one of the most well-known brands across the globe. Yet the wines I taste here feel anything but mass produced – Vina Real Gran Reserva plays a third fiddle to the companies top Contino and Imperial labels, but is no less enchanting than either.

I taste 2012, 2010 and 2008 and there is an elegance, before hitting 1995, 1981, 1976, 1962 and 1952. Think they must be over the hill? Think again. I’m back in Burgundy, with sweet fruits still lurking but fragrant spices and earth dominant and acidity that is keeping the heart of all of these wines ticking. In magnificent shape, I’m suddenly kicking myself for ever opening a bottle of any of these wines with less than 30 years of bottle age. “This is what Gran Reserva with age should always taste like”, quips smug Victor.

The final point of the holy trinity visit is Contino winery, quite different to Vina Real. The harvest has just kicked off as I arrive and the winery is in full swing; tractors arriving, grapes coming in, employees in white coats taking samples from tanks full of fresh juice… it is slick as anything I’ve seen.

Contino identifies in a different way to CUNE and Vina Real. There is a relaxed confidence and charm here, a sense that, with the Ebro flowing by and the mountains offering protection from Rioja’s harsh elements, special wines are often born in this place. The focus here is on the more modern styles and I taste some more recent vintages. Contino Blanco 2017 and 2016 makes me question why I don’t drink more white Rioja and the 2007 shows where this is heading. The 2017 Garnacha, one of the very few single varietals producing in the region is pure and intense and Contino Reservas from 2014, 2010 and 1974 are very fine indeed. The hard to find Vina del Olivio aged in French, American and Hungarian oak is a revelation (with a couple of major critics already awarding some big scores).

So in summary…

My eyes have been opened to the magnificence of these wines as they age. If we buy the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy young to mature, then we should be doing it with Rioja too.

Imperial Gran Reserva on release is almost a giveaway compared to the pleasure these wines will bring further down the road. Buy them at will and cellar away – they will bring a lot of joy over the years to come.

Written by: Steve McNeill, Senior Private Client Account Manager, F+R