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Rioja Versus Rioja – Will One Tempranillo More?

November 10, 2017 11 comments

The time has come for a battle, where the brother will go against the brother and the blood will spill … – oops, let’s cull the drama before it sets in – it is the wine we are talking about, and if anything will be spilled, it will be the wine – but I promise to be very careful, as red wine is not easy to get off the clothes.

Today, in honor of the International Tempranillo Day, we will put glass to glass some of the best of the best in Rioja’s World. These wines are truly the siblings (brothers or not), as both wines are produced by Compañía Vinícola del Norte del España (the Northern Spanish Wine Company), also known as CVNE, and also sometimes referred to as Cune, due to an interesting style of writing used on the labels.

CVNE Rioja wines

Wines were produced in Spain forever. However, the story of Rioja as we know it, started in the late 19th century, after phylloxera epidemic wiped out most of the vines in Bordeaux, but England’s thirst for Claret Bordeaux was so famous for, was at its pick. Producers in Rioja wanted to become a new source of Claret, and some of the most ambitious producers even set up their new operations right by the train station in Haro, to ensure the best transport for their wines (you can read more here).

CVNE was created by two brothers in 1879, and the ownership stays in the family even today. In 1920, Viña Real line of wines was started to produce Rioja in new, modern style. CVNE owns about 1360 acres of vineyards, located in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta. Both appellations have similar soils and Atlantic coastal climate exposure, however, Rioja Alta vineyards are located at the higher altitudes than Rioja Alavesa, which shows in the resulting fruit.

Before we will enter the battle, we need to establish some ground rules, to make sure that our fighters are in the same “weight category”. The rules are not difficult: there are 4 main varieties which can be used in Rioja – Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan). Together, these 4 varieties should represent at least 85% of the blend or 95% of grapes are destemmed; there are few other grapes allowed to be used in the leftover percentage.  Crianza wines should be aged for at least 2 years ( 6 months in the cask); Reserva – 3 years (12 months in the cask); Gran Reserva – 5 years (18 months in the cask).

Okay, now that we set the rules, let the fight begin.

Battle Crianza:

2014 Cune Crianza Rioja DOCa (13.5% ABV, $13, 85% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and Mazuello, appellation Rioja Alta)
C: Garnet
N: earthy smell, freshly crushed blackberries, acidity, cedar box,
P: medium body, pronounced minerality, restrained fruit, clear acidity, tart cherries, soft, round, hint of tobacco, asking for food
V: 8-, restrained and tart, definitely improved after a few hours of breathing

2013 Viña Real Crianza Rioja DOCa (13.5% ABV, $15, 90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuello, appellation Rioja Alavesa)
C: Garnet
N: surprisingly different, dark fruit, touch of tobacco, touch of sweetness
P: medium+ body, firm structure, cherries and tart of cherries pit, even brighter acidity than a previous wine, more present mouthfeel
V: 8-, a touch fruitier and more round than previous wine. Different but equally good.

Conclusion: Tie. You can definitely taste the difference – Cune Crianza is more restrained and tight, and Viña Real is more round and fruity from the get-go. Slight difference in age and vintage might play a role. The wines would ask for a different food, but otherwise, they are equally good wines.

Battle Reserva:

The Reservas match fair and square – same vintage, same age in barrel, very similar grape composition

2013 Cune Reserva Rioja DOCa (13.5% ABV, $28, 85% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuello, appellation Rioja Alta)
C: dark garnet
N: medium+ intensity, leather, touch of sweet plum, cedar box, very inviting
P: medium weight, tart, acidic, a bit of sour cherries, explicit tannins. Needs time.
V: started opening after one hour in the open bottle. More fruit showed up, perfect structure, very pleasant. Excellent overall. 8+/9-

2013 Viña Real Reserva Rioja DOCa (13.5% ABV, $32, 90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuello, appellation Rioja Alavesa)
C: dark garnet
N: medium- intensity, touch of the forest floor, mushrooms, tobacco, eucalyptus
P: cherries, cigar box, medium+ presence on the palate, crisp acidity, very pronounced French oak tannins, needs a lot of time
V: more approachable than the previous one, but still should improve with time – get a case and forget it. Also a great improvement after an hour. Wow. Superb. 8+/9-

Conclusion: Advantage Viña Real. The wines are clearly stylistically different. Appellation might play a role, and the winemaking technique, of course. I slightly preferred Viña Real, as it was a bit more round versus more austere Cune.

Battle Gran Reserva:

Here we have different vintages (both considered excellent, but I think 2010 has a slight edge up over 2011), different appellations and different grape compositions.

2011 Cune Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa (13.5% ABV, $47, 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuello, appellation Rioja Alta)
C: dark garnet, practically black, with Ruby rim
N: dark fruit, roasted meat notes, sage, eucalyptus
P: forthcoming tannins, tar, cherry, tart, with lip-smacking acidity, really long finish.
V: 8+, within 20 minutes of opening, not ready even remotely. After about 3 hours in the open bottle, the wine became opened up enough to become delicious.

2010 Viña Real Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa (13.5% ABV, $47, 95% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano, appellation Rioja Alavesa)
C: dark garnet, just a shade lighter than the previous wine
N: more open than previous wine – blackberries, graphite, pencil shavings, cedar box, iodine
P: incomparably more drinkable, fresh cherries, open, bright, perfect structure, eucalyptus, nicely integrated tannins
V: 8/8+, you feel the need for time, but the wine is a lot more approachable

Conclusion: Advantage Cune. First, nobody should drink 2010 Gran Reserva now. It is simply a waste. Buy it at a great price, and put it aside for another 15-20 years, especially from the outstanding vintage such as 2010. Just to explain the result here, I slightly preferred the firm structure of Cune versus fruity appeal of Viña Real.

As you can see, we didn’t find a winner of our Tempranillo battle – all 6 wines Tempranillo perfectly, as one would expect from such a great producer as CVNE.

I wish wine would be the only real battle we ever have to fight – wouldn’t that be great? Enjoy your glass of Tempranillo, no matter where it came from and celebrate the noble grape of Spain! Cheers!

There is a Train Station in Haro

July 30, 2013 5 comments

DSC_0184 Vina Real 1978 in the glassI remember talking to someone about great Rioja seminar I attended, and I remember being asked “why did you go to that Rioja seminar, don’t you already know everything you need about Rioja?”. I only raised my eyebrow. Yes, I make no secret that Rioja is one of my all time favorite wines (I’m sure you noticed if you read this blog for a while) – but there is always so much to learn around wine, you can never pass the educational opportunity. Especially when this is the seminar at PJ Wine store, where wine education always includes a glass (or two, or more) of great wine, just to make sure your newly acquired knowledge would be well anchored. As a side note, this seminar took place a while back (in March of 2013), but the experience was so good, it is still worth sharing.

Andrew Mulligan of Michael Skurnik Wines, who was running the seminar, was a wealth of knowledge on the subject of Rioja. Before we will talk about the wines in the seminar, here are some of the interesting facts about Rioja wines which we learned:

  • There are four grape varieties allowed to be used in a production of red Rioja wines – Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo and Graciano. Tempranillo is usually the main grape, which is responsible for main flavor profile and ageability of the Rioja. Garnacha adds body and power, Mazuelo – spicy flavors, Graciano – structure. There are no limitations for the exact wine composition, so all types of blends are possible
  • Rioja wines are typically made out of grapes harvested from the different vineyards in the region. There are also single-vineyard Rioja wines, which are called Pago. Rioja Contino is an example of single vineyard Rioja.
  • Production of all wines in Rioja is controlled by Consejo Regulador (Control Board), an organization founded in 1926. Consejo Regulador also sets vintage ratings for different years. You can find all vintage ratings (starting from 1926!) here.
  • 2010 and 2011 vintages have “excellente” rating – Crianzas should be good already!
  • Bodegas Muga, CVNE, Lopez de Heredia and La Rioja Alta wineries (some of the very best Rioja producers) are all located at four corners the train station in Haro – the location was chosen for the purposes of easy shipping of wines to UK.
  • La Rioja Alta 890 line commemorates the 1890 when the winery was created. 904 commemorates 1904 when Ardanza winery was acquired and became a part of La Rioja Alta. The winery decided to call their wines this way (using 890 instead of 1890 and 904 instead of 1904) so consumers would not confuse commemoration dates with the dates of production.
  • CVNE was founded by 1879 by two brothers, and it produces Rioja in two distinct styles under two different labels – CVNE and Vina Real. All the fruit for Vina Real comes from Rioja Alavesa region, and all the fruit in CVNE wines comes from Rioja Alta.
  • CVNE Imperial label was started specifically for the UK market, and it was called like that because it was created during the UK’s “Imperial Century”.
DSC_0174 Rioja line-up

Rioja seminar tasting line-up

Now, let me present to you the wines with my notes. All the wines are included in the order we tasted them.

CVNE Imperial Reserva 2005 – gorgeous nose, dark fruit, perfect acidity, cherries, perfectly balanced, but very masculine. Touch of eucalyptus. Very long finish. Drinkability: 8

La Rioja Alta Vina Arana Gran Reserva 2004 – Beautiful. A lot more delicate than the previous wine, more earthy, sage notes, very beautiful. Perfect acidity. Drinkability: 8

CVNE Cune Reserva 2004 – beautiful, very delicate, (all 4 grapes are used , Tempranilo 85%, 5% the rest), a bit too delicate for me. Drinkability: 7+

Vina Real Gran Reserva 2004 – Beautiful nose, similar to #1, but smooth palate, very nice, round. Drinkability: 8

La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Gran Reserva 2001 – Stunning. A lot of fruit, sweet on the finish. Perfect with food. Absolutely bright and young, you can never tell it is 12 years old. Residual sweetness of Grenache is coming through (20% of Grenache). Drinkability: 8+

CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 2001 – Wow. Perfect fruit, less sweetness on the finish compare to the previous wine. Might be my best of tasting. Perfect power despite the age. Drinkability: 9-

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 1998 – Very interesting. A lot more herbs, more subtle, beautiful profile. Drinkability: 8+

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 1995 – Very different. Lots of herbs, subtle, beautiful. Drinkability: 8+

CVNE Vina Real Gran Reserva 1978 – Tobacco, leather, mature wine. Very nice. Still has enough fruit. Drinkability: 8

Yes, I know, my tasting notes are rather short and mostly describe the wines through emotions. However, I think you can see the progression in the flavor profile from the bright fruit to the more earthy, spicy, delicate notes. The common trait among these 9 wines? Elegance. Elegance and balance, to be precise. These are the wines you crave, as you know they will bring you lots of pleasure every time you will open them.

Andrew told us a story from his personal experience with the old Rioja wine. He ordered bottle of 1917 Rioja for the customer, and the customer … refused to take it later on. So the bottle was shared at the table in the restaurant, without much expectations, among the group of young wine professionals. On the very first sip, the table got quiet. And it stayed quiet for the next 5 minutes, as everybody just wanted to reflect on that special moment. I wish you great wine experiences, my friends. Cheers!