Traditional Rioja is turning into my passion/obsession.  So when an the opportunity to taste wines from legendary Rioja producer CVNE (pronounced CUNE) arose, I had to jump on it.  Especially since I have only had their wines on a few other occasions.  And while I have been impressed with them I was not as familiar with their rather large portfolio as I am with some other traditional Rioja houses.  CVNE is one of the oldest bodegas in Rioja and is located by the old train station in Haro with the other great bodegas of Rioja.  They are expanding beyond the original bodega with their brands as they have grown as well.  And they remain one of the traditional bodegas that are still family owned.  The tasting took place at PJ Wines, which has probably the largest selection of Spanish wines anywhere in the U.S.  It is located impossibly way uptown in NYC but I felt compelled to trek to the northern reaches of city to get a chance to taste the wines of CVNE since I reckoned there would be some older vintage on hand.

The event was presided over by Colin Gent MW (Master of Wine).  Colin works for the company importing CVNE, so this was an educational event but also as sales event, but then again most wine tasting are, so no biggie.  Colin had a pretty good overview of CVNE and Rioja in general.  I wish there was a bit more information about the process of making the wines as there are different brands, styles, and bodegas under the very large CVNE umbrella as we shall see.  The brands include CUNE, Viña Real, and Contino primarily, with other designations and labels within those three main brands .  But it was a great event in that while is spanned several brands it also showcased the Spanish Criaza system very well.  This is a system which requires a wine meeting certain aging requirements prior to release.  It is great because most wines not only arrive ready to drink, but it gives one a sort of bracket as to what to expect.  Here is a basic breakdown on the Crianza system:  Crianza wines require aging in barrel of at least 12 months with at least another year in the bottle.  Reserva wines require 36 months aging between barrel and bottle, with at least 12 months in barrel.   Gran Reserva wines require 24 months aging in barrel and a further 36 months in bottle before release.  Some Rioja wine is released outside of this system, such as Joven or young wines which may not meet the minimum requirements.

CVNE “Monopole” Rioja White 2009 – $11.49

The tasting started off with the only white wine which was served.  I have seen this wine around town but have never tried it.  It is made in a very modern fresh style from the traditional white grape of Rioja, Viura.  The price is right and it was very easy to drink.  Hot summers days and summer fare spring to mind.  Just an easy wine really.  RECOMMENDED

CVNE “CUNE” Rioja Crianza 2007 – $11.99

If you are in Spain, and especially in the Rioja region, this is probably what you would drink in any given tapas bar.  Crianza wines (along with Joven or younger wines) are what Spainards drink when they are out having tapas.  Crianzas are meant to be very accessible upon release with a good fruit character upfront and present.  This CUNE Crianza fits that bill.  There are noticeable flavors of plum, sweet berries, bubble gum, and a lite spiciness.  The wine satisfies in a very straight forward way.  It is not very complex or singularly memorable, but it does the job at a very reasonable price.  It is a wine to be drunk without too much thought.  RECOMMENDED

CVNE “Viña Real” Rioja Reserva 2004 – $26.99

Next we stepped up to a couple of Reserva wines.  Reservas are less likely to be drunk over tapas, and more likely to maybe accompany a good meal, which usually comes pretty late in Spain!  The Viña Real Reserva has a bit less overt fruit than the Crianza wine and a bit more in the way of wood spiciness.  The wine is fairly dry with moderate tannins and decent acidity.  There is a nice floral component and it would pair nicely with a good supper, but there is not a real defining character here that makes it stand out.  No new oak used here according to Colin.  RECOMMENDED

CVNE “Imperial” Rioja Reserva 2004 – $35.49

Not too far off from the Viña Real Reserva.  There is a hint more earth here, with wood spice present as well.  The tannins remain fairly dry and the acidity is solid.  Good wine for a good supper but again, nothing really to set it apart from the pack.  50/50 split of American and French oak barrels here.  RECOMMENDED

CVNE “Contino” Rioja Reserva 2005 – $43.99

This is a unique wine for Rioja as all the grapes come from a single estate begun in 1973.  Whereas CUNE and Viña Real have grapes coming from different vineyards to create traditional Rioja blends, Contino is a stand alone winery with its own vineyards.  Apparently no new oak is used, but there is a decidedly modern feel to the wine.  The fruit is ripe and a bit warm on the nose.  There are notes of candied cherries and it is fairly perfumed.  There are dry tannins but a certain lushness underneath.  RECOMMENDED

And then we entered what I like to call the bonus round.  The Gran Reservas.  These are special occasion wines.  They can be very profound and are not meant to be drunk lightly.  Thought is required, though not much as they can seduce very easily.  Though not in a modern way of over extracted fruit and plushness.  Gran Reservas can and should be subtle, balanced and elegant in manner.  These wines are prized for their perfume and It must be said that I like Gran Reservas.  The following wines were no exception.  They can be expensive, but are incredibly singular wines.  Some can still be had at fairly reasonable prices while older vintages can climb quickly.  But there really is no other region in the world that has such great stocks of older wines that come to market as Rioja.  And as for the age ability of the best Gran Reservas, well they are ready to drink upon release, but can age seemingly indefinitely.

CVNE “Imperial” Rioja Gran Reserva 1999 – $55.99

There may be no other Rioja in Spain that enjoys such high regard as the Imperial bottling from CVNE.  It is a wine drunk by the King on special occasions and by families throughout Spain.  It enjoys little recognition here in the States, but is a wine to be sought out.  The 1999 still represents a fine value and is a great picture of what Gran Reservas can be.  This wine is drinking very well now, but like great Gran Reservas will last for God knows how long.  I would say 20-25 years easy.  On the nose there are elements of dark earthy fruit and beef broth mixing with cranberries.  This has classic Rioja written all over it.  The tannins are moderate and the acidity solid.  Its round in the mouth and the finish lingers.  An elegant Rioja.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

CVNE “Imperial” Rioja Gran Reserva 1995 – $89.49

Value for money has to go to the 1999 here, but the 1995 is a great wine.  A few more years of bottle age have revealed even more earth and cedar mixing with classic sour cherry fruit and olive oil.  Again, a classic Rioja nose with nice acidity, fine tannins, and a long finish.  The wine is balanced and very vibrant.  Another long distance wine here.  20-25 years easy.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

CVNE “Viña Real” Rioja Gran Reserva 1987 – $139.99

And then we jumped back in time a bit further with a couple of Gran Reservas from Viña Real.  The 1987 is at the peak of maturity I would say.  A great and perfect balance between the fruit of youth and the earthiness of age.  The edges are starting towards brown, and the tertiary flavors are beginning to dominate with hints of mushroom, oolong tea, cedar, smoke and spice on the palate.  The wine is very balanced and elegant and the finish is very long.  You don’t even really have to drink this wine, just smell it, it’s enough.  I sat for several minutes just taking in the nose.  There were a lot of oohs and aahs happening in the room when we got to this wine.  I know I smiled immediately as if finding something I had been searching to remember.  This wine speaks to the age ability and grace of which traditional Rioja Gran Reservas are capable of.  For me, the greatest wine of the night, and one of the best bottles of Rioja I have had the pleasure of tasting.  Awesome right now, but will last much longer.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – ALL STAR

CVNE “Viña Real” Rioja Gran Reserva 1978 – $148.99

And then we jumped back in time even further.  More browning on the edges here, with some garnet remaining.  Dark chocolate and cherries mixing with earthy truffles and cedar.  The nose is again amazing and so is the mouth feel.  Just round and elegant and mature.  This wine is maybe slightly past its peak, but great old Rioja does not really go down hill after the peak, it seems to more plateau and continue.  Great stuff.  Where were you in 1978?  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Final Word

I learned a lot from this tasting.  It brought back memories, created new ones, and connected some dots.  It also raised a few questions.  Especially concerning the Gran Reservas.  The youngest of these wines, the 1999, stands at 11 years old.  According to Colin and some reading, there have been a lot of changes at CVNE.  The Viña Real operation has moved into it’s own new modern bodega and the CUNE operation has also seen some updating.  It leads this writer to wonder if the singular traditional character of the older wines will be present in the wines that are coming out of CVNE lately.  Will they be capable of producing wines as profound as the 1987 Viña Real in a super modern facility?  I have my doubts.  I had asked Colin about the use of natural or cultured yeasts in the wines today.  Certainly in days of yore natural yeast were used, that is, yeast present in the vineyards and wineries.  Nowadays, some wineries will use cultured yeasts to ferment their wines.  It guarantees a seamless fermentation but at the price of the unique character that the natural yeasts present in the cellars impart to the wine.  This is a big issue in the world of wine, and it is getting more attention as consumers begin to understand more about natural yeast versus cultured yeasts.  It’s a big deal especially those looking for natural, organic, and authentic wines.  I am still awaiting word from Colin on what the practice is with yeast at CVNE, and I have my doubts.  Only time will tell whether the character of traditional Rioja is being lost at CVNE.  As for now, there are some great values in their everyday wines and their Gran Reservas stand as benchmarks of traditional Rioja.  Buy up some old stocks now and cross your fingers for the future.