Prodigal sons have an inclination, once returned to the homestead, to make up for lost time with unparalleled zeal and enthusiasm. Victor Urrutia at CVNE is a very good example; private school charm and US business school acumen prepared him well in 2003 to take over – albeit with some reluctance – the slumbering giant that we know as CVNE, Cune or, more formally, Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España. Quickly realizing that a secure future might be eroded by complicated succession laws, he launched the company on the Spanish Stock Exchange and set about an ambitious policy of renewal, which has covered the purchase of blue chip vineyards, the construction of an imposing winery and the introduction of new wines to the range.
And what a range it is. The aristocratic charm of the old headquarters in Haro in the famous Barrio de la Estación, conveniently near to other greats like Lopez de Heredia, Muga, and La Rioja Alta, doubles as a museum and a working winery; the magnificent cellar built by Gustave Eiffel is one of its many treats. The sense of a strong historical backdrop, dignified with a famous ensign, is mirrored by the wines themselves.
There is subtle yet significant stylistic diversity. There are three main wines: Viña Real from the Rioja Alavesa sub-zone, Viña Imperial from Rioja Alta, then CVNE itself, the very respectable driver of volume (four million bottles at last count), and the single vineyard Contino. It’s a complete and very impressive portfolio.
Urrutia has a keen sense of history, all the more significant in this, their 140th anniversary year; Spain has been held back for so long, he says. First, the War of Succession, then the Peninsula War, then, most significantly, the Civil War and Franco’s long dictatorship. The legacy was a lack of self-belief – Rioja felt that there was no place at the high table, and that Bordeaux and Burgundy would always be viewed as superior.
The Damascene moment (leaving aside Spain’s victory in the football World Cup in 2010) came, in 2013, when Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 was voted No 1 Wine in The World by the influential Wine Spectator. Suddenly everything seemed possible; and what is more, whereas Bordeaux and Burgundy release their wines early and often sell out, in Spain there is a gentler and more generous regime where the wines are only released when they are ready to drink; to boot, significant amounts are held back. A de facto collectors’ market, therefore especially given that the volumes (both released and held back) of the top wines are still relatively modest and that they have been perfectly stored, in CVNE’s case in a cobwebbed vault known eerily as el Cementerio, the Cemetery.
The final, key part of the equation is the quality of the wines themselves, and here there can be few doubts. Gran Reserva Riojas age magnificently, as anyone who has been lucky enough to try Imperial or Real Gran Reservas from great years such as 2004, 2001, 1994, 1990 or, on a particularly happy day, 1964. At the end of our tasting of the exemplary current releases, Urrutia kindly unearthed (or un-cobwebbed) a 1978 Vina Real Gran Reserva. My tasting note did not want for enthusiasm.
Urrutia is a realist (and fairly conservative, for a self-proclaimed liberal). Since 1973 Contino has been eloquently rehearsing the values of the single plot, whilst not entirely eschewing the more traditional Rioja imperative of classification by age. All the bases are covered, and always with great panache. He says he sees the merits of a classification regime which focuses more on ageing (Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva) than on specific location, and needs to be convinced of the virtues of the recently adopted Viñedo Singular (single vineyard) classification. And yet, ironically, he has his own Viñedo Singular with a superb 62-hectare homogenous plot in Laserna Vineyard (part of the village of Laguardia in Alavesa).
Citing a parallel with Champagne, which also produces 300-350 million bottles a year, Urrutia defends the philosophy of the brand. Imperial is a brand in the sense that its fruit is sourced widely and that there is a subtext of seeking consistency year in year out, whilst never ignoring the rigours of vintage variation; so, a little like Dom Pérignon, though with less fizz. The large Champagne houses have long been seen as leaders and guides in their appellation; the same applies in Rioja. But this should not preclude the emergence of smaller growers, encouraged rather than squashed by their imposing neighbours. There are, to be sure, several brands in Rioja which are less good, but CVNE sets its flagpole on very high ground and nurtures a range which will delight collectors and everyday drinkers alike.