Contino & CVNE Rioja, Spain with Jesus Madrazo

This tasting was organised by Euroworld Wines who brought Jesús Madrazo to Scotland. Jesús is boss of Contino and fifth generation of the family who founded the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE) in 1879. CVNE is one of Rioja’s most prestigious bodegas, and their Imperial and Viña Real Gran Reservas were to be the centrepiece of this tasting event. Contino is a more modern, single-vineyard premium Rioja produced by a separate company owned 50/50 by CVNE and the Madrazo family. The Contino vineyards in Rioja Alavesa can be traced back to the 11th century. Contino takes its name from the time in the 15th Century when they passed into the ownership of Pedro de Samaniego, guardian in perpetuity (Contino) of Prince John of the Spanish royal family.

photoJesús is a remarkably shy and modest character, constantly apologising for his poor English (which isn’t actually poor at all) and at pains to point out that he is as much a guardian of established values and practices as a ground-breaker or vanguard of Riojan wine-making.

Having served an apprenticeship under his father, Jesús took over as Technical Director of Contino in 1999. He studied viticulture in Madrid’s prestigious University of Agriculture and has learned his trade in different areas of the CVNE empire, including supervisor of the quality control department. Today his role involves him in everything from the management of the company’s oak barrels, to the study of vineyard microclimates, all the time working closely with CVNE’s chief winemaker, Basilio Izquierdo.

This tasting brought together a fantastic vertical collection of CVNE vintages: not only the Contino, but also CVNE’s top Riojas, the Imperial Gran Reserva, and the Viña Real Gran Reserva. The ground-breaking Contino was the first single vineyard modern Rioja. A particular microclimate from the vineyards’ situation near the river, along with 70-year old vines, mean there are low yields and great concentration. The blend is around 85% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo and 5% Graciano. It spends two years in a mix of French and American oak barrels.

xThe Rioja Alta vines for the Imperial Gran Reserva average 50 years old. Made only in exceptional years, and aged for a minimum of three years in American oak, about 85% is Tempranillo, the bulk of the rest is Graciano with a tiny proportion of Mazuelo. Finally, the Viña Real Gran Reserva vineyards are in Rioja Alavesa. Around 85% is Tempranillo, the rest Graciano, with a touch of Garnacha.

My impression is that the CVNE wines are extremely good and consistent, representing the very best of the ‘old wave’ of Rioja. It was fascinating to taste for example Viña Real from four decades. Though vintage variations are apparent, the slow resolution of oak, tannins and acidity into a seamless, sweet, silky mellow fruitiness is gorgeous and the current vintages seem obviously to have the fruit, class and structure to age as gracefully as their predecessors. If I could choose one word to describe these older wines it would have to be ‘sweet’: it litters my tasting notes and refers not only to the melange of wonderfully ripe berry fruit and oak, but an impression on the palate of totally resolved and harmonious wines. Contino is a deeper, more lush, concentrated and charry oaked style, but is a superb, world class wine built to take its place on the modern stage. It has enough oak, extraction and stuffing to please even fans of Aussie Shiraz, yet is tempered, balanced and beautifully made.

The tasting was not blind. Euroworld may still have stocks of these wines, though older vintages are scarce and may have sold out. Current vintages are around £15, the old vintages cost from around £40 to £100 per bottle.

Viña Real Gran Reserva 1964
Earthy brown, light, but still with hints of ruby at core. Beautifully sweet nose. Absolutely gorgeous, scented and fragrant with violets, vanilla and sweet summer berries, hints of tea, leather and damp forest floor. Very Burgundian. Palate shows just a hint of oxidisation, but there’s that terrific sweetness of fruit, brown sugar and sweet, damp summer’s day earth. Medium bodied and beautifully soft in texture, this has good acidity, not much tannin remaining, but still some structure to hold it all together into the moderately long finish. Excellent.

Imperial Gran Reserva 1968
Similar colour. That wonderful animal note of old Rioja, with notes of deep, fragrant spices, old polished wood, again a fantastically sweet red berry fruit. Lovely sweet richness on the palate with nuances of orange peel and juicy citrus acidity, some tannins adding grip and a lovely texture. Fine fruit and focus into a long finish. Excellent.

Imperial Gran Reserva 1970
Soft, light ochre red. Slightly tighter on the nose with again that hint of floral sweetness: violet and a suggestion of tobacco, cloves and warm fudge. Wonderful palate with silky, full texture and filled with finely-wrought red cherry and warm autumnal leaves and berries. Quite a tight acid structure and still good tannins suggest this still has 10 years ahead of it. Very long and complex. Outstanding.

Viña Real Gran Reserva 1973
Tawny colour of medium density. Sweet, slightly cloying demerara sugary nose. Perfumed, with little notes of blood and decay and mostly sweet, oak. Lots more obvious ripe, sweet fruit on the palate. Silky and fine texture with tart cherry and lemony acidity quite prominent in the finish. Not patch on the previous wines, but still very good.

Imperial Gran Reserva 1976
Stronger colour; more cherry with ochre rim. A more modest perfume on the nose, but lovely notes of menthol, forest floor and bracken, brambles and some exotic spice. Palate doesn’t sing with the same sweetness of fruit in the older wines, but there is a leathery strength with deep berry and plum, powerful acidity and tannins clamping down on finish. Difficult to judge, but might need time.

Contino Reserva 1978 – not available for sale
Dense ruby colour, just ochre on broad rim. Brown sugar, smoke, pencil-shavings, cream and animal, bloody, meaty character adds up to a sensory bombshell on the nose. Huge mouthful of sweet, ripe berries. A little chunkier in style than previous wines, but compensates with huge power and fruit in a full-bodied format. Nice citrus acidity sharpens into the finish with powerful tannins and good length. Very good indeed/excellent and time ahead of it.

Viña Real Gran Reserva 1982 – £67.50
Lovely mahogany colour. Sweet, creamy, concentrated blackberry fruit on the nose of real depth and richness. There’s a suggestion of tangy orange, tobacco and woodsmoke. Complex stuff, the palate has tight acidity and a good deal of tannic grip gives plenty of authority too good fruit. Excellent length, and finishes a very stylish wine. Very good indeed.

Viña Real Gran Reserva 1987
First bottle slightly oxidised, but second much cleaner with a mellow, old-leathery character, hints of beef, blood and savoury sweetness with a rich quality of bramble fruit. Supple and densely textured on the palate, with classy, fine tannins and a full, round, fruity power. Never loses a sense of elegance and balance and will go on to improve for sure. Very good indeed/Excellent.

Imperial Gran Reserva 1987
Dark, still quite solid ruby. Simpler, more foursquare nose with beefy plum and berry fruit and a little chocolaty note. The palate is quite sweet and chocolaty too, but again quite a rounded, chunky style with big tannins and juicy acidity giving bite. In the end, really quite a lot of wine for the money with plenty of depth and savoury complexity, time ahead of it. Rather nice stuff and very good indeed.

Viña Real Gran Reserva 1988
Tawny colour with ruby at core. Still the overlay of sweet vanillin oak dominates, but the fruit is ripe and rich. Notes of coffee and fudge, quite a chunky quality. On the palate no lack of sweet, smooth fruit and powerful tannins. This is a more robust, slightly less refined style, but drinking well. Very good.

Viña Real Gran Reserva 1991
Medium ruby with tawny rim. An overlay of exotically spicy aromas, with plenty of toasty sweetness. Extravagantly creamy, sweet oak and fruit combination is quite arresting. The palate is densely packed with super-ripe berries, a really silky mouthfeel and rich fruit. Good grip from nice background tannins and moderate acidity, this is rich, delicious and long, built for ageing. Very good indeed.

Imperial Gran Reserva 1991
Red ochre colour, tawny at rim but quite bright. Much more complexity on the nose. Still overlaid with vanilla, but lovely herbal nuances, leather, tea and tobacco, some nice, dark cedary quality to dried fruit. Lots of juicy, sweet berry fruit on the palate, quite full and silky. There is real quality here, plenty of grip and fresh acidity and good length. Very good indeed.

Imperial Reserva 1991
Medium ruby colour, quite even. Again, a great, sweet layer of vanillin oak over warm, autumnal berry fruit and a little gamy, spicy nuance. On the palate it is juicy, rich and well-balanced with a deeper seam of bittersweet cherry and plum skin fruit. A slightly raw impression in the finish, but really quite elegant and drinking well. Very good.

Imperial Gran Reserva 1994
Youthful ruby colour, the nose is quite closed compared to the Contino, with a foreground of sweet oak and coffee, with cherry fruit beneath. The palate displays highish acidity and grippy tannins which give a slightly lean impression at first, with a mineral, tight focus, but then berryish fruit pushes though into a decent finish. Needs 10 years minimum. Very good, excellent potential.

Contino Reserva 1996
Wonderfully vibrant deep ruby colour and a sweet, full, almost New Worldy nose of blueberry, mulberry and minty intensity. Some beefy, meaty nuances and plenty of rich tobacco spice. On the palate it is mouthfilling and plush, dense with a savoury grilled-meat quality and all the time a great push of sweet fruit. The finish has fine tannins and moderate levels of acidity, and it is very long. Very good indeed, excellent potential.