While it was born out of illness, Rioja’s CVNE is in rude health these days, Tim Atkin MW discovers.
Posted Thursday, 24-Jul-2014
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1. Cune or CVNE?
The Companiá Vinícola del Norte de España (a mouthful that is generally shortened to CVNE) is confusingly, yet universally, known as “Cune”, pronounced COO-nay. Until 1882, the winery’s full name was even more utilitarian: Corcuera, Real de Asúa y Compañia SCM (Sociedad Colectiva Mercantil). As acronyms go, CVNE is probably better than CRAC.
2. A cloud with a silver lining
CVNE was founded by two brothers, Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa, in 1879. The former’s poor health – more specifically, asthma – was indirectly responsible for the creation of the bodega. His doctor suggested he leave Bilbao, on Spain’s Atlantic coast, for a drier climate. Rioja, sheltered by the Sierra de Cantabria, seemed a good bet, so Eusebio bought an apartment in Haro.
1877 was a good year to arrive. The phylloxera louse was devastating France’s vineyards and, partly thanks to the importation of ideas from the other side of the Pyrenees, Rioja was entering a new era. Eusebio had been educated in Bordeaux, so was at ease in this Franco-Spanish milieu. Inspired by what was happening around him, he decided to create a négociant business buying and blending young wines, working alongside his brother and Isidro Corcuera, a vineyard expert from nearby Logroño. CVNE, or rather CRAC, was the result.
3. Gone but not forgotten
The current owners of the business are direct descendants of Eusebio Real de Asúa: Victor Urrutia and his sister Maria are the fifth generation of the family to run CVNE. But because the inheritance went down the female line, the name of the founders only survives in the winery’s flagship red. Real de Asúa was first produced in 1994 and is always a varietal Tempranillo. “I don’t care if it’s a modern style or more traditional red,” says managing director Victor Urrutia. “It just has to be of extremely high quality.” Production is only 5000 bottles.
4. Keeping wine on track
CVNE is located in Haro’s historic station quarter. This comparatively small industrial area is home to a group of wineries, including traditional names like López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, Bilbaínas and CVNE. These bodegas valued proximity to the railway line and its access to the markets of Bilbao and beyond.
5. White wine (and a bit of “Champagne”)
Monopole, CVNE’s white, was first produced in 1915 and is the oldest registered white-wine brand in Spain. Today it’s a fresh, unoaked style made entirely from Viura, but it was initially aged in wood and – bizarrely – blended with Manzanilla Sherry. What’s even less well known is that CVNE was already famous for its sparkling wine by the 1880s. According to Hubrecht Duijker in his book, “The Wines of Rioja”, the winery imported cellar workers from Champagne every year and had its own subsidiary in Reims, called Eugène Perré et Cie, which sold Spanish sparkling wine as “Champagne”. Whites are not the main focus at CVNE today – they represent less than 5 percent of production – but 2010 saw the addition of another brand, Contino Blanco, to complement Monopole and a barrel-fermented Viña Real Blanco.
6. Three wineries, not one
CVNE has three bodegas, each with its own winery and winemaker. These are: CVNE itself in Haro (Maria Larrea), where its Imperial brand has its own separate premises; Viña Real in Laguardia (Eva de Benito) and Contino in Laserna (Jesús Madrazo). The three bodegas have distinct philosophies and styles and are run as separate entities. CVNE is by far the biggest of the three and only uses grapes grown or purchased in theRioja Alta sub-region, packaging them in a Bordeaux bottle. Meanwhile, Viña Real is a Rioja Alavesa brand, favoring a Burgundy bottle. Unlike its stablemates, Contino makes wine only from its own vineyards in the Rioja Alavesa.
7. Rioja’s first single vineyard wine?
When it was first produced in the 1920s, Viña Real was a single vineyard bottling from one site in Elciego. The parcel’s exact location is no longer known, as over the years the brand sourced grapes from other vineyards. Today, Viña Real produces a Crianza (900,000 bottles), a Reserva (100,000 bottles), a Gran Reserva (20,000 bottles) and a limited production, modern-style cuvée called Pagos de Viña Real, so it’s moved on from its origins. But, 54 years before Contino made its first estate wine, CVNE had pioneered the concept.
8. A joint venture bears fruit (most years)
Before they established a joint venture with CVNE in the early 1970s, Contino’s various owners used to sell their grapes to the company for use in CVNE and Viña Real. The shareholding was originally divided equally between the growers and the bodega, but since last year and a few changes of ownership along the way, CVNE now owns 95 percent.
This beautiful 64-hectare (158-acres) property on a bend in the Ebro River released its first wine in 1974. Today, the range runs to six different bottlings: Contino Reserva, Contino Gran Reserva, Viña del Olivo, the Contino Blanco and two single varietal reds: Contino Graciano and – since 2009 – Contino Garnacha.
In a normal year, Contino makes anything between 150,000 and 200,000 bottles, but 2013 was not a normal year. The vineyard was hit by a huge hailstorm in September and lost 90 percent of its crop. Jesús Madrazo estimates that there will only 20,000 bottles of the 2013. “We managed to make something good by using sorting tables with six people manning each of them,” he says. “But it was tough.” Contino has arguably survived worse things. A TCA infection (thought originally to be cork taint) was a major problem in the late 1980s and all of the winery’s wood had to be replaced.
9. An awful lot of Crianza
CVNE (as opposed to Contino and Viña Real) is what drives the company’s bottom line, accounting for 5.8 million of the 7m bottles it produces. Most of this is dominated by a single wine: CVNE Crianza (labelled “Cune”), which is one of the best-loved and most widely distributed Riojas. Imperial, a brand that dates back to the 1920s, is a smaller part of the CVNE portfolio and has an annual production of 200,000 bottles, divided between Reserva and Gran Reserva. Described by Spanish wine writer, Victor de la Serna, as “one of the icons of Rioja”, it ages brilliantly. Look out for bottles of the 1947, 1959, 1968 or 1995 Gran Reservas. Alternatively, you could buy a more recent, equally celebrated vintage…
10. American recognition
In December 2013, CVNE achieved a memorable first. In Wine Spectator, its 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva was selected as the number one wine in the publication’s annual Top 100. “It was an honor for us to be the first Spanish winery to be chosen as number one,” says Urrutia. “And commercially it’s been a huge boost for the brand.”