There are perks to being the Bottle Opener, and this is definitely one of them. I’m relaxing in the late Autumn sun, gazing across a rich vineyard down to the river Ebro. With me are two charming fifth generation descendants of the founder of one of Rioja’s great houses, and we are tasting some magnificent examples of its art, including an unforgettable 1976 Vina Real Grand Reserva. This, as they say, beats working.
I am a guest of the Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (CVNE) to watch the start of the 2014 harvest and to taste the results of previous harvests, which is good since Rioja has had a run of wonderful years over the past decade.
Amidst the hype and hyperbole of Bordeaux and the thrusting innovation in so much of the New World, it is easy to overlook Rioja. That would be a mistake, since in its own traditional way, it loyally turns out some of the world’s finest wines, year in, year out.
In fact Rioja’s steadfast commitment to tradition is one of the things that make it exceptional. “It may be easy to to produce one great bottle of wine one year. But it is not easy to do it for 100 years and keep the quality the same year after year, whatever the harvest. That is true skill,” says Maria Urrutia Ybarra, CVNE’s marketing director and direct descendant of Raimundo and Eusebio Real de Asua, the brothers who founded the company in 1879.
This steadfast commitment to traditional means that, while other wines (such as Chianti) have changed radically in style in the past 20-30 years, the Riojas you drink today are almost unaltered – the region reckons it hit on a winning formula 130 years ago and should stick to it.
It helps that the formula is delicious – a good Rioja is a wonderful cocktail of strawberries, plums and just the right amount of oak from its years in barrel. It owes much to the rich Tempranillo grape, which provides not only the fruit, but the wine’s core strength and extraordinary ability to age. Down in CVNE’s vast cellars there are 50, 60, and 100 year old wines that are still elegant and powerful, at an age when most Claret would have given up the ghost.
It is true that to an outsider, Rioja seems difficult to understand compared with Bordeaux. There are no neat Appellations and no real Chateaux system to guide you. In reality the region is simple. Rioja is a 40 mile strip of a land running South along the Ebro valley. It is divided into three regions – Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa, with the finest wines traditionally comeing from Rioja Alta.
And while there are no Chateaux as such, there is definitely an aristocracy amongst the 150 or so wineries sprinkled across the region. Most of the grandest and oldest are grouped in the town of Haro, near the station, so that originally they could roll their barrels onto the trains bound for Bilbao. Their names are synonymous with rich, grand wines – Rioja Alta, Tondonia, nearby Marques de Riscal and of course CVNE, which produces the majestic Imperial Reserva and Grand Reserva.
Maria shows me round the CVNE winery, which has the hushed tones of a cathedral and was built by the same architect as the Eiffel Tower. It’s a marvel that they produce 8m bottles a year from such a small area. First we see the majestic Imperial cellar, where the wines sit gently ageing in barrel for at least three years before being bottled (according to the strict rules of the region). This is a major advantage of drinking Rioja over other wines: when you buy it, it’s ready to drink, and needs none of the careful cellaring of its French counterparts. Pour it and there’s no sediment either; another plus for anyone without a decanter.
The cellars are another surprise. Fungus and cobwebs grow in profusion over the bottles, making the whole place look like the set from an episode of Scooby Doo. “They call this the cemetery, but I don't like that name because all the wine here is alive,” says Maria, sweeping away some of the feathery grime to reveal thousands of bottles ageing gently. By the entrance is a sturdy metal grate, protecting bottles from every Grand Reserva vintage since the winery was founded. Legend has it that it was locked at the centenary and the key thrown away.
But not all Rioja is grand or reserved. At a tasting Maria shows me how they cater for all tastes and budgets, including, amazingly a Cune Reserva 2010 that Wine Spectator awarded 91 points and costs just £14.99 from Waitrose or Majestic – well worth tracking down. The simple reason I’m here is that CVNE needs to export more. Wine consumption is declining in Spain and all the Rioja producers are looking overseas. So CVNE, which has traditionally reigned supreme in its local market, is ensuring that more of its wines are available to British drinkers. Our good fortune, then.
Later Maria takes me along the A68, the Rioja Highway, to visit the home of CVNE’s other main wine, Vina Real. Here’s another surprise. In contrast to the hallowed traditional cellars of Imperial, Vina Real lives in an ultramodern bodega, shaped like a wine vat and built into a hill, with the cellars running deep into it.
And then onto CVNE’s hidden gem – the little Contino estate in Rioja Alavesa. Contino is a true rarity in Rioja, a single estate wine, and this is where we sat in the sun tasting their finest. CVNE has slowly acquired this parcel of land over the decades and is now producing remarkable wines there thanks to Jesus de Madrazo Mateo, another 5th generation CVNE family member. These are not such easy wines to find in the UK mainly because Contino is so small. It doesn’t make life easy for casual buyers either. Its Grand Reserva is only available in magnums (£100, Wine Society) so you'll need a group of special friends.
But these south west vineyards must be some of the best in the whole region and Jesus shows off his wines with quiet pride as the pickers bring in the harvest for the next vintage (a good one too judging by the little I saw). So definitely don’t forget Rioja the next time you are stocking the cellar, for a truly elegant wine that will last and last and represents real value against its French and even Italian competitors. Try to find the last of the 2004 vintages if you can – they are superb.
Even better, this is a region worth visiting. Most of the wineries are open to visitors but lack the Disneyland dazzle of say the Napa Valley. I was completely unprepared for Rioja beauty, the craggy cliffs to the north and meandering river below, and plan to return for a more leisurely trip.