We are asked a fair bit:
- "do you know wine X?"
- "surely you know wine X?"
- "do you stock wine X?"
- "why don't you stock wine X?"
Now, two things here:
- in our defence, we can't know - much less stock - everything. I mean, do you know how may wines there are out there? Yes, yes ... you had a lovely bottle on you trip to <insert relevant wine-producing country>, but you expect us to know it ... and then go and buy a pallet of it? <smiley face>
- that said, there is sometimes a pattern to "wine X". Now and again, we get repeat requests.
And it so happens that a coincidence has occurred recently.
Over the last fortnight, there's been quite a bit of "wine X" enquiry into the wines of the Contino winery/estate of CVNE of Rioja. Thanks to all you correspondents on this. As CVNE themselves say (as below) "Contino has established a cult-like following producing wines with a sense of place, elegance and longevity".
Yup, no kidding.
And then, on Tuesday, I/we were invited to the "virtual release" of the new (2018) vintages of the main wines of Contino.That tasting was impressive (more below). I'll confess to knowing some of CVNE's many wines, but not the Continos. I quickly recognised that
- I should have known them (better); and
- although we are far from short of Rioja(s) in our fleet, we should certainly stock and offer the Continos.
And that is now the case.
Back in a moment on the wines and what was so good about them. For those who like the full story, the next two sections tell you a little more about CVNE and Contino. Just skip down if you just want the meaty chunks (about the wines and/or new vintage news).
The CVNE (normally pronounced "coo-neh") Company, or to give it its full name, Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España (The Northern Spanish Wine Company) was established on the 24th of March 1879 in Haro, Rioja. Set up by two brothers, Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa, their aim was to capitalise on the flourishing new trade in wine.
CVNE is based in Haro’s traditional Barrio de la Estación (Railway Station) district, in the heart of the Rioja wine region. Historically, some of the oldest wineries of Rioja Alta established themselves here in order to benefit from the ease of transport via rail to the port of Bilbao, the most efficient form of transport in those days.
By 1900, the winery had an extraordinary ageing capacity of 80,000 bottles, which was most unusual at the time, as most wineries sold their wines as soon as possible.
CVNE. is still controlled by the direct descendants of the founding family, now in its fifth generation. CVNE. has three wineries in Rioja: Cune, Viña Real and Contino. In June 2017, CVNE purchased the renowned Catalonia winery Roger Goulart, dating back to 1882, located in the world-famous DO Cava region.
CVNE's Contino estate was established in 1973 and was the first single estate (or chateau, if you like) in Rioja, from where all the fruit for the wines originates in the 63-hectare estate surrounding the winery in Rioja Alavesa, north of the river Ebro. Contino has established a cult-like following producing wines with a sense of place, elegance and longevity.
The history of the property dates from the 16th century, and is reflected in its name. The contino was the officer in charge of a guard corps of a hundred soldiers who protected the royal family de contino (continuously) from the times of the Catholic Monarchs onwards.
Fast forward to recent history: in August 2017 Jorge Navascués was appointed as the head winemaker of the estate taking over the reins from Jesus Madrazo. Jorge brings a wealth of experience with over 20 years of winemaking on various projects around Spain. 2018 is the first vintage that Jorge and his team have been in charge for the full growing season and the resulting wines are fabulous, continuing the great level of quality that the estate is famous for, with his own imprint in the wines focussing on enhancing the elegance of the wines.
The wine produced on this property, fruity and elegant, is heir to the best Rioja tradition. It is made with an individualised grape harvesting system in which only grapes from the same vineyards that surround the old manor house are used. Their origin in the various plots is noted. The perfect combination of soils, Atlantic-Mediterranean climate and refined technique have made Contino, more than 30 years after the first vintage, a reference product both in and outside Spain. Amd only small quantities can be produced each year.
The trade tasting was of three of Contino's just-released, 2018 vintage wines. We must also make mention of a fourth wine (not a 2018). They are all discussed below and available to buy at the foot of the page.
The Rioja Blanco smelt glorious - it has a very lifted nose, with heaps of fruit (ranging from green and citrus fruits through to stone fruit, reflecting both the Viura and Garnacha Blanca at play). Here's what I jotted down just after:
"A highly elegant wine, beautifully aromatic (citrus and stone fruit). On the palate, it is very dry indeed: best to recognise that the acidity is cracklingly high at the moment relative to the (intendedly) low residual sugar level. For some, it will be too dry to enjoy immediately. The acidity will soften in the next two years, and it will be in fine harmony, in my view, by mid-2022. It works well with food already, however, where the acidity/dryness are offset. What that acidity gives you here is a a white Rioja that will age beautifully and develop over 15 years. Get ready for great and rich nuttiness after 2030!"
White Riojas remains an oddball category for many: often too woody, often too oxidised, often too full-in-the-mouth and sometimes downright chewy. But the new wave of (much better) white Riojas is much more in that crisp idiom of wines we see from NW Spain (Godello, Albarino, et al) and altogether fresher; the best examples achieve it while retaining a thicker texture with all that acidity. The Contino does just that.
I don't much get on with Garnacha. Even Chateauneuf-du-Pape. And even Chateau Rayas (when I can find it). I seldom find anything that has gravitas without being unduly heavy, or something that's got a bit more lightness that isn't way too crunchy. The Contino Garnacha 2018 was something of a Damascene moment. This is what I wrote straight after:
"Highly moreish to the point of immediate addiction. A great balance between the acidity and sumptuousness of good Garnacha (rare). A racy acidity stops if from falling into the flabbiness trap of so much French/Spanish Grenache/Garnacha. But this is no crunchy/green mouthful or a case of freshness at the expense of plushness. It sets up a difficult choice of whether to drink now (it totally will) or later (easily out to 10 years); personally, I shall buy a case and drink one each year until it's gone".
And so to the main feature. Contino's fame stems more from one particular wine than any other. That wine is the Vina del Olivo. Contino produce, of course, the classic time-stamped Riojas of a Reserva and a Gran Reserva. And very fine they are. But what's interesting is that such historic an outfit as CVNE have succeeded so well with a modern take on - that is, a new-wave - Rioja. When talking with fellow merchants ahead of Tuesday, hushed and reverent tones were used when talking of "the Olivo". It's this wine that sets some quite standard in the field of darker, blacker, more immediate, bolder, more powerful, Ribera-esque Riojas.
I was actually so mesmerised by it that I failed to write a coherent tasting note. It hits you directly, swinging a serious uppercut of boldness. It is dark-fruited and has great structure. There is liquorice, chocolate, spice, vanilla, coconut ... already. It may be 'only' a 2018 in early 2021, but I/you could absolutely drink it right now. It'll develop for 20 years (but probably not longer, in my view; I feel the ripe readiness of the tannins might not allow). Anytime from late next year (2022)... it'll be wonderful. Of course, at £50+, you do have to pay for it. But it will not disappoint, even at that price.
The 2018 arrives with us in June but alas not before (we were tasting an early bottling). You can pre-order now. For absolute purchase- and glass-readiness, go for the 2016 which was rated 96 points by Decanter and 18/20 by Jancis's team.
Contino's other much-vaunted luxury red is their single-varietal Graciano. Good - really good - 100% Graciano is hard to track down. As the winegrowers of Rioja will tall you, it is a diabolo to grow and get just right. Oz Clarke describes it as "capricious", but I have heard it called far worse. Contino have a reputation getting it spot-on. We offer the 2015 (a brilliant year; we'll leave you with the words of Tim Jackson - who scored it a high 17.5/20) - from the JancisRobinson.com team, just to help you decide).
"Classic Graciano appearance, with saturated, opaque, black-purple colour. Stewed damsons and lots of black pepper, with a vanilla and dried-herb lift. Notable tannins are also typical of Graciano, and can be its downfall, but in this case they are clearly ripe, giving a firm, but velvety texture. A really accomplished example. Bravo!"