Getting the party rolling with oak-casked Rioja
In the who's who of wine, there are just a few names whose style is instantly recognisable. There's the joyous bounce and juiciness of Beaujolais. New Zealand has brilliantly captured a unique distinction for its glitteringly grassy sauvignons.
And then there's Rioja, the flagship red of Spain. What sets Rioja apart more than anything is the way it's aged in oak casks. When mature, the wines take on a creamy vanilla richness that wraps the keen, bright blackcurrant fruit to form an unmistakably delicious confection.
There's a bit of a story behind it. Until about 1850, Rioja was a winemaking region of no great distinction, and unknown to the wider world. Unlike Spain's premier wine area, the sherry country of Andalucia, where the casks could be shipped to the world's markets from Cadiz and other handy ports, Rioja's vineyards were 50 miles or more from the sea, and the roads were terrible.
But just across the Pyrenees from Rioja in southwest France was Bordeaux, the greatest wine centre (and a seaport) of all. This proximity was to be the secret of the Spanish region's success, because when the Bordeaux vineyards were decimated by the fungal disease oidium in the mid 19th century, the city's merchants turned to Spain for alternative supplies. They sent their own experts down into Rioja to show the local growers how to make Bordeaux-style wines, which included ageing them in oak casks, and in no time they were mass-producing "Ebro claret", so-called after the valley of the river Ebro at the heart of the Rioja region.
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These new Franco-Spanish reds were a hit, and enterprising merchants set about improving the routes to Bilbao, Rioja's nearest Atlantic port, so the casks could be shipped the short distance to Bordeaux, and thence to both the domestic and overseas markets.
The fortunes of Rioja's growers enjoyed another leap from 1867, when the dreaded phylloxera beetle struck France's vineyards, just as they were recovering from oidium. Bordeaux was entirely wiped out for several years, and the merchants now turned even more enthusiastically to Rioja.
Phylloxera was a worldwide plague, but did not reach Rioja until 1899. By then, the region had become thoroughly established in its own right, and able to export on a grand scale thanks to the railway that from 1880 connected Haro, the region's principal wine town, to Bilbao.
The 20th century had its ups and downs for Rioja, but the graph has risen steadily. Formal quality regulations have helped establish the wines among the world's most reputable, and there is a clear vocabulary defining the hierarchy of maturity in the cask-aged the wines. It starts with crianza, the Spanish word for a nursery, denoting a wine nursed for at least two years, with a minimum of 12 months in cask, before release. Reserva wines must be at least three years old including one in oak, and gran reserve wines, made only in especially auspicious vintages, have to age at least five years with a minimum of two in casks.
Equally important for the distinction of Rioja is that it has persisted with its indigenous vines, particularly the tempranillo and garnacha, to make the red wines. It's been the making of Rioja's great bodegas (wine estates) that even under French domination of the early days they did not simply ape Bordeaux (as growers all across the New World have long-since done) by planting Bordeaux's ubiquitous varieties, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
Some of those resolute bodegas have become household names. One is the Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España, or the Wine Company of the North of Spain. Now usually known by its initials CVNE, the name is a reminder that in the early days of Rioja, there were not a great many wine companies in northern Spain.
CVNE was established in 1879 at Haro, by no coincidence during the building of the town's station for its rail link with Bilbao. The founders were brothers Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asua, who began exporting their wines to markets including Britain and America as soon as the Bilbao line opened. Their descendants are still running the business today.
This sort of continuity does give a special cachet to Rioja. Very few wine estates of this age remain in their founding family's control anywhere in the world, and yet this region has several bodegas, besides CVNE, also still in the ownership of their originators.
It's all really rather reassuring. And the same could be said for the quality of the wines. CVNE today has three brands under which it makes a broad range of reds and whites and even a rosé. The main brand is Cune, a rather odd adaptation from the company name reportedly arising from a spelling error committed a century or so ago. Alongside is Viña Real, from the founding family's name, and finally Contino, an individual vineyard whose wines are made in small quantities at correspondingly large prices.
The best CVNE wine I have tasted in a long time is Viña Real Reserva 2006. If the name is familiar it's because I raved about it on this page two Saturdays ago. I'll reiterate: It's gorgeous … lashings of creamy vanilla from the oak contact, but the fruit is bold and defined with bright blackcurrant juiciness and long, long flavour. It's a mature wine at seven years old but full of youthful vigour with perfect balance.
Now the bad news. I gave the stockist as Waitrose and claimed this wine was reduced in price. But I had muddled it up with another Viña Real wine at Waitrose altogether. The one I was describing is actually sold by Majestic at £17.99. My apologies for this silly error, especially to those readers (some of whom I have heard from) who inquired at Waitrose and were disappointed.
Majestic, I must add, has the most comprehensive choice of Riojas of any of the major national retailers. There are more than 50 in the list, a dozen or so of them from the CVNE ranges. The choice is yours.