Spain, Old and New: The Wines of Cune

20 11 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Welcome to Cune. Er, CUNE. Er, CVNE.

My love affair with the wines of Spain’s premier wine region of Rioja goes back almost to the time when I first started taking the contents of bottles seriously.  The area, located in north-central Spain and without question the spiritual homeland of the Tempranillo grape, is somewhat unique among the classic regions of the world for producing two very distinct types of wines, depending on the producer in question.  The traditional take on Rioja is more old-school than almost anywhere else, where both reds and whites spend near-shocking lengths of time maturing in flavour-heavy American oak barrels and even more time in bottle before release, leading to a mellowed-out, oxidative, nutty expression of regional identity.  The modern Riojas reduce barrel time (or even eliminate it for whites), focus more on riper, purer fruit and aim for immediate impact as opposed to patient complexity.  I admit to being a total sucker for the former style, largely because it’s unlike anything else produced in the entire world, a whole era unto itself, frozen in time.  That said, it is easy to see how browned, decade-aged, air-exposed wines don’t attract a universal following in this age of pristine winemaking and carefully controlled everything.  Sometimes it can be hard to reconcile the two different sides of this same regional coin.

Cune does the best job of simultaneously representing both the traditional and the modern epochs of Rioja of any winery I’ve ever come across.  Their wines harken back to the old soul of the area and feature many of its wizened delicate characteristics, while still retaining some of the vibrancy and primacy displayed by the region’s vanguard.  They are themselves part of both the history and the new blood of Rioja, founded in 1879 and now run by the fifth generation of the founding brothers.  Cune’s cellars were designed by a famed French architect by the name of Eiffel…perhaps you are familiar with other taller Parisian works of his.  The name “Cune” is more accurately “CUNE” (an acronym), which itself is more accurately “CVNE”:  Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana, or “the Northern Spanish Wine Company”…calling it Cune (Coo-nay) for short (and giving yourself a nickname) is borderline questionable, but they make it work.

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The Cune universe is actually comprised of 3 different brands, each of which has its own winery and winemaker.  The Cune brand is based in the Rioja Alta subregion and also encompasses the higher-level Imperial bottlings, made only in very good years; the Vina Real label is based in nearby Rioja Alavesa, as is the Contino bodega, which makes wines only from its own estate vineyards.  Tonight’s Cune introduction is focused on a trio of bottlings from the original label’s portfolio, each of which gives a hint of the heights that this marvellous producer can reach.

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2017 Cune Monopole (~$17)

This wine almost had me rewriting the entire introduction above, before I did a little research.  While I have known Cune as the ultimate balancing act between modern and traditional Rioja, this white, made from 100% Viura (also known as Macabeo), does no line-straddling of any kind:  it is a highly vibrant, oak-free, textbook example of modern Spanish white wine.  My thematic despair was short-lived, however, as I quickly discovered that, as a counterweight to this freshness-focused Monopole, Cune has also started to release a highly traditional, oak-aided Monopole Clasico, made in the style of decades past, that even incorporates some Sherry into the blend for oxidative effect.  Balance restored.  Monopole was first made in 1915 and has the honour of being the very first registered white wine brand in all of Spain.  Between hand-picked grapes, natural yeast fermentation and a crystalline flavour profile, this pulls out all the stops for $17.

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The 2017 Monopole is a pretty shimmering lemon colour and features a full fruit salad of a nose, ranging from fresh apple and pear to Christmas orange, cantaloupe and honeydew.  It is musky and lush for about three-quarters of a second before the circuit completes and high-voltage acid clamps down hard, introducing spearmint, celery, herbal tea and lemon verbena verve to what is otherwise a cabana party of a white.  A chalky, talc-y finish leaves a bitter trace that is strangely pleasant for its relief and complexity.  An absolutely exceptional value and a bellwether for 21st century Spanish whites.

88 points

2015 Cune Crianza (~$18)

The various bodegas of the Cune group collectively produce around 7 million bottles a year.  Cune itself makes 5.8 million of these, of which this Crianza comprises a significant chunk.  As is becoming painfully obvious to consumers in the Canadian wine market, it is far more difficult to find properly made wine of quality for under $20 these days, placing this bottle in an ever-constricting category.  Like the Reserva to follow, the Cune Crianza is made up of 85% Tempranillo, with the remaining 15% a blend of Garnacha Tinta (Grenache) and Mazuelo (Carignan).  The back label is not prescriptive about its aging regime, advising only that it spends “a minimum of one year” in barrel (both American and the more refined French oak, in a hedge of traditional and modern Riojan practice) and then “some months in bottle” before release.  However, the legalities of the Rioja appellation mandate that all Crianzas spend at least a year in barrel and two years total aging before being released to market, and the fact that these grapes were harvested in the fall of 2015 suggest that they may have hung out for more than the prescribed minimum 24 months.

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In a possible nod to the old school, this Crianza is fully translucent to the core, a brilliant medium ruby throughout.  Cherry Halls, red plum, fall leaves and dried flowers combine with savoury tomato leaf and tangy leather/sweat in an aromatic profile that is Riojan to its core.  Svelte and welterweight on the palate, it is an intriguing mix of spritely and wizened, its red fruit zip matured and seasoned by peppery spice, parchment paper, tobacco and sagebrush.  Dusty tannin hangs over the whole flavour set like an old tapestry, bringing both a faded nature and a certain nobility to the proceedings.  This runs a shade thin in the mid palate, but it is impressively complex and representative for a wine at this price point and production level.

87+ points

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Stelvin Rating: 1/10 (Come on, beige.) Cork Rating: 7/10 (Love the vertical orientation. What’s the difference between a W3 cork and a U4A cork? Colour and consistency at least.)

2014 Cune Reserva (~$27)

There is a clear step up from the Crianza to the Reserva levels, starting from vineyard selection and extending through to a longer maturation.  The tech sheet for this bottle advises that the Reserva saw 18 months in French and American oak barrels followed by a year of cellaring after bottling, but that would put it 6 months shy of Reserva legal aging requirements (1 year in barrel and 3 years total aging minimum), so I’m guessing it spent additional time in one or the other container before release.  It definitely showcases more depth, care and presence than the two wines that came before it, as one might expect for a 50% price jump.

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After a more grounded, earthier aromatic experience on the Crianza, the Reserva is considerably more plush and welcoming to smell, harnessing blacker purer fruit and a clear uptick in ripeness in the underlying grapes (both wines clock in at 13.5% ABV, but there is flexibility in label numbers and I stand by my assessment).  This leaves a more primary impression, wild blackberry and grape barely restrained by oak, although vanilla bean and sandpaper notes dance around the edges.  On a dramatically more vivid palate, an underlying dankness of pipe bowl, anise, asphalt and char is rescued and lifted by a radiating heart of polished black cherry fruit.  The structure increases along with the boldness of flavour, but in a subtler way, omnipresent in the background, holding the wine still that extra second as you swallow so that it’s ever more difficult to forget it.  This is the precipice of Cune’s entry-level wines, and I know from experience that the climb just extends from here.

90+ points

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