Spain, Old and New, Part II: The Wines of Imperial

14 02 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

This is a belated sequel to my introductory post from last November about the marvellous wines and history of Cune, the Riojan benchmark producer melding the traditional and the modern into perfect balance.  Since that post predated Wine Advent and then Vinebox, it’s about 40 posts back on the PnP timeline, and even though it’s only 3 months old it feels like 30.  Perhaps it has aged enough then to allow to slip in a slight correction.  I mentioned way back in 2018 that the Cune brand was made up of 3 different physical wineries and brands, each with their own winemaker:  Cune itself, Vina Real and Contino.  I also mentioned that the Cune brand “also encompasses the higher-level Imperial bottlings, made only in very good years”.  This is ALMOST entirely true:  the wines of Imperial have been made since 1920, only in great vintages, using Cune’s oldest vineyards in Rioja Alta and selected nearby old-vine sites.  Imperial is also still made by Cune’s winemaker, although the label only releases a Reserva and a Gran Reserva red wine, leaving the Crianzas and the whites to the others.  However, further research reveals that, as of 2005, Imperial has its own separate winemaking premises on the Cune property, as outlined in this highly confusing official graphic; it is now a winery-within-a-winery, its own bricks-and-mortar space.  The 3 Cune wineries are actually 4.

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Imperial is a focused and quality-driven enterprise, producing around 200,000 bottles in the vintages good enough to merit its creation, in contrast to Cune’s 5 million.  As of 2004, all fermentations now take place in new oak barrels, as a back-to-the-future nod to history — the Imperials of the pre-1940s were all produced in this fashion, and after decades of dalliances with first concrete, then steel, Cune made the very Riojan determination that sometimes the old ways really are best and went back to its roots.  The winery name comes from a unique historical bottling release for the UK market, the “Imperial pint” size (which is roughly 500mL, a highly underrated and remarkably useful size for a bottle of wine that we should see more of nowadays).  The Imperial brand made more recent history when its 2004 Gran Reserva, an utterly spectacular wine that it pains me to say I have no more of, was named the Wine Spectator Wine Of The Year in 2013, the first such global pinnacle designation for a Spanish wine.  If you ever have the chance to acquaint yourself with the Imperial lineup, do not hesitate.  The current releases continue to showcase the magnificent pedigree of the estate.

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2014 Imperial Rioja Reserva (~$50)

The Imperial Reserva is a clear jump in price (by $20 or so), but also in quality, from the base Cune Reserva that I tasted back in November.  While both hail from Cune’s Rioja Alta vineyards, the Imperial comes from the top grapes and oldest vineyards from these plots.  The grapes (85% Tempranillo, the remaining 15% a mix of Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha) are hand-harvested and spend 24 hours in cold storage before fermentation to enhance freshness and aromatics.  Two years in a mixture of French (60%) and American (40%) oak barrels are proceeded by two further years maturing in bottle before release.  The resulting liquid is a near-opaque ruby-purple in the glass, already revealing some modernist heft (if the over-half split of French oak was not a prior giveaway) without a sniff or sip, none of the oxidative tawniness so prevalent in old-school Rioja to be found.

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Protection from air has not minimized this Reserva’s aromatic impact, however.  Mesmerizing swirls of spruce and eucalyptus, pine cones and wet dirt, meld with wild raspberry and deeper blackberry fruit, a true olfactory nature walk whose barrel influences linger quietly in background hints of chocolate pudding and campfire embers.  Tannins pounce as soon as the wine touches the tongue, as if they were lying in ambush, but while voluminous they are also suave and polished, setting the riverbanks as opposed to mounting a dam.  Plush fruit is controlled by a deft mid-weight body and pervasive earthy, tobacco-infused undertones, and the regal finish carries for close to a minute.  This is about as good as Reserva wines get.

92 points

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Cork Ratings:  6/10 (It’s…fine? I feel it could be more. Rioja swagger missing.)

2011 Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva (~$85)

The coolest thing about Gran Reserva Riojas can be summed up as follows:  this 2011 is the current vintage of this wine.  It spends three full years in the same mix of French and American oak barrels, then a remarkable 36-48 months in bottle (closer to the latter, if I can successfully interpret a calendar) before release; seven years of patient inventory before the wine’s gifts can be shared with the world.  This is 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo (a.k.a. Carignan) and hails from my eldest son’s birth year, about which the wine’s tech sheet hilariously confirms that “[t]he main characteristic of this harvest has been the excellent sanity of the grapes”…always the hallmark of an excellent vintage.  Those waiting for a hint of colour degradation after a 7+ year aging period will be sorely disappointed:  this is thick, deep, almost black and incredibly dense, thinning only slightly to twilight colours at the rim.  It smells as chewy as it looks, from molasses and beef jerky to melted chocolate s’mores, burning cedar and char, black pepper and chili powder dancing overhead.

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The flavour density continues unrelenting as you sip, but the weight of the actual wine is oxymoronically feathery, gliding easily over the tongue without friction while still feeling like it is bearing the weight of compressed complexity that will take decades to unpack.  The fruit is black, lashed with pavement and motor oil, scotch mints, black jujubes (my favourite), espresso grounds, and some hidden, deeply buried raciness that keeps the whole machine from bogging down.  I have had previous renditions of the Imperial Gran Reserva that were prettier, more immediately alluring, but I’m not sure I’ve tasted one that feels like it contains this much stuff, even if it is currently grimier and slightly captive to the rigours of a long aging curve.  This is a baby and a monster.  Just you wait.

92+ points

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