Spain, Old and New, Part III: The Wines of Vina Real

9 09 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

Nearly a year on from the start of this review set, through three different seasons of write-ups, I am closing in on the full story of the Cune wine lineup.  We started with the mothership itself, the Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (C.V.N.E.), the Riojan stalwart whose expressions cross four separate brands.  We then ascended to Imperial, the Cune adjunct focused on Reserva- and Gran Reserva-level wines from the top vineyards of Rioja Alta, the core of what most people know of Rioja as a wine region.  Tonight we move from the centre of the heartlands to Rioja’s outskirts, and from the centre of attention to a group of producers tired of being overlooked.  Cune’s Vina Real label is rooted in grapes sourced from the ever-ignored yet consistently impressive Rioja Alavesa.

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This least-known Riojan subregion lies in the north-central portion of Rioja, bordered by the Ebro River to the south and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the north, which protects the vineyards from the cool coastal winds above.  It is both the smallest and the most elevated of Rioja’s three sub-zones, its hilly and terraced vineyards influenced by the nearby mountains, its 40 x 8 km surface area a relative pittance compared to its much more expansive siblings Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.  Being the smallest and most neglected in the family also tends to make you the scrappiest:  Rioja Alavesa has recently, and ever more vocally, been seeking to carve out its own identity within Spain’s most prominent wine appellation.  There has been some talk of leaving Rioja altogether, which has not been all that well-received by the region’s governing body.  Rioja Alavesa is craving respect and recognition, and that is part of what Vina Real seeks to deliver.

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The winery is named for its vineyards’ proximity to the Camino Real, the “Royal Road”, a renowned traditional highway; its relation to the Camino de Santiago walking trail which crosses all of northern Spain is not immediately clear to me, though that pilgrimage road goes right through Logrono, the closest city to the winery.  Much of my discussion of the Cune-brand wines has alighted on that intersection between traditional and modern approaches that they seem to exemplify, but in none of Cune’s labels is this more clear than Vina Real.  The winery is part of Rioja Alavesa’s historical fabric, being among the first in the area to employ barrel aging for wines (which is now a hallmark of the whole Rioja region) and to make Crianza wines for earlier release.  But its present incarnation is unabashedly modern:  the magnificent new puck-shaped winery building, constructed out of cedar and inaugurated by the king of Spain himself in 2004, was designed as one of the first gravity-flow operations in the country and has bored out the surrounding hilltop to create state-of-the-art underground cellars.  Even this cutting-edge operation does not lose sight of its past, however:  the winery’s circular shape (as seen on Vina Real’s labels) is an homage to a traditional large Riojan fermenting vat, a physical representation of the old-meets-new dichotomy that defines this set of producers.  Do the wines follow suit?

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2017 Vina Real Rosado (~$19)

I read the technical specs on this wine.  Then I stopped and read again.  Then I checked online to confirm that my eyes weren’t deceiving me.  They weren’t.  This rosé is unbelievably 85% Viura (a classically Spanish, and very white, grape) and 15% Tempranillo, the latter of which is entirely responsible for the pale yet still healthy farmed-salmon colour in the bottle.  The production info suggests that this level of normal-rosé colour extraction took place after only four hours’ worth of maceration, when 85% of the grapes had no colour to extract at all — sources suggest this may be the result of Tempranillo’s impressive propensity to give off a lot of colour from its skins quickly after crushing, but I am still a bit baffled by the whole thing.  Other reviews of this bottle remarked on how pale the hue of the wine was, likely in response to its grape makeup, but I did not see anything unusual in the rosé’s final colour, only in its initial composition.  85% Viura!!

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And yet it works.  Melon, hot springs, salt licks, tamarind and orange zest compete for olfactory territory on an intense old-school nose.  Surprising (but pleasant) bitterness and structure have somehow been wrung out of the 15% red fruit component, resulting in notable tannin and arid flavours of sauna heaters, old softcover books, smoked wood and cooper cups among the intermittent flashes of fresher tangerine and star anise.  The acid roars, supplying needed balance and moisture to counteract the desert-like nature of the flavour profile.  This is clearly in the traditional wing of Vina Real’s portfolio, light on its feet but eschewing fruity primacy in favour of Old World earth and a physical manifestation of a hot dry growing year.

88- points

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Stelvin Rating:  2/10 (Need to have something going on besides the gold.  Cork Rating:  6/10 (All the makings of a wonderful cork, including both horizontal and vertical print coverage, but done in slightly by the weirdly tiny length…my corkscrew went right through the end both times.)

2015 Vina Real Crianza (~$24)

Unlike Cune’s Imperial flagship, Vina Real makes a Crianza wine (almost a requirement when they also created the concept), and unlike the rose blend above, it comes from a thoroughly normal mix of Riojan grapes:  90% Tempranillo, with the remaining 10% split between Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuela.  This I understand.  The wine spent 13-14 months aging in mostly American oak barrels and even longer in bottle before release; this 4 year-old wine is the current vintage.

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This is immediately and emphatically more modern in approach than the Rosado, both in its gorgeous semi-translucent rich ruby colour and in the aromas of cherry Nibs and Halls cough drops leaping out of the glass, cavorting with a cascade of darker, more brambly fruit, ripe boysenberry and saskatoon.  There is a pillowy lightness to the mouthfeel that both belies and accentuates the depth and primacy of the flavours, but enough ballast to keep this from becoming some blowsy runaway.  Tannic grip catches on the back end of this seamless coffee- and smoke-infused escapist journey; spritely acid rides along with the well-rounded fruit; and the finish echoes in true Riojan ways, all velvet and moccasins and pipe butts.  Abjectly delicious and potent for under $25.

90+ points

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2014 Vina Real Reserva (~$33)

The next step up the Vina Real quality ladder features the identical grape blend as the Crianza above, with the differences arising largely during the winemaking process, which features a cold soak prior to fermentation to aid with extraction, a greater use of French as opposed to American oak barrels (70%, quite high for US-oak-loving Rioja), and a full 22 months in wood prior to bottling.  At 5 years old and fresh on the shelves, it was already throwing considerable sediment, not that this seemed to affect its near-impenetrably dense colour much.

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If the Rosado was Vina Real’s traditional wing and the Crianza was its modern expression, this Reserva is the perfect Goldilocks blend between the two.  Currant dances with fresh topsoil, grape with black pepper, fruit with spice and earth and oak.  The flavour complexity is amplified significantly, as foresty notes (tree bark, undergrowth), leather jackets, fresh cigar, citrus, roses and sage join a chorus of darker and more brooding berry fruit, their conversation carrying on for over a minute after you swallow.  This is both a testament to the past and a beacon towards the future.  A stately powerhouse.

92- points


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