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? Read the rest of this entry »

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12 Days of Vinebox: Day 3

27 12 2018

By Peter Vetsch

I was not expecting to pull a rosé out of the Vinebox collection, let alone (1) one from Spain that (2) is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but here we are — this box is already full of surprises.  The 2017 Castillo de Benizar Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé hails from the large dead-central Spanish region of La Mancha, the bullseye of the Spanish map.  It is an area known mostly as the workhorse of the Spanish wine industry and a generator of unspeakably large volumes of wine every year, thanks in particular to the Airen grape, the most prolifically planted grape you’ve never heard of, which makes up the largest acreage of plantings in the country.  But La Mancha is starting to be about more than just quantity, and the friendly climate allows for almost anything to be successfully planted, including King Cab.  Gems can be found.

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Castillo de Benizar is a brand of producer Bodegas Ayuso, whose massive new 15,000 m2 production facility allows for fermentation/tank storage of up to 35 MILLION LITRES of wine at once.  But this particular bottling (er, vialling) isn’t a mere commodity.  The Cabernet Sauvignon vines from which this rosé is created are planted on a separate plot specifically and unusually dedicated only to rosé production, making this no saignée afterthought or vinous byproduct.  Old-school Spanish rosé tends to be mellow and earthy and (intentionally) oxidized, but newer renditions buck that trend and focus on the freshness and fruit purity that are currently making rosé a universal global language.  This one follows suit.

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Castillo de Benizar’s pink Cab is a striking bright watermelon-flesh colour and gives off cool minty and herbal aromas (spearmint, chlorophyll, sage) along with mineral-laced bath salts and soft pink lemonade and raspberry fruit.  Even expecting a more modern pink take based on its colour, I was still unprepared for the level of perkiness and brightness that seeps into every pore of the wine.  There is zero hint of rustic Old World earthiness, which has been wholly eradicated and replaced by turbo-charged acid and vivid Pop Rocks, Thrills gum, strawberry smoothie, pink grapefruit, green apple Jolly Rancher and Welch’s white grape juice notes.  It continually jumps around on the tongue, making all neural synapses fire in rapid sequence.  Despite the confectionary nature of its flavours, the rosé finishes clean and comes across as fairly dry, although the piercing acid probably covers some dose of residual sweetness.  Look at that colour!  Not your grandfather’s rosado.

88 points

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