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. Read the rest of this entry »





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. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2012 Torres Mas La Plana

16 10 2017

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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Cabernet royalty.

It’s Calgary municipal election night, so my plan was to put off this review until tomorrow.  Then I sat here for 10 minutes biting my fingernails and hitting “refresh” on the election results page on my phone every 60 seconds and realized that (1) the next four years of my civic life weren’t about to reveal themselves anytime soon and (2) I could use some guaranteed good news tonight regardless of political outcome.  And nothing screams “guaranteed good news” like the flagship wine of Miguel Torres, the most consistent larger-production winery I know.

If you have a photographic memory of this blog, you may remember that I have told the story of Mas La Plana once before; if you don’t, you can take solace in the fact that I almost didn’t remember this fact myself.  Nothing about this wine is quite as expected.  It is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Penedes, the heartland of Cava in eastern Spain near Barcelona, an area not remotely known for big red wines but blessed with numerous altitudes and microclimates that allow for pockets of warmth and create opportunity for special sites like the one that birthed this bottle.  It hails from a 29-hectare single vineyard planted before I was born, from Cab vines introduced to Spanish soil between 1964 and 1979 based on cuttings from numerous prior homes, including 1st Growth Bordeaux chateaux.  It looks strangely at home in a Burgundy bottle, unlike any other Cabernet Sauvignon I have seen on a shelf.

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Penedes was the first region in Spain to start using modern winemaking techniques like stainless steel temperature-controlled fermentation, and Torres uses them to great effect here to create a bottle that seamlessly communicates Spain’s history and potential to a global wine world, that imbues the Earth’s most ubiquitously successful commercial grape with the essence of the Torres family’s heartland.  Mas La Plana tells a story that was heard almost immediately, as the wine’s inaugural 1970 vintage beat out Chateau Latour and numerous other luminaries in the Cabernet category of French magazine Gault-Millau‘s 1979 Wine Olympics (which weirdly was the exact same competition that put Oregon Pinot Noir on the world map thanks to Eyrie Vineyards’ stellar showing against the best of Burgundy).  Yet it still retains its humble family roots:  its neck foil reads “Vinetum Paganicus”, a term sometimes used to designate top wines but which to the best of my meagre Latin translation ability appears to simply mean “vineyard of a village”. Read the rest of this entry »





2015 Alvear Alange Tempranillo

28 09 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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ALANGE SMASH!!

Some bottles immediately grab your attention for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on.  Other bottles grab your attention by screaming strange Spanish words in 128-point font.  Alvear’s Alange (sorry – ALANGE) is an example of the latter.  Its minimalist / maximalist label and Beetlejuice-like neck pinstriping are designed for the visually primed North American market, as is the consumer-friendly bottle indication of the grape inside (100% Tempranillo), a rarity on Old World wines.  It is a daring display from one of the older family-run wineries in the world, but it serves its purpose well, making you pause for that split second and linger over the bottle; after that, its price tag (a shade over $15) and the quality of the juice inside does the rest.

Alvear is truly a dynastic estate, now on its 8th generation of family winemaking.  The Alvear bodega was first constructed nearly three hundred years ago, in 1729.  Since then, it has not only stayed in the family but is now handled in all aspects by Alvears — there are currently over 50 members of the extended family involved in some capacity.  Alvear is known primarily for sherry, made in the region of Jerez in Spain’s arid southwest corner, but it is also gaining traction as a table wine producer, growing estate grapes due north of Jerez in the Ribera del Guadiana sub-zone of Extremadura.  To say this is an under-the-radar global area for red wine would be a marked understatement, but it’s places like this where values are often found.  Ribera del Guadiana is known primarily for scorching hot summers, freezing cold winters, reddish clay soils and an obscene array of planted grapes: while Tempranillo takes up the most acreage, the area is home to a crazy mix of red and white indigenous and international varietals, from Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (!) to Pedro Ximenez and Graciano. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2012 Torres Celeste Crianza

29 03 2016
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Mysterious heavens. Mysterious brown bottle.

I must admit that the weekly sale flyer from my neighbourhood Solo Liquor store doesn’t usually flood me with inspiration,  but this past week, nestled in its pages amongst the Barefoots and the Yellow Tails, was an offer that made me make a special trip down the block.  The current edition (and 10th anniversary vintage) of Torres’ Celeste Crianza, a 100% Tempranillo bottling from the famed Ribera del Duero region in north-central Spain, was on sale for $17.99, down from its usual $26ish.  I now regret buying only one at that price.  It’s becoming harder and harder with the sordid state of the Canadian dollar to find a well-made go-to bottle of wine for under $20, but for one glorious long weekend, this one easily fit the bill.

Torres is as trustworthy a wine name as there is at this kind of price point.  I’ve had a wide range of their offerings over the past couple of years, some of which ($15 Chilean rose?) did not necessarily spike my expectations going in, but all of which delivered quality, character, consistency and obscene value, to the point where I now seek them out in junk mail flyers.  They are a Spanish family-based winery, but their headquarters are in the far east of the country, in Catalunya near Barcelona; Celeste is their first bottling from Ribera del Duero.  Made from grapes grown in the upper reaches of the region, at close to 900 metres of elevation where they are exposed to blisteringly hot days but remarkably chilly nights, the Celeste is able to offer up full fruit ripeness without coming across as loose or flabby.  The wine’s name and label emphasize the celestial, showcasing the heavenly bodies on display nightly above the elevated vineyard which keep watch over the crop. Read the rest of this entry »





Torres New/Old World Value Duet

8 09 2015

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

New/Old World.  Pink/red.  Value/value.

New/Old World. Pink/red. Value/value.

Over the past couple years, Torres has become my Old Reliable, the brand that never lets me down regardless which sub-$20 value offering I’m trying, regardless where in the world it’s from, and regardless of my level of expectation or uncertainty going in.  It has now been named the World’s Most Admired Wine Brand for two years running by Drinks International (to get a sense of that accomplishment, others in the top 15 this year include Vega Sicilia, Chateau d’Yquem, Ridge, the First Growth Chateaux Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion, and Tignanello), and it succeeds without a multi-hundred-dollar wine on its resume and with wineries on three separate continents, focused on marrying high quality with affordable pricing wherever it goes.  That combination is not easy to achieve, but Torres makes it look routine.  I had a chance to toast the end of summer amidst the weekend snow in Calgary with two QPR (quality-to-price-ratio) gems from the Torres portfolio, one from the New World and one from the Old, each crafted with the same evident care and attention. Read the rest of this entry »





Canada’s Natural Wine Club: Cellar Direct

1 09 2015

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

FullSizeRender-118It was not like any other sample box I have received.  This two-bottle sample pack showed up in a container that could have easily fit a full case of wine with room to spare.  Puzzled, I broke into the box to discover the wine inside was surrounded on all sides by multiple inches of insulated styrofoam, like I was being shipped radioactive isotopes instead of a European red and white.  The bottles in the centre of the box were encased in even more styrofoam, and sitting in between them was a liqui-gel cryopack, like the kind you would use to keep your camping cooler cold.  After a multi-day, interprovincial Canada Post voyage, the icepack was still completely frozen.  And the wine?  Precisely at cellar temperature fresh off the delivery truck, a constant, perfect 13 degrees Celsius.  As it turns out, Cellar Direct doesn’t just ship their wines out in a way that ensures temperature stability; it also imports them in from producers in a rigidly temperature-controlled manner too.  They officially had my attention. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Torres Patio Party

16 06 2015

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

Summer fun - ideally outside, without rain.

Summer fun – ideally outside, without rain.

Call it countercyclical marketing or just really bad weather judgment, but I’ve managed to hold off on writing up a patio-wine-themed review duet until the week when we’re due to get utterly deluged with rain.  In the event that you’re soaking wet while reading this, consider it a faint flicker of hope for the future.  So far the forecast has been, as usual, wrong, which will hopefully allow you to disregard this entire paragraph.

I wanted to write up these two wines together because they share both a similar grape source (Garnacha, better known in the New World as Grenache) and a similar vision:  to be a cheap and cheerful source of quality fun out of a bottle.  Of course, they also share a producer, Miguel Torres, whose fifth generation family estate has become one of the most solid wine bets out there, a name that evokes trust regardless of the region, country, grape or style of the wine behind the label.  These relatively new releases are twin 2013 Torres bottlings of Garnacha-based wines:  the De Casta Rose, which blends Garnacha with Carinena (Carignan), and the 5G, a 100% Garnacha representing five generations of the Torres family tree and the winery’s constant hunt for perfection in that grape.  Both are value-priced (under $15 and under $20 respectively) and both are meant for easy and early enjoyment. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Torres Mas La Plana 40th Anniversary Tasting

16 07 2014

photo 4For the CEO of a global wine empire, Miguel Torres Maczassek is a pretty chill guy.  Soft-spoken yet jovial, the 5th-generation head of one of the wine world’s largest family businesses initially comes across as unassuming, but his passion for his multitude of intercontinental wine projects and his pride in the Torres family legacy shines through whenever he speaks.  Torres (the estate) has vineyards and properties across all of the major wine regions of Spain and many other countries, and Torres (the man) recently spent 3 years living in Chile running the family’s operations there, making connections with local growers and taking steps to preserve and revive some of the country’s oldest known varietals.  He was in Calgary recently to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Torres’ flagship red, Mas La Plana, which I have had and enjoyed many times before and which is one of those rare premium wines that can still be found locally at a fairly reasonable ($50ish) price point.  We had the opportunity to track the evolution of this wine through four different decades, from the 1980s to the 2010s, and to witness firsthand the steps taken to fully realize the family’s vision for its top bottling. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2007 Bodegas Montecillo Rioja Reserva

2 10 2013

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

I heart traditional Rioja.

I heart traditional Rioja.

The closest I’ve ever come to having a wine from my birth vintage (1980, by all accounts an absolutely terrible vintage everywhere, which explains why I can’t find any) was a bottle of 1981 Bodegas Montecillo Gran Reserva from Spain’s famed Rioja region, a bottle that I randomly stumbled upon with a friend at Co-op Crowfoot.  His birth year was 1982, so we decided that we’d split the difference and share the wine.  Montecillo is primarily a value-based producer whose wines steer clear from the ultra-expensive, but despite its non-insane price tag the 1981 was still gracefully present 32 years later, a shade past its peak consumption window but still a tremendously enjoyable drinking experience.  This longevity is partly due to Rioja’s traditional winemaking style and lengthy legally mandated aging periods:  for all wines designated as Gran Reservas, minimum 2 years aging in oak barrels and 5 years total aging is required before bottle release, and for Reservas, minimum 1 year oak aging and 3 years total aging is required.  This maturation process leaves the young wines exposed to air and leads to some flavour integration with the barrels themselves, resulting in finished wines that forego primary fruit flavours in favour of oak- and oxygen-induced secondary characteristics and complexity and that often have extraordinary staying power in the bottle.  While almost all wines are not meant to age, and while that maxim usually applies even more broadly to inexpensive wines, some traditional Rioja can be found on the shelves for bargain prices and can last for ages. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2009 Venus La Universal Dido

16 01 2013

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

This must be tasted to be believed.  Just give yourself a couple days.

This must be tasted to be believed. Just give yourself a couple days.

Back!!

Almost a calendar month from my last real post, things have finally returned to some semblance of normalcy in my household and all family cold and flu issues are mostly a thing of the past, leaving me free to kick back with a (highly intriguing) glass of wine and blog to my heart’s content. Luckily for me, PnP’s revival from the ashes of neglect comes in the form of a review of a bottle that I could write about for days, a wine that you can buy here for less than $30 and which has been constantly opening and evolving since I opened it over a day ago. I’ve tasted it over many hours and still can’t entirely figure out how to put it into words, but here goes.

Venus La Universal is one of many vinous projects currently being undertaken by Sara Perez, who is considered by many to be the most important female winemaker in Spain. Her roots in wine are familial: when she was young her parents moved the family from Barcelona to the nearby (and now-renowned) area of Priorat, located due west of the city in northeast Spain. Her mother and father became the founders of Priorat’s School of Oenology and early contributors to the wine boom that now envelops the region. Perez’s wines are all driven by a sense of place and a deep connection to the vineyards from which they are derived. I don’t usually include quotes in my review, but this one got to me: in a 2005 interview with Luis Cepeda, Perez maintained that “[t]here has to be absolute complicity between land and winery.” The land that ultimately resulted in this wine is a 4 hectare piece of farmland found in the southern end of the oddly donut-shaped region of Montsant, which forms a complete ring encircling the bullseye of Priorat (and thus can offer wine drinkers Priorat-level taste experiences for value prices). It’s a harsh landscape featuring nutrient-poor granitic soils, high altitudes, hot days and cold nights, terraced vineyards that must be harvested by hand, and vines that have to struggle to survive. Unlike most agricultural crops, however, with grapevines this constant battle to thrive leads to deeper, stronger roots and higher-quality, more flavourful fruit, making areas such as this prized for their ability to coax the most character out of their grapes.

Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2006 Bodegas LAN Rioja Crianza

22 10 2012

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Exhibit A for why Spanish wine should be a part of your life.

When the good vino-importing folks at Christopher Stewart Wine & Spirits asked if there were any bottles in their portfolio that I might be interested in writing up, it took me about 0.02 seconds to zero in on this one.  Accolades and rankings don’t tell the whole story of a bottle of wine, and even the most highly regarded publications need to be taken with a grain of salt (with the exception of this blog, of course), but when a bottle that retails for $15ish CDN and is widely available makes Wine Spectator’s list of the Top 100 wines of the year, it’s worth noting.  The ’06 LAN Crianza was #44 in the WS Top 100 list of 2010 — I remember buying that issue back then and being very curious about the wine.  Two years and 185-odd PnP posts later, I got to crack the bottle and find out all about it.

The constant capitalization of Bodegas LAN is not a typo.  The winery name is actually an acronym for the 3 different provinces within Spain’s famed Rioja region where its grapes are grown:  Logrono (now called La Rioja), Alava and Navarra.  While many reds made in Rioja are blends, this one is entirely crafted from the region’s (and the country’s) star grape, Tempranillo.  Spain has long been known for mandating minimum aging requirements for its various quality designations of wine, and many producers continue to keep their wares from market for even longer than legally necessary, holding them back until they are deemed ready to drink.  In the case of this bottle, the term “Crianza” is a designation that in Rioja requires wines to be aged for a minimum of 24 months before release, at least 12 of which have to be in oak barrels.  The LAN Crianza spent exactly that long in a blend of French and American oak barrels.  Normally when people make such a statement, they mean that, after fermentation, part of the LAN wine went into French oak barrels and another part of it went into American oak barrels, with the two separately aged portions blended together after barrel aging.  Not so here:  in LAN’s case, EACH BARREL used to age its Crianza was made from a blend of French and American oak.  I would love to know the cooperage techniques necessary to make that happen, but I have never heard of anybody doing that before, and it is without question my favourite obscure fact about this bottle. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2009 Beso de Vino Seleccion

22 02 2012

How many of you really needed to see full frontal bull nudity?

I’m sure the first thing the folks at Beso de Vino wanted me to see on this bottle was the 90-point score it received from Jay Miller of The Wine Advocate (which is likely why that number was posted front and centre on the neck in bigger font than the wine’s name).  Instead, the first thing I saw was:  testicles.  Yes, for reasons only known to a marketing department that should be immediately fired, BdV’s loveable mascot Antonio the Bull is drawn on the main label of the wine as a blatantly anatomically-correct stick figure.  Is it really necessary to showcase the animated gonads of a cartoon bull?  It has horns; I can already tell it’s a bull without any more explicit gender identification.  I don’t think the testicles add anything in particular to the artist’s rendition, and it’s not like the bull is really central to the wine or its faux back story (that Antonio kissed the wine and fell in love…not exactly deep stuff).  I am at a loss to explain this, but it’s hard to think of anything else when I look at the bottle.  Most unnecessarily X-rated critter wine ever. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2004 Pago del Vicario “Agios”

30 11 2011

It may be from a DO farm team, but it can still bring it. Cool bottle too.

It’s 9:30, I’m back from my first Christmas party of the year, I’ve walked the dog, I have the hockey game on TV and I’d like to go to bed within the hour…sounds like the perfect time for a condensed review!  Tonight’s wine is the classic buy-low no-expectations bottle:  although its regular retail price approaches $40CDN, I got it on sale in unusual circumstances for only $15, so I popped the cork not particularly caring whether or not it was a worldbeater.  The producer, Pago del Vicario, is based in the sprawling Castilla region of central Spain, just southeast of Madrid; the official appellation name, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, signifies that Castilla is kind of a higher-grade appellation in waiting, a second or third division region awaiting promotion to the top tier of the Spanish wine area hierarchy, DO (Denominacion de Origen).  With apologies to those non-hockey fans out there, Vino de la Tierra wines are like the ECHL of the Spanish wine world.  However, that’s not to say that quality wines can’t be found in Castilla — this is one example of a lower-yield artisan wine that has clearly been made with care.

Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2002 Campillo Rioja Reserva

10 08 2011

Grande Prairie, pay attention: go and find this wine. Right now.

I couldn’t resist — after talking at some length in my last post about how the Tempranillo grape was a chameleon that could show very differently depending on how it was made, and after seeing what the fruity, modern style of the grape had to offer with the 2009 Vega Moragona Tempranillo from Ribera del Jucar, Spain, I went down to my wine fridges tonight and this bottle kept calling out to me.  While the Vega Moragona did a decent job at showing off what New Age Tempranillo was all about, there are few better producers than Campillo at illustrating what can be created using the traditional approach to Spanish winemaking with this grape.  As I mentioned a couple days ago, the main difference with the more traditional style of Spanish Tempranillo is that the wines are aged in oak for significantly longer before release, often in new barrels to further enhance the oak flavours, which leads to bottles that tend to be pre-mellowed before they even hit the shelves; it’s like the wineries do most of the aging for you.  It’s an approach that makes very little sense in terms of the modern business model — how many goods retailers do you know that hang onto their inventory for 5+ years before allowing it to be sold? — but maybe that’s what makes it so charming to me.  These Spanish winemakers, especially in Rioja, the country’s traditional vinicultural heartland, are amazingly dedicated to their craft, and given the world’s recent obsession with bigger, riper, ultra-powerful reds, their wines can be found at shocking values. Read the rest of this entry »








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