Every year, the discerning and prestigious palates at the helm of Wine Spectator peruse the best wines reviewed over the preceding 12 months and create a list of their Top 100 bottles. The criteria is open to interpretation and incredibly subjective, with each potential inductee evaluated according to its quality, value, availability (a nice addition for those of us who tire of reading a rave review of a wine we have absolutely no chance of ever having access to), and excitement. In 2013, the wine to score the top spot was a complete surprise to many. For the very first time since the list was first compiled and released in 1988, the winner was from Spain, an absolutely beautiful example of what the region is capable. This landmark champion was the 2004 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva. The price for such decorated greatness? A mere $63 then…now good luck!
While the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, more commonly known – and much more easily pronounced – as CVNE, is now basking in the considerable glow of international recognition, the vineyards beginnings were markedly more humble. The Real de Asua family founded CVNE in 1879, in a small town in the renowned Rioja wine region (a Denominación de Origen Calificada, or DOCa) in Spain called Haro. Nearly 150 years later, the winery is still family run, a remarkable achievement.
The Gran Reserva that nabbed the Spectator title in 2013 was first produced in the 1920s. The wine was supposed to be called CVNE, the same as the company itself, but a printing mistake early on swapped the ‘V’ for a ‘U’ and the name stuck. The wine is only made during exceptional vintages, using grapes grown on more than 20-year-old vines in CVNE’s own Rioja Alta vineyards in Haro and Villalba.
The company focuses on low yields for better concentration, hand harvesting and selecting on the healthiest and heartiest grapes at the pinnacle of ripeness.
The grapes are destalked, then sent through both cold maceration and cold fermentation, methods that extract beautiful color and flavor without over extracting tannins. The result is a wine with striking color and structure without the harsh astringency and bitterness that often goes hand in hand with such a rich hue and luscious mouth-feel. Following fermentation, the wine is refined and rounded out via malolactic fermentation, then aged in both American and French oak as well as in the bottle before being released to the public. The result is a wine with captivating complexity, with a supple grace that serves as the perfect counterpart to the considerable structure at the wine’s heart.
The 2004 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva is comprised of three grapes: Tempranillo (85%), Mazuelo (5%), and Graciano (10%). From the minute you begin to guide the glass towards your eagerly anticipating nose, you’ll be greeted with the strong, persistent aroma of both red and black fruit laced with a generous lashing of anise. The first sip confirms what your nose has already delighted in; that same expressive Tempranillo fruitness, this time tempered by a hint of unctuous and intriguingly sweet-meets-bitter balsamic, toasted oak, and a long, satisfying finish. There’s enough acidity to make you salivate for a while after you swallow, which makes you thirsty for your next sip even as the slight minerality and plush mouth-feel continues to linger. It’s a very food-friendly wine, and one that would be suitable for sipping alone or for impressing a date.
It’s this very impressive versatility, quality, and value that clinched the Cune Gran Reserva’s victory, and having tasted it, that excitement factor is definitely present as well.