Stuart George

Cuneiform: 2004 Contino Reserva Rioja

In Tastings on April 30, 2010 at 7:32 pm

This is the first of a very occasional series on bottles that have caught my eye for whatever reason.

Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España – or CVNE, as it is commonly known – is among the most senior Rioja producers, run by direct descendants of its founders. It has three arms that embrace the CVNE, Viña Real and Contino estates and wines. Of these the single-estate Bodega Contino is the most highly regarded.

José Madrazo Real de Asúa, father of current winemaker Jesús Madrazo, established the estate while serving as CVNE’s technical director in 1974, in a 200-year-old farmhouse that has cellars dating from the 16th century. It takes its name from the officer of a royal guard of 100 soldiers who continually, or de contino, oversaw the monarch. The business remains joint-owned by the Real de Asúa family and CVNE.

Contino bathes in sunshine, its boundary (and those of the Rioja Alavesa and Alta subregions) formed by the River Ebro, which also marks the beginning and end of the Basque Country. The Cerro de la Mesa hill, home to Viña Real’s €40 million winery, overlooks Contino and marks its northern edge. Contino has 62ha (153 acres) of vineyards, 85 percent of which are Tempranillo, with a typical Alavesa mix of limestone and clay soils, but pebbly alluvial soils closer to the river.

The bodega has 2,000 oak barrels in situ, with around 70 percent French, 20 percent American (mostly from Pennsylvania and Missouri) and 10 percent Eastern European (Hungarian, Russian, and Romanian).

Although renowned particularly for its Viña del Olivo vineyard selection bottling, Contino also makes more traditional reserva and gran reserva Rioja wines. The Reserva uses more French oak in the first year and more American in the second year of its life. It then has a further year in bottle before release onto the market.

Rated as an “excellent” vintage by the Control Board of Rioja, in 2004 Contino produced a focused and detailed Reserva. The tannins retain a rustic edge – corduroy rather than velvet – but the intense, plummy fruit is very fine-grained. The clean acidity and elegant quality of the fruit make approachable an otherwise taut palate that sometimes feels like a tightly clenched hand. The use of oak is exceptionally skilful: Madrazo has achieved a balletic balance of wood and fruit. Only the 14 percent alcohol on the warm finish mars this virtuoso example of contemporary Rioja.

As a medium- to full-bodied wine, Contino Reserva 2004 needs some protein to soften it. It drinks well with chorizo, the spice of the meat matched by the wine’s oak. My bottle was served (challengingly) with teriyaki beef. The wine’s dark fruit and crisp acidity were potent enough to counter the soy sauce and honey marinade of the meat.

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