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CVNE Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva 1976

Two years ago I made the 1976 CVNE Viña Real Rioja Grand Reserva, a bottle which I picked up in Barcelona, my Weekend Wine. I'm always slightly apprehensive when opening mature bottles, especially those with little known provenance, but in that case I was delighted to discover that wine was just fabulous. Two years on, its time to put its stablemate - the 1976 Imperial, purchased at the same time - to the test. Happily, I was not to be disappointed.

CVNE Rioja Gran Reserva Imperial 1976Rioja seems to get something of a mixed press these days. I have long regarded it as one of the great red wine regions of Europe, sitting comfortably alongside Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and the varied DOCGs of Tuscany. There is great heritage in the region, a number of the oldest bodegas being well over a century old, and the wines themselves can age just as well, especially at the gran reserva level. As if to illustrate this point in 2008 Christie's auctioned off a number of rare treats from the cellars of Marqués de Riscal, featuring vintages back to 1863. The 1900 vintage, a relative youngster by comparison, comprising a blend of 60% Tempranillo, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Graciano, all from pre-phylloxera vines and aged in oak for 50 months, received the most press attention principally because of the celebrated opening of a bottle and tasting of the wine by several similarly celebrated wine writers, including Jancis Robinson and Stephen Brook (I suspect my invitation was lost in the post). The latter described the wine as "exquisitely perfumed" and "silky", with "lift and freshness" in the finish. It sounds rather good, and yet I suspect this style of wine - which begins its life with a prolonged period of residence in wood - is anathema to some. Likely criticisms are as follows; Tempranillo is an inferior variety, the oak is too American, the oak is too intrusive, the wines are under-fruited, or dirty and - horror of horrors - this sort of wine just isn't "fashionable" any more.

In any wine region there are good wines and bad wines, and whereas no doubt some wines made in Rioja do live up to some of the denigrating put-downs given above, it is ridiculous to tar all the producers and all the wines with the same brush. Wines like the 1900 Marques de Riscal and this 1976 Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva (I'm afraid my budget doesn't stretch to anything more ancient) from CVNE, more formally known as the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, are classic examples of an ageworthy, savoury style of wine that is delicious with food (especially roast lamb, I find). Nothing could be worse than the metamorphosis of Rioja intro a region turning out nothing but modern, "fruit-driven" wines; I have no problem with those who prefer or indeed actively advocate the more modern style, and indeed some producers seem to excel at this or indeed both very weakly defined categories, but let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater, please. This wine is Rioja, it defines the region, regardless of how good something richer in fruit and characterised by the honey-sweet tones of French oak might taste to some.

Rant over, now let's get onto the wine, these days typically a blend of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo (whether this is true for the 1976 I'm not sure). Comparing this bottle with the 1976 Viña Real the most striking difference is in the label; I had forgotten how pristine the Real label had been. This one looks a little more cellar-weary, but it is entirely in keeping with the age of the wine. The fill is very good, just to the bottom of the neck. The lower section of the cork crumbled but it was extracted leaving just one or two pieces in the wine, easily fished out. The colour is a very pale, burnt earth-mahogany hue, which isn't particularly reassuring, but the aromas are just fabulous. Leaping from the glass within seconds of being poured; we have well hung game, sweet macerated fruit, bloody meat, rust and iron filings, interspersed with notes of decay. Initially it seems a little light despite this complexity, but with time it shows more apparent depth, and this comes through on the palate too. Lovely texture on entry, dry and still with a good backbone of tannins, and firm acidity too, I get the immediate impression that, no matter how well developed, this is a wine that could go on and on in the cellar for many years yet, if not decades. There is a well defined texture to it, quite fine and savoury, linear and firm, and towards the finish it shows an almost sour fruit on top of these characteristics, and the length! It goes on and on.....this is just divine stuff. Long may the believers in real Rioja prosper! 19+/20 (27/4/09)

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