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Family owned since 1879, CVNE is high on our short list of Rioja's greatest traditional producers. Yet, over its long history, it’s also been one of the region’s visionaries.
We can think of no better example of CVNE’s pioneering spirit than their creation, in 1973, of the great single-vineyard Rioja, Contino. Looking back over nearly a half century, it’s astonishing to consider that Contino was Rioja’s very first single-estate winery.
By committing itself in 1973 to expressing a single site, with its unique soil and exposure, Contino represented a momentous departure from Rioja’s deeply held tradition of blending multiple sites.
So deeply entrenched was that tradition that it was not until 2017 that it became legal to label Riojas as coming from a single village, subzone or vineyard. That tells you just how far ahead of the curve Contino was. It also explains why some consider it the progenitor of today’s highly important single-vineyard movement in Rioja.
Every bottle ever released under the Contino label has come the same site: a south-facing bowl of alluvially-deposited chalk, sand and clay soil nestled in a bend of the Ebro River and sheltered by the Cerro de la Mesa hill.
The late José Madrazo Real de Asúa—a direct descendent of CVNE’s founding family and general manager of Viña Real —was the first to recognize the vineyard’s exceptional quality.
Madrazo knew the site well, having relied heavily on it for CVNE’s iconic Viña Real Gran Reserva. And with time Madrazo became convinced that it deserved to stand on its own. So, he persuaded CVNE to partner with the vineyard’s owners to make wine exclusively from the estate’s fruit, becoming the first “château of Rioja.”
Madrazo and CVNE were on to something. That became clear with the inaugural 1974 Contino Reserva, which has since become legendary.
Over the past 45 years, Contino has gone from strength to strength, its approach continually refined through the skill of two subsequent winemakers: Jésus Madrazo, who succeeded his father in 1999, and Jorge Navascués, who joined in 2017.
But the estate’s winemaking philosophy has never changed. It continues to be a blend of modern and traditional ideas, fermenting with the native yeasts and featuring a relatively short 2-year aging in French and American oak to favor Contino’s fabulous primary fruit.
As Jésus Madrazo once told a British wine writer: “It’s all about harmony, balance and length ... am I traditional or modern? I don’t know, I don’t really care.”
Contino’s winemaking is rooted in the Imperial and Viña Real Gran Reservas made by the legendary Ezequiel Garcia, CVNE’s head winemaker from the 1940s to the 1970s. Jésus Madrazo grew up drinking those wines, whose surreal finesse, nuance and texture have served as his greatest inspiration.
That was the inspiration for Jésus’ mythic 2001 Contino Viña del Olivo, a wine Rioja authority Gerry Dawes once called “undoubtedly the greatest red wine I have tasted in the so-called modern era of Spanish winemaking.”
But Jésus wanted more. And so for the next 16 years, until turning over the winemaking to Jorge Navascués, he looked for deeper expressions of the Contino amphitheater, which he painstakingly mapped into 32 micro-parcels.
While the priority at Contino has always been to make the best possible Reserva, that wine is only part of the story. As is the tradition in Rioja, a longer-aged, more meticulously selected, and more powerful Contino Gran Reserva is also made in outstanding vintages.
Contino also produces a superb old-vine white wine. Like most of Rioja’s greatest whites, Contino Blanco is made largely from Viura grapes. But few other producers have what Contino has: Viura vines planted more than 80 years ago. Also, the barrel aging is extraordinary: a blend of oak and acacia casks. With the addition of a small amount of Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia, the result is a creamy, yet delicate white wine of real finesse.
Contino was also the pioneer of single-varietal, single-parcel bottlings of the important Graciano grape. Normally, Graciano is used to give color and acidity to the region’s blended reds, but it was left to Contino, and its warm micro-climate, to make a pure Graciano.
Today, Contino’s most revered wine is its grand cru, Viña del Olivo, a selection of the best lots from a tiny plot littered with limestone rocks surrounding an ancient olive tree in the heart of the estate’s sheltered bowl.
If you’ve never heard of Viña del Olivo, don’t be surprised. It has rarely found its way to the United States. But thanks to a special arrangement with Contino, The Rare Wine Co. has received direct allocations of both bottles and magnums since the 2016 vintage.
In addition, we’ve sourced from fine European cellars a few outstanding and increasingly rare earlier Viña del Olivo vintages.
Made only in fine vintages, Viña del Olivo is the ultimate expression of the Contino terroir. Its source is the parcel of vines where the estate’s powerful ripeness, allied with bracing acidity and chalky minerality, is voiced with the greatest depth and nuance.
Planted in Contino’s signature blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano, Viña del Olivo is given a cool 10-day vinification in massive 10,000-liter oak vats, followed by malolactic fermentation in new French barriques and 18 months aging in a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels.
As with the other Contino reds, fermentation and aging are relatively brief, to capture Viña del Olivo’s great natural ripeness, setting the stage for a long development in bottle. As Luis Gutierrez notes, Viña del Olivo “has a lot of power, in both fruit and tannic structure, so needs time to integrate.”
It’s no wonder that—in The Finest Wines of Rioja, co-authored with Jésus Barquín and Victor de la Serna— Gutierrez named Viña del Olivo one of Rioja’s ten greatest red wines.
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