This producer remains one of Rioja's best-known and most-loved names. John Stimpfig heads to its 19th-century Haro bodega to find out how it has remained true to its heritage while moving with the times.

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CVNE Haro at a glance

Owners Although a public company, CVNE is run by descendants of Eusebio and Raimundo de Asúa
CEO Victor Urrutia
Annual production Cune and Monopole: up to 5m bottles;
Imperial: 100,000- 200,000 bottles;
Real de Asúa 3,000 bottles;
Corona 5,000 bottles

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‘And this is where it all began,’ says Victor Urrutia, CVNE’s youthful CEO, in his immaculately accented English. Urrutia, who also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Harry Potter actor Daniel Ratcliffe, is taking me on a personal tour of CVNE’s famous Haro winery in the heart of Rioja Alta’s Barrio de la Estación district.

Over the last few years, Urrutia has lovingly restored, renovated and expanded much of the grand old labyrinthine bodega, comprising 38 different buildings and structures set around a central courtyard. So it may seem as though little has changed. But in fact, CVNE has always prided itself on innovation and being ahead of the winemaking curve. ‘It’s been one of the keys to our longevity and success,’ he says.

For instance, he points to a beautifully preserved Malvoisin pasteuriser, revolutionary at the turn of the last century. In another winery building, Urrutia shows me Spain’s first epoxy-lined concrete tanks, installed in 1941. Then, we fast forward to 1989, when its El Pilar winery became the first gravity-fed facility in the world, complete with automated self-emptying tanks, known as ‘flying saucers’. ‘Even Robert Mondavi came to see it,’ says Urrutia with evident pride.

Urrutia is the fifth generation descendant of CVNE’s founding fathers, Raimundo and Eusebio de Asúa. Originally from Bilbao, the brothers only went to Rioja’s drier climate for Eusebio’s asthma condition. In Haro, they met a local viticulturist, Isidro Corcuera, with whom they went into business. Their entrepreneurial timing was perfect; sales of Rioja boomed as Bordeaux reeled from the ravages of oidium and phylloxera.

Urrutia also very nearly never made it to Haro. When the call came to take the top job at CVNE in 2003, he was just 29 and working in London as a management consultant. ‘My Uncle Luis (Vallejo) retired suddenly for health reasons and my father asked me to take over. At first I said no. Fortunately for me, I changed my mind.’

There was much to do as parts of the Haro set-up were stuck in a 1960s time warp. ‘Uncle Luis was only really interested in making wine,’ says Urrutia. ‘So most of the vineyards and winery were in good shape and the quality of our wine was high. But our export department was one guy with a fax machine who spoke no English. In the winery, people communicated by sending letters to each other.’

A new approach

Urrutia quickly began to ring the changes. He asked his sister, Maria, to take charge of marketing. In the winery, a young Maria Larrea took over as head winemaker from Basilio Izquierdo. He bought and planted new vineyards and significantly increased production of the Cune crianza. Urrutia also opened the bodega to individuals and small groups and made it much more tourist friendly. Now it receives more than 15,000 visitors a year.

The style of CVNE’s commercial Cune range (crianza, rosé, blanco, and reserva and occasionally gran reserva) has undoubtedly evolved and improved during Urrutia’s tenure. The wines are cleaner, brighter and more reliable. The same goes for its Monopole label, which next year celebrates its centenary, making it Spain’s oldest wine brand.

However, the brightest jewel in CVNE’s Haro crown is Imperial. ‘It is the expression of the best grapes from our best vineyards,’ says Larrea, who originally trained at the University of Montpellier. Only ever produced as reserva and gran reserva, Imperial is so important to CVNE that it has its own dedicated winemaking team and, since 2005, its own micro-facility. ‘In a way, Imperial should be considered as a separate winery,’ adds Urrutia.

The distinctive name comes from a happy coincidence. During the 1920s, the company made some wine for the British market and the only bottles it could find were in half-litre bottles or imperial pints. Fortunately for CVNE, the name was adopted and stuck.

Imperial’s Alta fruit is hand-picked and always comes from just 30 hectares of CVNE’s oldest and highest vineyards around Haro and Villalba. The low yielding, 30-year-old, bush-trained vines are dry farmed and planted on soils with a mix of clay, limestone and iron. It is the perfect terroir for Imperial’s Tempranillo-dominated blend. The rest is made up of 10% Graciano and a pinch of Mazuelo.

Vinification though, has chopped and changed. Initially, Imperial was fermented in oak vats. From the 1940s to the 1990s, it was vinified in small concrete tanks. And between 1990 and 2004, it switched to stainless steel. Then in 2004, it went back to new oak vats. ‘The idea was to replicate the original vats from the 1920s,’ says Urrutia. ‘Of course, they’re no longer new but that’s fine because we don’t want too much oak’ says Urrutia.

Made in a fresh, elegant, complex and structured style, Imperial has a wonderful capacity for ageing. Four years ago, a tasting in London saw 10 truly remarkable gran reserva vintages back to the 1928 and the 1917 wines. Urrutia has done similar tastings in Spain in greater depth. ‘Even Imperial’s off-vintages are amazing,’ he enthuses.

Going global

‘When I came here it was an insider’s wine,’ Urrutia continues. ‘Now it’s known much more internationally.’ Numerous awards have helped spread the word, not least the 2007 Imperial’s Gran Reserva Regional Trophy at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. The result is that new vintages are always on allocation and though prices have risen, Imperial remains perennially good value.

Twenty years ago CVNE responded to Rioja’s new-wave alta espresion style by creating a fine wine stablemate for Imperial. ‘At the time, people were saying we should make Imperial closer to these modern wines,’ says Urrutia. ‘But we were never going to do that.’ Instead, it gave birth to the internationally styled Real de Asúa, in homage to its founding fathers.

There are some similarities with Imperial. The grapes are rigorously selected from the same vineyards and, as with Imperial, Real de Asúa is only produced in top years. But there are big differences. The latter is 100% Tempranillo and sees much shorter ageing in 100% new French barriques. Moreover, it’s made in even more boutique quantities.

Urrutia describes Real de Asúa as ‘a bit like a short film that a movie director might make on the side. It’s always interesting to do and we’re very proud of it, including the way it develops in bottle. If you now compare our 1994 Imperial Gran Reserva with the 1994 Real de Asúa, they’ve definitely converged despite their different starting points,’ he adds. ‘That’s down to raw material, how we make and look after the wines. My view is that the good alta espresion wines are ageing well. The not so good ones aren’t.’

Despite all the plaudits, there have been some sotto voce suggestions in Spain that the CVNE wines (including Imperial) aren’t quite what they were. In particular, alcohols are higher, aromas are fruitier and it is said that the wines won’t age as well as their forebears.

Urrutia’s response is typically measured. ‘Styles in Rioja have changed a lot. And while we respect Rioja’s best traditions, we also have a way of doing things and a way of making wine. So if some new or old technique will improve the wine, let’s do it. Of course, today’s wines have less barrel ageing and the barrels are newer than they were. But at their core, our wines are very similar and their capacity for ageing is just as good. The proof will be in 40 years’ time. As for alcohol levels, most of our wines are already nearer to 13% and are actually declining slightly. People talk about wanting Rioja which is elegant, fresh and not too heavy. But that’s always been the case at CVNE.’

Today, CVNE controls around 440ha of vineyards in La Rioja Alta, of which it owns 200ha. Urrutia would love to acquire more vineyards, ‘but the good ones are hard to come by.’ He’s determined to make the most of what he has. So CVNE has experimented with higher planting densities, aiming to cut the yield per vine and increase quality. It’s a work in progress.’

My tour finishes at the awe-inspiring library cellar of great old vintages dating back to 1881. ‘We call it the cemetery, although I hate the name. A few years ago, we had 100,000 bottles here partly because they just weren’t fashionable. And because we were too lazy to sell them,’ he admits.

Strong demand for mature, traditional Rioja has helped change that. ‘Now we have to be careful how much we release because these older wines are such a valuable asset. Not only do they tell you what we are capable of in terms of quality and ageing, they also show you exactly where our wines are going in the future.’

CVNE wineries in Rioja Alavesa

Viña Real
CVNE’s famous Viña Real brand dates back to the 1940s. Its crianza, reserva and gran reserva wines were once vinified at Haro and Elciego. Then in 2004, CVNE completed its stunningly imposing, modernist winery in Laguardia where Eva de Benito is the winemaker. The winery was opened by King Juan Carlos.

Viñedos del Contino
CVNE’s pioneering estate on the bank of the Ebro was initially a joint venture between CVNE and the owners of Contino, but now CVNE has a controlling share. Jesus Madrazo is the brilliant winemaker, fashioning some of Rioja’s most thrilling wines, including the boutique Olivo and a 100% Graciano.

CVNE: A timeline

1879
Real de Asúa y Corcuera Compania is founded as a négociant business in Haro

1882
Haro bodega is completed. The company changes its name to Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España, (The Northern Spanish Wine Company), commonly abbreviated to CVNE (pronounced ‘Coonay’)

1909
Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel’s revolutionary cellar is completed. Ingeniously, the cellar has no central support pillars. Today it is the barrel cellar for Imperial

1915
First Monopole vintage

1920s
Imperial brand is registered

1941
El Carmen winery opened in the Haro Bodega

1969
Luis Vallejo becomes CVNE CEO

1973
Vñedos del Contino created

1994
First vintage of Real de Asúa

1997
CVNE is listed on the Madrid Stock Exchange

2003
Victor Urrutia takes over as CEO

2004
Viña Real winery opened by King Juan Carlos

2007
Haro Winery opens to the public