Wednesday, August 13, 2008
In theory, driving from San Sebastian to Rioja Alavesa should have been a breeze. Maybe an hour and a half drive on the AP-1, a bit longer with traffic. Well, theory did not prevail on Tuesday June 3, as Natalie and I spent the better part of three hours stuck in traffic on a regional road, due to one of two possible factors: 1.) A partial closure of the highway without any way to get back on or 2.) A partial closure of the highway with posted signage that I completely ignored or failed to understand. The latter is most probable. Anyway, we arrived considerably late for our appointment at Contino with winemaker Jesus Madrazo and export director Jose Luis Ripa. They were nice, but I was really upset with myself – I mean who likes being late, let alone a few hours late? Anyway, after introductions were made and a brief history of the estate were recited, all frustrations slowly dissipated as we descended down into the Contino cellars.
Here’s a brief history of Contino. Founded in 1973, the result of a partnership between the owner of a terrific vineyard site and the ownership of Cune, Contino is the oldest single estate bottled Rioja of the Rioja Alavesa. Their 68 hectares are very well situated close to the Rio Ebro, just outside of a small village named Laserna and proximate to the beautiful medieval, hilltop town of Laguardia.
As it relates to modern-day Rioja, Contino is quite significant for two reasons: 1.) Jesus Madrazo’s firm belief in the importance of the Graciano grape, which has a significant 10-15% role in their wines, as well as comprising the outstanding Graciano varietal bottlings 2.) The winery’s undeniable ability to make a fruit forward, modern style of Rioja that has enough balance and acidity to appeal to most classicists (including such experienced Spanish wine authorities as Gerry Dawes and Manuel Camblor, amongst others).
Jesus Madrazo is an eloquent defender of Graciano. As the joke goes, many in Rioja refer to this varietal as ‘gracias, no,’ or ‘no thanks,’ due to the fact that it’s temperamental and tricky to grow. When not properly ripened (which historically can occur quite often) the flavors are no good. But it’s arguably an essential element to Rioja blends, as shown by Lopez de Heredia and Muga, amongst others who always make sure to include Graciano in their reservas. It also makes for a tasty, interesting mono-varietal wine (see Viña Ijalba). My experience with good bottlings of varietal Graciano is that they hide their 14% alcohol quite well, since they show great natural acidity and remarkably pure, focused blue fruits. Perhaps this is why a Contino Reserva, even at 14.5% alcohol, can still retain a sense of elegance and freshness on the palate.
For some more detailed information on Contino’s history as well as winemaking, see this terrific article from Gerry Dawes (you’ll have to scroll down from the Roda portion of the article). Below are a few tasting notes from my visit at Contino:
2004 Contino Rioja Reserva
14.5% alcohol barely registers. Aged in 3, 4 and 8 year-old oak (French, American, and a small portion of Hungarian). My notes read, “fresh, primary red fruits,” though the 'red' also looks as though I were saying 'real.' I'm pretty sure I meant 'red,' but 'real' would be apt as well. This wine is a real joy to drink, and for near-term consumption is my favorite of this line-up.
2005 Contino Viña del Olivo
While the reserva has 10% Graciano, this wine, produced largely from a tempranillo vineyard surrounding a 1,000 year-old olive tree, ratchets up the proportion to 15%. There is more mixed berry fruit on the nose and more obvious oak influence (which would make sense – if memory serves this wine is typically fermented and aged in a combination of French and American oak, most of it new, for 12-14 months). Blackberry and vanilla flavors predominate on the palate, with some oak derived spice on the finish. Somehow, with all the power and intensity, this wine still maintains a relative sense of lightness in the mouth. No overly extracted fruit or harsh wood tannins here.
2005 Contino Graciano
At first very muted on the nose, it becomes quite floral, as is Graciano's (at least the ones I've drunk) tendency. Very pure blue and dark fruits on the palate. This wine needs at least five years to develop. As a matter of fact, Jesus told me that he recently conducted a vertical tasting of this wine for a group of sommeliers in San Sebastian. And the 2001 Graciano I tasted six or so months ago was quite tasty indeed.