Sunday, May 18, 2014

La Rioja Wine Touring: CUNE

Nothing quite prepares you for wine touring in northern Spain’s La Rioja region. Not years of winery hopping all along California and the Pacific Northwest to Mendoza, Argentina. Not even Italy and France, which have their share of winemaking quirkiness and peculiar centuries-old traditions that somehow culminate in heavenly juice.
Old wine bottles in the cellars of CUNE winery in La Rioja, Spain.

La Rioja is where mildew and modernism co-exist. By morning, visitors can course through the city of Laguardia’s old and musty labyrinthine underground tunnels and cellars and segue to a spectacular lunch that afternoon at a futuristic architectural wonder and Michelin-starred winery restaurant that is as modern as modern gets.
The City of Wine Marqués de Riscál in Elciego, Spain designed by Frank Gehry includes the winery, a luxury hotel and two award-winning restaurants.

The Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, better known stateside as CUNE, is a fifth-generation winery in the heart of Rioja Alta that has fine-tuned the balance between the old world and the new. Founded in 1879 by the two Real de Azúa brothers, the winery is situated at the old train station that connected historic Haro, the first town in Spain to have electricity, to Bordeaux. The French connection revolutionized Spanish winemaking at the end of the 19th century when Bordelais winemakers, seeking new winegrowing terrain following the decimation of their vineyards by Phylloxera, were welcomed by the Spanish with whom they shared new winemaking techniques and expertise, especially regarding oak aging.

The CUNE winery includes a barrel room designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel that lacks tradition columns to support the roof, thus providing an open design that allows for more efficient and easier barrel movement and management.
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel’s cellar at CUNE winery in Haro, La Rioja, Spain.

Today’s CUNE red wines include a Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, aged at least 3, 4 and 5 years total, respectively, which occurs both in barrel and bottle according to the regulations for this DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada, Spain’s highest quality designation). Red wines are exclusively made from Tempranillo, Garnacha (red Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo, also known as Carignan. The CUNE rosé, called rosado in Spain, is made from 100% Garnacha.

Monopole is CUNE’s white wine, made mostly with Viura (Macabeo) and small amounts of floral Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca (white Grenache). Produced since 1915, Monopole is Spain’s oldest white wine brand. Its freshness and versatility with food have made Monopole a popular wine choice at both our Cooking with Class wine pairing dinners and at the school’s sister restaurant, Cork & Fork.  

The Imperial label is a CUNE classic that is made only when the vintage is declared as exceptional. Made only as Reserva and Gran Reserva wines and aged in new French and American oak, Imperial is now more highly sought after than ever since the 2004 Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine Spectator top wine of the year.

At a recent tasting at the winery, a group of us chipped in for a bottle of the 2007 Imperial Gran Reserva. With its spicy black cherry fruit, the wine demonstrated Tempranillo’s classic age-worthy and food-friendly acidity with notes of tobacco and leather. At 13.5% alcohol, the wine showed impeccable balance and was a special, savory treat to share with new friends.
The 2007 vintage was ranked as muy buena (very good) in La Rioja – we agreed.  

Since 1994, CUNE also makes Real de Asúa, a tribute to the winery’s founding brothers. Made from 100% hand-picked Tempranillo, Real de Asúa is fermented in small oak casks and aged in French oak barrels.

Other CUNE labels are Viña Real, Pagos de Viña Real and Viñedos del Contino, all from Rioja Alavesa. The Vina Real winery near Logroño, inaugurated in 2004 by King of Spain Juan Carlos I, is considered one of the most modern in Spain. In contrast, Viñedos del Contino is situated in a 14th-century manor, the first château-style design in La Rioja, along with some of the oldest indigenous Graciano vines.

When conditions are right for the development of Botrytis, CUNE also produces a small amount of Corona, a semi-sweet wine.

Now that more people are familiar with about CUNE and Imperial, remember that in vintage years that are considered good but not exceptional, the grapes that would have gone into the Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva bottlings are used instead to make the CUNE Crianza, which we proudly serve at Cooking with Class and Cork & Fork. Those wines might be some of the best values from La Rioja.

Stay tuned for more Spanish wine and travel tips coming soon. We’re also cooking up some new surprises for you at our next Cooking with Class food and wine pairing dinner on Sunday, May 25th at 6 pm – hope to see you there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Australian Shiraz: Too Good to Pass Up

You can’t always predict which wine will be the showstopper at a tasting. Might tasters be enthralled by the honeysuckle nose of a heady Viognier? Fall under the exotic spell of an earth-driven Carmènere? Be seduced by an inky, blueberry-scented Petite Sirah? Or would they stay true to their first love and peg the Cabernet as their favorite?

On Oscar night, a fun-loving group of family and friends chose an Australian Shiraz as their favorite,
 the 2010 Yangarra McLaren Vale.

Except for one lady who preferred the Carmènere, the Yangarra Shiraz had the rest of them at first swirl. With its pretty nose of blackberries and violets, this Shiraz had grace and complexity on the palate with fine tannins. A solid acid backbone and a mineral streak added freshness and vigor, making this Shiraz a great pairing for a variety of dishes beyond the usual lamb, game, cheeses and hearty meat dishes. 

While many Shiraz producers from the McLaren Vale region near Adelaide make warm-weather wines in the southern Rhône style, the Yangarra Shiraz leans more to the cooler-climate style in its balance and elegance. Rich, but not overextracted, this Shiraz commanded each taster’s interest and didn’t let go.

For reasons that escape this Syrah-maven, Syrah, called Shiraz in Australia and other parts of the New World, is struggling. American consumers have found a new love in Moscato. Hearts still beat wildly for Pinot Noir and a sizeable number of wine drinkers remain forever in love with Cabernet and Chardonnay. Through it all, Syrah has somehow been left at the station, notwithstanding the amazing stateside wines made from that grape in Washington, Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast.

Over in its native Northern Rhône homeland, Syrah makes world-class, full-throttle reds as in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. Prices are steep, but are generally more accessible than higher-tier and far-better-known Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Syrah/Shiraz has a long history in Australia with Penfolds Grange and Henschke setting the bar. Other outstanding and consistent Shiraz producers include Heathcote, Mollydooker, Elderton and Schild, all of which you can find locally from time to time. Don’t miss them.

The 2010 vintage was an excellent one for McLaren Vale and Barossa red wines, and a welcome change after years of drought. Better yet, the 2012 vintage looks even more promising for reds with concentration and finesse. Wines from this later vintage are turning up at wine shops, and are well worth your wine spend.

Yet, perhaps in part due to confusion regarding its different name, Aussie Syrah/Shiraz has fallen off the radar of many wine enthusiasts. That’s a lot of terrific wine that isn’t being drunk, shared and savored.

Case in point: Although the wine-savvy tasters who enjoyed the Yangarra best of all belong to wine clubs and know good food, no one recalled ever having ordered Shiraz or Syrah when they dined out. My hope and bet is that they’ll be looking at the wine list in a different way now. And maybe next time, they’ll choose a bottle of Shiraz – or two. In wine, life is more than a Cabernet.