Welcome to Contino, an artisinal winery under the umbrella of CVNE. Contino formed in 1973 when CVNE and several familes that owned the Contino lands and sold wine as "La Serna Wine Society" banded together as a single entity to make wines under the name "Contino." I made this visit in September, 2011; harvest had just begun on certain blocks and graciano grapes were coming in from the vineyards and going into the crusher.
Pictured below is winemaker Jesus Madrazo, who took over the winemaking from his father, Jose de Madrazo Real de Asua, in 1984. Jesus' father made a single cuvee every year from 1974 through 1984: Contino reserva (with the exception of '77, '79, '92, '93, '94-- in these not-so-good years he didn't produce any wine at all, but sold the best of his grapes to larger Rioja houses).
When Jesus joined the CVNE & Contino group in 1994 (and later became Director of the Estate in 1999) the Contino reserva continued to be the flagship wine and a staple of annual production, but in addition he began producing a range of other small-production, artisinal cuvees-- experimental one-time bottlings and other cuvees made only in certain years with special weather. In 1994 he began bottling 100% graciano and also created a Contino gran reserva. In 1995 he created the Viña del Olivo cuvee. In 2010 he experimented with a malvasia/grenache blanc/veura white blend.
In the photo below, Jesus holds an aerial map of the vineyards to clearly demonstrate how the Contino vineyards sit in a crook of the Ebro river, with a land rise at the opposite end. The sun runs across the vineyards from east to west-- the vines have full sun, all day long.
One particular plot-- one of Jesus' favorites-- has an (circa) 800 year old olive tree standing at the center (see photo below). Grapes from this piece of land (planted in 1980) have unique characteristics that may have to do with soil & nutrient interaction between the vines and the olive tree. These special grapes go toward Contino's Viña del Olivo, one of their top cuvees.
Several years ago Contino wine production moved a few steps next door to a new, state-of-the-art facility (stainless steel fermenters, cement tanks gravity fed below for malo, and a few select large wood fermenters/agers). In several steps of production the building makes more use of gravity than the farmhouse. It also has much better ventilation and helps prevent CO2 build-up.
Once production transferred to the new facility the farmhouse cellar began to be used solely for aging the bottles.
Jesus passionately feels that graciano grapes are a special indigenous variety that should be vital to the production of Rioja. He is one of the first producers to fully explore this varietal, including bringing a 100% graciano bottling to market. In fact, in 1994 Contino was the first producer in Spain to bring a 100% graciano bottling to market (2,625 bottles only), and they were 2nd in the world (John Brown from Brown Brothers Winery in Australia was the first person to do this).
He is also a public advocate for graciano and has led a revival of it in the area: since he began singing its praises other producers have joined the chorus. In the past few decades hectare plantings of graciano have increased exponentially from 80 hectares to about 1,000 hectares. (To put this in perspective, that is 1,000 hectares of graciano out of a total of 64,000 hectares of all grape varietals in Rioja; this is about 1.5%, up from .1%). Graciano is a great case study of how, through passion, commitment and hard work, the flavor landscape of a region may be adjusted.
This once obscure grape is now blended into several Riojas, used primarily to enhance the acidity of the vintage.
And he replied with, "Maybe you will like this even better," and he placed a cork in front of me. I looked down and it had 1980 etched into the side! He had opened it about 20 minutes earlier and saved it for the end.
A few notes about this 1980 wine: First, notice the burgundy-style bottle-- this was the last year Contino reserva was placed in a burgundy bottle. The color was transparent and had a brickish hue to it. The aromas and flavors were amazing: dill, fall leaves, and pumpkins. A soft cherry fruit was still kicking, bright and alive.
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