Contino is a small single vineyard estate that is part of the Cvne family. It produces high quality Spanish wines from the Rioja region. Chief winemaker, Jesús Madrazo travelled to El Gato Negro Tapas in Manchester for a tasting of a selection of his ‘not so modern or traditional’ wines including the troubled 2013 vintage. Guests, including other restaurants owners and MWs, were among the first in the UK to taste the bottled ‘Contino 17 Barricas’ wine.
JESUS Madrazo is not one to shy away in times of adversity. But that fateful day in early September 2013 – when a looming big black cloud led to a vicious attack of hailstones – was enough to make any grown man cry.
The hailstorm was the worst the region had seen for 43 years!
Around 90% of the crop was destroyed. The easy option was to take compensation from the European Union. But that was not Madrazo’s style.
Describing his wines as “not modern or traditional” but a quest to capture an understanding of the terroir; Madrazo signalled for the grape pickers to wade through waterlogged muddy vineyards on 26 September 2013. By this time, there had been more sun on the remaining grapes making them big and ripe. This ripeness subsequently pushed the alcohol level of this vintage up to 14.7%…way too high..
For three days the team tried to salvage the remaining grapes from the wreckage. Usually Contino produces 2000 barrels in a vintage. The grapes should have been made into the more expensive wines – Vina del Olivo (the vineyard is named after a very old Olive Tree), and Gran Reserva. But in 2013, that number was reduced to just enough to fill 17 barrels, hence the name Contino 17 Barricas.
“It took three days to salvage the Tempranillo grapes. One barrel will normally hold 8,000 kilos “but we only managed 6,000 kilos in three days,” says Madrazo.
“Only 1% of the normal annual total production was made in 2013,” sighs Madrazo
The 80% of Tempranillo was mixed with 13% Graciano and 7% of Garnacha Tinta from the 2014 vintage in a bid to lower the alcohol levels. As a result 25 cases are available for the UK market and the wine will be at its optimum in seven to eight year’ time (2023).
A long time pioneer of single estate Garnacha and Graciano in the region, Madrazo created Rioja’s first 100% Graciano in 1994.
He has 11 hectares of old vine Graciano, planted in the 1970s and produces around 5,000 bottles most years.
“Graciano can be a headache, because it’s very low yielding and slow to ripen. It can be too fresh and is normally used for blending.
“Still, after 40 years, we are still asked why we bother with this grape? It is not easy. It is hard to ripen and can lead to a bitter and green grass wine. Not pleasant and undrinkable,” he says.
“But we persevered and our 100% Graciano was the best wine we produced in 2009.”
Contino was the second winery in the world to revive the indigenous Riojan grape variety. They were beaten by Australia’s Brown Brothers in 1974.
“It’s a new fashion and I believe the answer to global warming,” Says Madrazo.
Madrazo is part of a movement calling for change in Rioja. The region is increasingly split between those at the bottom producing volume wines and those who are serious about quality and terroir.
“Some producers are destroying the image of Rioja by putting Gran Reservas’ on the market for €2, €8, €50 or €70 all under the same umbrella. It’s stupid,” says Madrazo.
He, amongst others, would like to have the right to print the terroir – the name and location of their vineyards – on their wine bottles.
In November 2015, a group of 15 wine professionals wrote the Club Matador manifesto, signed by Spanish producers, merchants, sommeliers and wine journalists.
Among other things, it stated their belief that “the best way to identify [Spanish wines] in relation to their origin, quality, identity and authenticity is to create a pyramid structure. At its base would be wines made from grapes from any place in appellations of origin, then wines from villages and, at the tip of the pyramid, wines from single plots.”
The manifesto was aimed at the broader Spanish wine industry, but has particular significance to the Rioja region, where it is illegal to use the names of vineyards and villages on labels. The majority of wines in the appellation are classified as Joven (young), Crianza (matured), Reserva (aged) or Gran Reserva (extra aged), according to the amount of time they do—or do not—spend in oak barrels.
The labelling also does not take into account the complexity of Rioja’s soils. There is no ‘sense of place,’ especially for single vineyard Riojan wines, unlike French terroir.
However, the supervisory and administrative board, Consejo Regulador (Regulatory Council), is resistant to change. Rioja is a successful region with a strong brand image. The Consejo’s board is also dominated by representatives of large companies, agricultural unions and cooperatives, rather than small, family-owned wineries producing wines from their own vineyards.
There is hope though; the Consejo is looking to propose a system of viñedos singulars or unique vineyards. To qualify, a vineyard will have to be at least 25 years old, have critical acclaim, and be picked by hand rather than machine. It’s a positive move but a decision has not been reached yet.
Producers might also be allowed to use the name of the village from which they source their grapes, provided they can prove that they account for 85% of the finished wine – but that is still under negotiation.
There is a movement in Rioja to produce younger wines for the Spanish market and target Gran Reserva wines mainly for the international market, especially the UK. This is how Rioja has marketed historically and the UK consumer understands the quality ladder of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
“I am thinking of stopping the production of Graciano for two-three years,” says Madrazo.
“That way, I can release it as a Gran Reserva.”
He is also toying with the idea of creating more magnums aged in barrel for the three-year period required to produce a Gran Reserva.
Tasting at El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester
A selection of wines were tasted at the trade event held at the newly acclaimed Michelin Bib Gourmand Spanish restaurant, El Gato Negro Tapas, owned by chef patron Simon Shaw.
The wines are a great match with a selection of simple but bold tapas from El Gato Negro.
A few of the tapas that were served with the wines included acorn-fed jamón ibérico de bellota, salt cod croquetas, piquillo pepper purée and aioli, mini Catalan chorizo with Aspall cider and anchovy fillets on crostini.
See the menu here:
Contino Rosado 2015 (14.3%)
Since 2002 Jésus Madrazo has been making a delicious rosado for his friends and family to enjoy. The 2015 vintage is its first official release and it’s superb. A blend of 60% Garnacha, 35% Graciano and 5% Viura briefly aged in oak, this is a substantial wine in a full-bodied style, with enough grip to match with food.
The wine was aged in barrel for eight months to create a Provence-style rosé.
Tasting Note: Strawberry on the nose with notes of cranberry and blueberry on the finish. Despite being high in alcohol, the wine has balanced acidity and a lovely freshness.
Great with spicy food or paella.
Contino Graciano 2012 (14.0%)
The grapes were picked in 2010, the same year as Rioja experienced snow. The wine has been aged in 16 months of 90% French and 10% American oak.
It has a deep lively colour, is intensely aromatic with a cooler climate Atlantic character. Graciano is a difficult grape to ripen, producing an intense bitter green grass notes if not ripened properly.
Tasting note: Ruby red with violet tinges; intense and very dense in colour. Exceptional and intense nose with red and black berries, such as blueberries. In the mouth, eucalyptus, fennel cranberry, herbaceous and spicy white pepper character combined with a freshness acidity and complexity. Definitely my favourite wine from the tasting.
Great with pork belly, suckling pig and lamb.
Contino Blanco 2014 (13%) Suitable for vegetarians.
The wine is produced from very old vines and consists of 85% Viura, 10% White Grenache and 5% Malvasia. It is fermented in small stainless steel tanks then racked to new oak French barrels. It can be drunk for 5+ years.
Tasting note: Bright clean yellow colour with tinges of gold. Aromas of yellow fruit, citrus and toasty nuts with notes of fine wood. On the palate, it is a full-bodied wine although smooth and elegant in character with silky tannins and a high level of acidity that makes it mainly fruity aftertaste last longer.
Great with grilled and roasted white meats, mild creamy cheeses and an excellent match with grilled dover sole or halibut.
Contino 17 Barricas 2013 (14.7%)
A special parcel of Contino 2013 that is a blend of what was left from the storm damage 80% Tempranillo, with added 13% Graciano, 7% Garnacha Tinta from the 2014 vintage.
Tasting Note: A rich dark ruby colour and a very vibrant nose of spice and dark fruits. It is an aromatic wine with hints of prunes, plumbs, a spicy character and a complex yet humble finish. It is still young (3 years-old) and needs more time to evolve in the bottle. This bottle will come into its own by 2018.
The wines are available for both trade and consumer from independent wine merchants: Bowland Forest Wines, Lancashire, Field and Fawcett in York, North Yorkshire and Halifax Wine Company, West Yorkshire.
Northern sales contact: firstname.lastname@example.org