25 Wines in 25 Years: 2001>1960 CVNE Rioja

Wouldn’t it be great if all of the wines you bought were ready to drink? Unfortunately, that is often not the case, especially with expensive red wine. However, there is one region that releases wines later than most and as a rule, the prices are not too bad; Rioja.

The aging requirements for the Rioja DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada)[i] stipulate that crianza level wines spend one year in wood and one in bottle, one in wood and two in bottle for reserva, and two in wood, three in bottle for gran reserva. In effect, many wines are aged much longer in both barrel and bottle.[ii] It is also important to note that even before there was such as thing as the DO, old time Rioja producers such a La Rioja Alta, Lopez de Heredia and Muga were aging wines for years before selling them to customers.

The first time I tried an older Rioja was in 1991 at a Montecillo dinner at a restaurant in the Thread Building in Soho. The meal was capped off by the 1973 Gran Reserva and its seamless structure, elegance and intricacy blew me away. Since then I’ve had many Riojas with extensive bottle age – I’m surprised by how many I can actually still remember – but two really stand out.

CVNE Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva. The current release has the same label as the older wines.

CVNE Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva. The current release has the same label as the older wines.

The first one I tasted in 2001. A friend invited me to a Rioja tasting that included a couple from Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España. Founded in 1879, CVNE works with four properties throughout the region: the original CVNE near Haro, Imperial, which also in Rioja Alta, and Viña Real and Contino in Rioja Alavesa. Imperial and Viña Real were purchased in the 20’s and both have deep cellars filled with older vintages.

While I’m a little fuzzy on the entire line-up, the 1960 Imperial Gran Reserva was mind-boggling and this was not just my opinion but also the consensus among the half-dozen or so of us present. Even with decades of bottle aging, Rioja can still come across as oaky but with 41 years and figure at least 30 in bottle, the wood was completely integrated. It had a matrix of flavors and a long finish, indicating that it still had a lot of life left.

I came across the 1951 CVNE Viña Real at an auction 11 years ago and bought a few bottles for CAV, one of the few times I’ve ever purchased wine without tasting it first. It was 54 years old so I took a gamble, especially considering that each one cost $225, but I was pretty sure it would be ok, based on my experience with the 1960 a few years earlier. It never disappointed. While it may not have had a super long finish, the flavor was hardly fleeting. I imagine that the ’60 Imperial still has some legs. I don’t feel the need to go back and taste it but I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity either.

Over time I’ve put Rioja away and consider these wines some of the best bargains in my stash. Even today, you can find $30 wines that will age for 25 years. If you look for Rioja from the 70’s and 80’s, you will still get a lot more for your money than similarly priced wines from California or Bordeaux. When I think of why these two Riojas and even a few others have passed the test of my memory, it is not just for their quality but also for the value that the region offers.



[i] Spain has many DO’s, which are more or less the equivalent to the French AOC or Italian DO.

Denominación de Origen Calificada is similar to the Italian DOCG. There are only two in Spain, with Rioja being the first one, awarded in 1991.

[ii] There are also wines that do not adhere to the aging requirements. As a rule, they fall into what has become known as the “modern camp.” Some are quite pricey.

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