One of my highlight vertical wine dinners was without a doubt the luxe CVNE dinner at La Fonda del Sol. It was put together by Acker Merrall & Condit’s Wine Workshop and featured guest hosts Christopher Cannan, Founder and Vice-President of importer Europvin (and owner of Clos Figueras in Priorat) and Victor Urrutia, Owner and CEO of CVNE.

Christopher Cannan, Founder and Vice-President of Europvin, importer of CVNE, and owner of Clos Figueras in Priorat

Christopher Cannan, Founder and Vice-President of Europvin, importer of CVNE, and owner of Clos Figueras in Priorat, speaks of his decades of experience tasting these grand wines. Photo: © Justin Berlin

For those who don’t know CVNE, Compañía de Vinícola del Norte de España, it is one of the great nineteenth century houses of Rioja, founded in 1879. Their two iconic, classic brands are Imperial, blended from cooler sections of Rioja Alta and Viña Real blended from warmer sections of Rioja Alavesa. CVNE’s other outstanding wine, Contino, a more modern single vineyard estate in Rioja Alavesa, was left for another time.

The wines were: Viña Real Gran Reservas 1952, 1962, 1968, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1982; and Imperial Gran Reservas 1939, 1953, 1966, 1970, 1976, 1980, 1988. The wines were library releases from the winery and in outstanding condition; without re-corking or re-conditioning (topping up). They did have freshly affixed labels though. None were corked or outright faulty, although the 1939 and the 1975 had some lesser issues.

My favorites of the Viña Reals were the 1962, which was at a glorious apogee and the still very youthful and beautifully packed 1982. My favorites of the Imperials were the 1939, though it faded quickly, and the 1976, which was beautifully on point. As with all tastings of old bottles, each bottle is its own experience, and not necessarily representative of other bottles still around in good condition.

1982 Viña Real Gran Reserva

1982 Viña Real Gran Reserva. Photo: © Justin Berlin

1952 Viña Real GR: A bit hesitant on the nose; it benefited from extra time in the glass to open. A firmer and slightly less expressive bottle than the other couple times i’ve had it. Still offered scents of sappy, wild strawberry with notes of tobacco, fine ash, sea shell minerality, candied cherry and a touch of wet cigar. It opened to menthol and camphor tones on a smooth, firm palate with a fine medium length finish. It evolved further, displaying additional notes of wax, caramel, sweet mushroom (like porcini) and cherry compote. A classic, mature Viña Real, if not on the firm side. A real pleasure.

1962 Viña Real GR: My wine of the night, with exception of the momentary fireworks of the 1939 Imperial. The nose was simply glorious: ample, vibrant, seamless, complex. Notes were juicy strawberry, mushroom, sweet cured tobacco, delicate ripe cherry. The palate was bright, smooth, subtily intense, with orange peel, red peppers, delicate red berry juice. Very fine tannins. Closing notes of cigar wrapper and wild strawberry. Great verve, clarity and smoothness. Great wine. The best ’62 I have had yet.

1968 Viña Real GR: A powerful vintage with a long growing season. This one benefitted from extra time in the glass and will easily manage additional time in the cellar. Initial notes of moss, lavender and porcini mushrooms with a jellied cherry underpinning. Soft hints of minerals. Tight with blackberry flavors and lots of depth. Powerful, fine and intense with additional black cherry, ash, leather and cedar tones. One for the future.

1973 Viña Real GR: Paler, drier, a bit more evolved. Still pretty with soft sweet raspberry and delicate tobacco tones. Very fine feel on the palate with wild strawberry notes and soft touches of minerality. Ok finish. A fine wine on its own but suffered in the company, with less of a future than the others. Not the strongest example. I will have to try it again. ;)

1975 Viña Real GR: Somewhat pale in color, but with good clarity, this bottle seemed to have evolved in an off direction. Not technically faulty, but not what what one would expect. Very minty and chalky with wet cigar notes and strong scents of white asparagus. Still with some life on the palate it offered more of those unusual asparagus notes. Finished a bit dusty. Probably not a representative example, and the most disappointing of the tasting.

1978 Viña Real Gran Reserva

1978 Viña Real Gran Reserva. Photo: © Justin Berlin

1978 Viña Real GR: Started slow, but one to watch with quite a bit of potential on a more fillegreed line. Beautiful clear ruby color. Started with notes of cherry, chalky minerality, mint and a hint of baking spices. The palate was tight with sweet red berry flavors, that melded into black cherry and fine blackberry tones as it opened. Fine, silky finish with seashell mineral notes. It seemed to need time and after about an hour in the glass it really started to blossom, becoming much more expressive and longer on the palate, with very pretty, lingering strawberry and leather notes.

1981 Viña Real GR: Powerful, deep and long. Firm notes of cherry, mint, tobacco and a touch of white pepper. Very smooth and fine on the palate with firm cherry flavors. As it opened it became more flowery and creamy cherry and berry flavors with notes of smoke and earth on the long finish. Powerful and smooth but somehow lacking that extra dimension to set it to the very top level. Will likely continue to improve with time, given its slow evolution as seen in numerous tastings over the last 10 years.

1982 Viña Real GR: One of the best of the night. Intense nose of creamy cherry, wild strawberry, mint, smoke and hints of earth. Intense on the palate with great structure. Excellent ripeness and density combined with beautifully integrated acidity and fine, firm tannins. Loaded with refined strawberry, cherry, minerals, tobacco, ash, sweet mushroom and damp earth notes. Expansive and long. One of the greats with a long future ahead; nearly always outstanding.

The full line up of bottles (with the exception of the 1939 Imperial)

The full line up of bottles (with the exception of the 1952 Viña Real and the 1939 Imperial). Photos: © Justin Berlin

1939 Imperial GR: A short lived revelation. Pale ruby with an orange cast; somewhat cloudy. Bottled in 1951. Officially an average vintage; excellent for CVNE. Little in the way of fruit, but very complex. Notes of fresh dug black earth, brown sugar, buckwheat, fresh cut cedar, strawberry, orange peel, coconut, mint, chalk, wax. Bright acidity on the palate. Within a half hour or so, the secondary and tertiary nuances had faded and the acidity on the palate came dominate with lemon wax tones. And it was gone, save for the acidity. It was an exciting flight of nuances, but ultimately did not stand up as a wine in the conventional sense.

1953 Imperial GR: Pure, classic and elegant. Very fine with bright, pale ruby with orange hues. Another officially lesser vintage, but strong for Imperial. Soft mixed berries and flowery red cherry, moss and mint. Silky and delicate on the palate, with strawberry, minerals, cedar and leather. Surprisingly solid structure still, managing to be firm and delicate at the same time. Soft lingering notes of cherry and ash on the finish.

1966 Imperial GR: Another silky classic. Clear ruby with brick edges. Nose of cherry compote, sweet mushroom and fillegreed bitter chocolate nuances. Supple mouthfeel with lively acidity and more vigor than the 1953. More cherry flavors mixed with sweet cranberry, chocolate, smoke, minerals and cigar wrapper tones. Very long, fine finish with lingering sour cherry notes.

1970 Imperial GR: Quite powerful and tight. Took some time to open. A bit less expressive than other bottles I have had, but still an exceptional wine. Cherry, cedar and sweet cured tobacco on the nose, hesitant at first. Fine and firm on the palate with lovely soft cherry flavors and mineral hints. Once it opened it was quite supple and silky. Finished with cherry, cedar and spice notes.

1976 Imperial GR: One of the stars of the night. Really on point. Very expressive nose of pretty jellied cherry, musk, cigar, wild herbs, tootsie roll, mint and earth. Silky palate dominated by cherry flavors accompanied by tea leaf, forest floor, smoke and mint notes. Finished long and expressive with cherry compote and wild herb notes. A real pleasure; best ’76 Imperial I have had.

Breast of Squab with Spaghetti Squash and Tuber Melanosporum—a superb match with these rare old Riojas

Breast of Squab with Spaghetti Squash and Tuber Melanosporum—a superb match with these rare old Riojas. Photo: © Justin Berlin

1980 Imperial GR: A lesser vintage. Outshined by present company. Probably much more enjoyable on its own. Still tight, with some astringency. Cranberry, sweet cherry, soft cedar. Touches of mint and tobacco. A bit lean and firm. Nice but without the richness or depth of better vintages.

1988 Imperial GR: A fair vintage. Offers some dense cherry flavors with mushroom and cedar tones. More robust than the 1980 but also firm with mint and earth tones. Finishes dry. Unclear if it will improve with time or dry out further.

The dinner was beautifully executed by chef Josh DeChellis and well served by the staff. The menu was a great compliment to the wines, surpassing many a wine dinner I have attended. The menu: Montadito of Pine Mushrooms, Chanterelle and Jamón Pata Negra; Breast of Squab with Spaghetti Squash and Tuber Melanosporum; Crown Roast of Veal with Caramelized Endive and Apple Cider Sweetbreads; Selection of Cheeses. Overall, an outstanding evening shared with a convivial mix of wine lovers.

About Author


Justin is a Co-Founder of Vino247 and has been a wine professional for more than 12 years. He has a background in filmmaking, print and web publishing. But his passion for wine led him to move professionally to the wine world. First at one of the top retailers in the US, where he cut his teeth learning the wine business, honing his palate and writing about wine. Later he co-founded importer Spanish-Wine-Exclusives. He is also a regular taster on Wine & Spirits Magazine’s industry tasting panel.

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