Contino were the first Rioja bodega to be set up in the mode of a Bordeaux château, with estate grapes from vineyards surrounding the bodega. From its establishment in 1973, Contino has been closely linked with Haro giants, CVNE – initially as a 50:50 joint venture, then wholly-owned by CVNE from 2013.
For many years, up to just after the 2017 harvest, the wines were made by Jesús de Madrazo, who built the reputation of the estate to one of the leading bodegas in Rioja. He has been succeeded by Jorge Navascues who, though he has big shoes to fill, has clear ideas for the directions he wants to take Contino’s wines.
This profile combines notes taken on my behalf by Ruth from a CVNE-Contino dinner at Planet of the Grapes in 2015, a second Planet of the Grapes dinner and tasting with Jesús that I went to in 2016, and finally our visit to the bodega for a discussion and structured tasting with Jorge the morning before the IMW Symposium began in 2018. The odd CVNE sister-brand wine were interlopers, but I’ve left them there to give context to the quality and style of Contino.
The rise to prominence under Jesús de Madrazo
It was Jesús’ father, then chief grape buyer from CVNE’s nearby Viña Real winery, who began the Contino story. Seeing that the Viña Real winemaker was repeatedly using the same plots for its Gran Reserva, went to see the vineyards on the North bank of a large bend of the River Ebro just west of Logroño, and found an old farm there.
This led to the creation of the estate, based on these original 10Ha, with the first harvest in 1974. The estate has since expanded to 62Ha under vine, with the wines made at the estate in its own bodega. The brand is held at arm’s length from CVNE to retain the ‘chateau’ identity and, unlike Viña Real or CVNE’s main Imperial and Cune brands, only estate grapes are used.
That meant no wines being made in 1977, 1992 or 1993 due to poor quality, and just 3,000 bottles in 2013 when hail caused over 90% crop loss. Viticulture is sustainable rather than organic, with herbicides abandoned by 2010.
The first wine made was Contino Reserva which continues to be the principal commercial focus of the winery, at 90% of production. In 1995, a top-end wine was released from a single plot around a 6-700 year old olive tree near the bodega, Viña del Olivo, and that was followed by a Gran Reserva in 1996.
But more interesting to me was the addition in 1994 of a varietal Graciano Rioja – another first for Contino, which bodegas like Ijalba have since imitated. When done well, I’ve enjoyed varietal Graciano, though it does divide opinion – a little like Petit Verdot, which adds dark colour and blue fruit, acidity, structure and spicy ‘seasoning’ to Bordeaux, but is only bottled varietally by enthusiasts in warmer climates.
As with Petit Verdot, Graciano needs to be ripe to avoid austerity and fill-out its mid-palate. Jesús sees it as a cross between Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Tannat in style, which needs galet roules-covered plots to give warmth and help achieve ripeness, thereby avoiding pyrazine character and softening its tannins. In Contino’s hands, in vintages like 2010, varietal Graciano very much works for me.
Contino have followed that with a varietal Garnacha, in a soft style that reflects the warmth of the Contino terroir. Its soils are 80% galets roules, deposited historically by the Ebro, with 20% calcareous clay, spread over 2 main terraces and 1 smaller. These stony, warming soils, coupled with dry-farming means harvests tend to be short, so 50 people are hired to get harvest completed in time.
Jesús was clear that ripeness was the one thing that Contino has plenty of and that the key is maintaining freshness. For that reason, their primarily-Viura Rioja Blanco does not undergo malolactic fermentation. Using massal selections, Viura planting has been expanded to support this wine. The varietal make-up includes around 10% Garnacha Blanca and 5% Malvasía.
In extending their varietal exploration, they planted Maturana Tinta. In 2016, Jesus had just 2 barrels of 2015, which was showing high pyrazine-like character so asked the ex-Ijalba winemaker who had experience of the variety for advice. New oak was recommended to remedy that, so Jesús used on Medium+ toast new French barrel and one older for maturation. The warmer 2016 vintage didn’t have such pronounced character, so only older oak was used for maturation. It remains to be seen whether Maturana Tinta will arrive on the market.
What the new era holds under Jorge Navascues
Jorge has inherited a great platform from Jesus and he is clear that wholesale change in style is not his intention, but rather tweaks and changes. Although, of course, Jorge has the right to make any changes he believes in and it will be interesting to see how styles develop in the coming years.
There were 2 principal areas that Jorge does have in mind for improvement, and these were the focus of the first 2 flights of a technical tasting that he prepared for us (we were also joined by key folks from his UK importer, Hatch Mansfield):
- Rioja Blanco: reduce the proportion of new oak from 100% as he believes Viura doesn’t perform so well with 100% new oak. His ideal mix would likely be some 2nd and 3rd use, plus concrete, to show Viura’s character. Previously, the Blanco was used to season new oak before its later use with Garnacha. He also believes the old block of Malvasia doesn’t perform well because it is not an aromatic Malvasia, but rather one with large grapes and a ‘flat’ flavour profile
- Garnacha: with 4Ha very good old vines on the estate, planted at 3,500 plants / Ha, Jorge believes he can bring his prior experience of Garnacha to coax out greater quality in the wine. He sees the variety as one where winemaking can have a bigger influence over the final style, so is looking at lower temperature fermentations, longer post-fermentation macerations and maturation in larger, older 500L barrel maturation – all of which were applied to 2017
The remaining flights looked at the key estate wine – the Reserva – which at 90% of production, Jorge believes is harder to make well than Viña del Olivo, then at Viña del Olivo itself, the varietal Graciano and finally their Gran Reservas including a sample of 2017. During these flights, we discussed other potential changes that may be seen in future.
These included likely harvesting Viña del Olivo 1-3 days earlier to manage ripeness and freshness, plus softer extraction and reduction in the proportion of new oak to under 100%. The plot naturally gets good ripeness, so can easily make a ‘big’ wine, and Jorge wants to retain some elegance and freshness. In addition, as the 2017 Mazuelos were surprisingly good, a varietal Mazuelo bottling may happen again in future, since this was last done in 2005.
Finally, organic certification may well be pursued because, whilst certifying the whole of CVNE’s 300Ha would be challenging, Contino is small enough to be able to manage it. Further, although the Ebro does bring summer humidity that can add disease pressure, it is generally manageable.
Discussing recent vintages, Jorge explained that 2017 was very good for the estate, hence putting wine aside for a Gran Reserva. This is because, although it is technically Rioja Alavesa, it is climatically more like Rioja Baja, meaning the April frost in Alta and Alavesa wasn’t a problem. Instead, harvest was the earliest in Contino history due to early bud-burst, meaning good acidity was retained during flavour development. Tempranillo picking began on 6th September.
2018 was proving challenging for disease pressure, as 500L of rain had fallen since January – equivalent to the entire year – and humidity has been very present during flowering, meaning sulfur and copper spraying against mildew. Whilst the late arrival of summer was forecast for the week after we were there, they expected to be watchful for mildew and botrytis throughout the growing season.
For me, what was evident from both the discussions and the tastings of 2017s made by Jorge was that this leading Rioja estate is in good hands, and we can expect it to go from strength to strength.
Wines with Jesús in London, 2016
Viña Real Rioja Blanco Barrel Fermented 2014 (15.5 / 20)
An interloper from the rest of the CVNE stable, served as an aperitif before Jesús’s tasting dinner in London, 2016. 100% Viura. Barrel fermented in 100% new American oak. Battonage 2 times / week.
A: Mid-gold, with green glints
N: Touch of reduction. Then green melon and white peach. Hint of flint. Gentle subtle toastiness and mealy hints from well-judged oak. More waxy vanilla emerges on warming
P: Yellow apple and citrus. Decent freshness. Hint of gentle oak toast through mid-palate with some honey notes. Hint of phenolic grip. A bit short – medium length, max
Contino Rioja Blanco 2014 (16.5 / 20)
Used to have white grapes in vineyard – 1930, 1940 and 1950 planted, and never uprooted. Some were used in the traditionally-styled Viña Real Gran Reserva. 10% 500L acacia wood for floral notes, 7% 700L concrete eggs, 83% 500L oak. 7-8mth total oak ageing, then rack & bottle. Viura for white fruit and acidity. 10% Garnacha Blanca (which could go up to 20% in future) for richness of texture & sweetness. 5% Malvasia (could go up to 10% in future) for floral notes.
A: Pale gold
N: Nutty oak. Stone fruit. Some greengage. Flint. Toast. Mealy oak. Herb and lime emerged
P: Nutty oak. Greengage and green edged citrus. Medium-full body
Contino Rioja Rosado 2015 (16 / 20)
Sold all the 2015 before the labels were produced. Originally only 1 barrel for friends & visitors. Intended to make it 100% Graciano but that was far too dark to get a pale coloured wine, so now 63% Garnacha, 35% Graciano and 2% white grapes to get under the colour bar. 8 months maturation a 500L 2nd use barrels. 1 was sold in Norway, 1 in UK and the rest held in the winery.
A: Pale ruby – almost Pinot Noir-deep colour
N: Strawberry, cranberry, gentle nutty oak in background. Wild cherry
P: Strawberry, wild cherry, blueberry. Nutty mid-palate with some savouriness. Hint of saltiness
Contino Rioja Garnacha 2011 (16 / 20)
2nd use 500L oak after making the white. Hot, drought year. 14.2% ABV.
A: Mid ruby
N: Focused strawberry & kirsch fruit. Subtle toast and hints of soy. Integral vanilla hints. Smooth. Cinnamon touch. Sweet sense. Spice and some lifted floral
P: Light to moderate, quite fine tannin. Blue and strawberry. Warming alcohol through finish due to drought. A fair amount of freshness – bright-to-brisk acidity. Fairly long length length
Contino Rioja Reserva 2010 (17 / 20)
85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 3% Garnacha, 2% Mazuelo. 2 years in older oak, 50% French and 50% American. Believes 2010 will become a historic vintage, like 2001, 2004, 2005. 14% ABV.
A: Mid-deep ruby-garnet
N: Ripe dark cherry fruit. Dusty cordite oak. Some cinnamon and touch of dark chocolate. Savoury complexity including dried tobacco vegetal hints emerge
P: Pure, smoky, flinty cherry fruit. Moderate, fine tannins. Medium-long to long
Contino Rioja Gran Reserva 2007 (17.5 / 20)
Magnum – and most of Contino’s Gran Reserva production goes into magnum. Co-fermented since the beginning, including white grapes. Large concrete tank fermentation, then minimum 3 years in 60% American and 40% French oak. 7 years’ total ageing in barrel and bottle before release. 70% Tempranillo, 12% Garnacha, 15% Graciano, and 2-3% white. Jesús was pessimistic about quality until after MLF, due to late, cooler vintage.
A: Deep ruby-black
N: Toast, hint of VA to vanilla oak cinnamon, hint of grilled meat, schisty minerality. Ripe, black cherry spectrum. Spiced touch. Cordite and hint of tobacco-herb emerges (Graciano). Develops beautifully in the glass. Torrified
P: Vibrant, spicy red & black cherry acidity. Supple. Polished. Scented, ripe fruit core. Saline mid-palate to finish. Scented and elegantly long
Contino Rioja Gran Reserva 2001 (18.5 / 20)
Good yields and perfectly healthy grapes. No bottles left at the bodega!
A: Deep garnet
N: Black tea. Very toasty. Soy and meaty development. Tobacco – no, minty, white pepper Graciano. Complex and savoury. Schist hint of minerality. Develops in the glass very well, becoming very toasty with plenty of soy
P: Spiced tobacco. Toast. Rich black fruit but not overripe. Continuous opening. Plenty of freshness to hold the ripe core. Moderate, resolved, fine tannins
Contino Rioja Graciano 2010 (17.5 / 20)
<40Ha were planted in Rioja when Contino started planting. Now around 2,000Ha but still less than 5% of all Rioja hectarage. Contino have 10Ha of their 62Ha, and are looking for acidity and colour, but to add a herbal note to Rioja blends. Again, no bottles left at Contino.
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Bacon-fat oak, black pepper, black fruit, granitic minerality – like a ripe-ish Syrah. Complexity from subtle cinnamon & toast oak. Masculine
P: Firm, fresh, marked, crisp acidity. Firm, fine tannins. Inky blackberry and spiced sloe fruit. Bright, but firm. Schisty mineral. Medium-long to long
Contino Rioja Viña del Olivo 2010 (17.5+ / 20)
6Ha in planted in 1980 but down to 4Ha due to nematodes. High proportion of calcareous clay. 6-700 year old olive tree in centre. Maturana Tinta has been planted here. 88% Tempranillo, 12% Graciano.
A: Deep ruby-black
N: Floral violets, vanilla and cinnamon. Cordite and white pepper. Ripe, but smoky black cherry fruit. Powerful
P: Very fine, firm tannins. Richness of body coats the tannins beautifully. But holds freshness beautifully. Spiced, schisty mid-palate. But bold & big. Lots of power. Sweet fruited, but long (somewhat warm) finish
Wines with Jorge Navascues in 2018
Contino Rioja Blanco 2017 [tank sample] (?? / 20)
100% stainless steel winemaking sample. 85% Viura, 15% Garnacha Blanca. pH 3.3 but only 0.9 g/L malic acid. Still on lees.
A: Pale-medium lemon, with lees haze
N: Nutty reduction. Rich, ripe orchard fruit. Some floral notes
P: Brisk to crisp acidity. Peppery. Pear and apple fruit
Contino Rioja Blanco 2017 [barrel sample] (?? / 20)
10 barrels of French oak and 1 x 500L acacia. 85% Viura, 15% Garnacha Blanca.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Toasty-nutty oak. Hint of cinnamon. Guava and orchard fruit
P: Bright, rather than brisk acidity. Toasty, nutty mid-palate. Spicier, richer finish
Contino Rioja Blanco 2016 (17 / 20)
88% Viura, 10% Garnacha Blanca, 2-3% Malvasía. pH 3.3 but only 0.9 g/L malic acid. Still on lees.
A: Pale-medium lemon-gold
N: Toasty, nutty entry. Oak forward. Guava and ripe pear fruit. Some white peach. Flinty minerality
P: Spicy pear and sweet apple. Cinnamon. Dusty, rocky minerality. Brisk acidity not crisp. Good length
Contino Rioja Garnacha 2017 [barrel sample] (16.5 / 20)
Earlier harvest to give fruit. Lower temperature fermentation and longer maceration. Old 500L barrel maturation.
A: Vibrant pale-medium purple
N: Scented, floral raspberry. Some nutty oak. Supple spice with some dustiness
P: Peppery entry to raspberry and strawberry fruit. Spice builds. Some stony mineral and salt. Supple, light-to-moderate tannins. Bright acidity
Contino Rioja Garnacha 2016 [barrel sample] (16+ / 20)
Riper vintage and bigger wine. Shorter maceration.
A: Medium ruby-purple
N: Savoury, smoky-slatey mineral. Clove-cedar oak tones. A bit closed. Red cherry and strawberry emerges
P: Medium-full bodied. Peppery red cherry. Moderate, sandy tannins. Wilder. Ripe. Some mineral. Closed? Opens to give some floral and orange tones
Contino Rioja Garnacha 2015 (16+ / 20)
Similar climate to 2017, but riper fruit.
A: Vibrant mid-ruby
N: Cedar touches to cordite and strawberry. Some wild strawberry. Stony mineral
P: Firm-ish, peppery tannins. Spicy mid-palate. Ripe, red cherry and strawberry. Medium-long. Bright acidity
Contino Rioja Reserva 2017 [sample] (16+ / 20)
87% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 3% Mazuelo.
A: Mid-deep ruby with some purple glints
N: Reductive tones. Some stem-herb? Smoky and flinty. Dark cherry. Nutty oak
P: Bright not brisk acidity. Stem touch? Chewy, firm tannins. Spicy tones to black cherry. Warming finish
Contino Rioja Reserva 2015 (17+ / 20)
Being bottled later that day. 40ppm free SO2.
A: Mid-to-deep ruby with some purple glints
N: Overt, spicy clove oak. Some red fruit beneath
P: Vanilla-clove. Red and black cherry fruit density. Bright acidity. Fairly firm, chalky tannins. Long
Contino Rioja Reserva 2014 (17 / 20)
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Coffee-clove subtle oak. Chilli spice. Ripe, red cherry emerges
P: Red and black cherry. Plush. Fairly full-bodied. Lively, saline touch to bright acidity. Creamy length
Contino Rioja Reserva 2012 (17.5 / 20)
A: Mid-deep ruby-garnet
N: Caramel, slightly stewed strawberry and some truffle development
P: Ripe and dense red cherry. Firm, fine tannins. Compact, powerful and long
Contino Rioja Viña del Olivo 2017 [sample] (17.5 / 20)
6Ha plot. 9-10,000 bottles a year. Vineyard selection of fruit. 16-18 months in new French oak typical for the wine.
A: Mid-to-deep purple
N: Nutty, freshly toasted oak. Dense, violet / orange touched red cherry. Dusty, sandy mineral emerges
P: Brisk acidity. Ripe, focused red cherry and orange peel. Dusty, fairly firm, ripe tannins. Saline. Long, white pepper finish
Contino Rioja Viña del Olivo 2016 (17.5+ / 20)
Bottled 3 weeks before, so suffering some bottle-shock. 13.9% ABV.
A: Mid-to-deep ruby-purple
N: Marked vanilla-clove oak. Dusty spice. Black pepper and black cherry. Some grilled meat. Brooding
P: Juicy acidity. Dense. Powerful. Firm, fine, compact tannins. Spiced black pepper and blueberry. Long, creamy, red fruit finish
Contino Rioja Viña del Olivo 2015 (17.5 / 20)
A: Deep ruby
N: Spicy, fresh earth with subtle, nutty oak. Dense. Dark cherry. Some development
P: Brisk acidity. Espresso and balsamic. Dense, black fruit. Fine, firm tannins. Saline touch
Contino Rioja Graciano 2016 [barrel sample] (16.5+ / 20)
Contino first bodega in Spain to release a pure Graciano. Global warming helping, as Graciano is hard to ripen well.
A: Deep black-purple, with a narrow rim
N: Cedar tones, black and green peppercorns. Inky mulberry. Toast
P: Rich, juicy mulberry. Elderberry. Brisk acidity. Mid-weight. Grainy, fairly-firm tannins. Long-ish
Contino Rioja Graciano 2015 (17+ / 20)
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Caramel-clove oak. Toasted. Meat hints. Violet. Cracked black pepper. Blueberry and mulberry fruit
P: Brisk acidity. Ripe, scented blueberry and mulberry. Slightly drying touch to fairly firm tannins
Contino Rioja Gran Reserva 2017 [sample] (17++ / 20)
Tempranilo, Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha likely blend.
A: Medium ruby with some purple glints
N: Toasty, minty oak. Vibrant red and black cherry. Some floral lift. Some toffee. Primary
P: Toffee. Ripe, red and black cherry. Spicy. Dense. Firm, fairly ripe, peppery tannins. Decent acidity. Long
Contino Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 (18+ / 20)
A: Medium ruby
N: Tomato leaf. Balsamic. Tobacco leaf. Nutty, spicy oak. Dried cherry and cherry compote. Dense and spicy
P: Rich, dense, black and red cherry. Balsamic. Old tobacco and nutty oak. Spicy, ripe, fairly firm, fine tannins. Long and powerful
Contino Rioja Gran Reserva 2009 (17- / 20)
Unusually from a bottle, not magnum.
A: Medium-deep ruby-garnet
N: Compote and baked fruit. Caramel oak. Spice. Balsamic. Dried tobacco
P: Dried red cherry. Tobacco. Balsamic. Spice. Bright but a bit flat acidity
Wines Ruth tasted at CVNE-Contino dinner in London, 2015
Viña Real Rioja Rosado 2014 (?? / 20)
Ruth’s tasting notes. Newest wine in the company. 85% Viura, 15% Tempranillo from Rioja Alavesa. Simple winemaking process – grapes in tank for 6 hours, no press, just the effects of gravity. Open the taps, bleed off the must and ferment at low temperatures for 22-25 days. An unusually light style of rosé for Spain. £12 / bottle.
A: Clear pale pink
N: Medium aromatic intensity – fresh delicate strawberry. Youthful
P: Dry, high acidity, medium ABV (12.5%) and body. Medium flavour intensity with notes of fresh strawberry, raspberry. Medium(+) finish. Conclusions – Drink now; good quality, balanced though not complex or intense
Contino Rioja Blanco 2012 (?? / 20)
Ruth’s tasting notes. Unusual white Rioja. 85% Viura from 35-40 year old vines, 10% Garnacha Blanca from vines planted in 1970, and 5% Malvasia from vines planted in 1930. Grapes harvested selectively by hand in the vineyard, and then subject to table selection in the winery. Fermentation in large oak vats. No MLF as they believe it would reduce the finesse. Left on lees, which are stirred twice a week for 6-7 months, adding creaminess and structure. Then the wine goes into stainless steel tanks and is then bottled. Ageworthy. £28 / bottle. 2010 was the first vintage. Has won Decanter Best White Wine of Spain.
A: Pale lemon
N: Fresh citrus
P: Dry, high acidity, high ABV (14%). Creamy, with medium(+) intensity of flavours – fresh citrus, slight vanilla. Very elegant with integrated fruit flavours which balance the high acidity
Contino Rioja Garnacha 2011 (?? / 20)
Ruth’s tasting notes. First vintage of the single varietal Garnacha. 3,167 bottles were made. Fermented in 10,000 litre French oak vats. Post-fermentation, skin contact for 7 days. Then, MLF in 300 litre, 400 litre and 500 litre oak barrels. Then, into second use French oak vats for 12-14 months before bottling. £28 / bottle.
A: Medium purple
N: Pure sweet ripe red fruit, with some smoky notes and some spice
P: Dry, with medium acidity, medium(+) alcohol (14%) and very fine tannins. Pronounced flavours of ripe red cherry and redcurrent, and some steely qualities. Hint of black pepper spice. Outstanding. Amazing pairing with porchetta
Viña Real Rioja Reserva 2009 (?? / 20)
Ruth’s tasting notes. 90% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo, Garnacha and Graciano. Fermentation in stainless steel. Two years in new French oak. Racking every 4 months. 2-3 years in bottle before release. £22 / bottle.
A: Medium ruby
N: Vanilla, dried red fruit and toast
P: Dry, high acidity, full bodied, high tannins but well-integrated and velvety. Pronounced flavours of elegant red fruit and some vanilla. Outstanding quality. Could age further
CVNE Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva 2005 (?? / 20)
Ruth’s tasting notes. Magnum. 90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and Mazuelo. Fermented in oak. Oak aged 2 years (half in American oak, half in French). Amazing ageing potential. £85 / magnum.
A: Vibrant medium ruby
N: Red fruit, some smokiness and some more savoury, vegetal notes
P: Dry, medium(+) acidity. Pronounced flavour intensity. Fresh flavours of soft red fruit are still there, but overall dried fruit notes are more prominent. Some toast. Long finish
Contino Rioja Gran Reserva 2001 (?? / 20)
Ruth’s tasting notes. Magnum. 85% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha and Graciano, and 5% Malvasia, all from old vines with super-low yield. Grapes are harvested over many picks. Very limited production. Fermented in stainless steel. Oak-aged for two years (60% French, 40% American). Only sold in magnum. Amazing ageing potential. £170 / magnum.
A: Medium ruby; really vibrant – unbelievable colour for such an old wine
N: Medium(+) aromatic intensity – sweet red fruit, slight smoky and stony notes
P: Pronounced flavours of red fruit, some mineral notes and smokiness. Medium(+) acidity, medium tannins (very soft and velvety). Medium(+) ABV. Long finish. Outstanding quality
CVNE Real de Asúa Rioja 2010 (?? / 20)
Ruth’s tasting notes. Made in CVNE in Rioja Alta, in the same cellar as Imperial. Real de Asúa is the name of the founding family. 100% Tempranillo, with a late harvest to maximise concentration. Hand harvest and selection of grapes. Fermented in French oak vats. Aged for 22 months in new French oak. Has “Vino de Autor” character. Very limited production – only made in 2001, 2004 and 2010, around 1,000 bottles apiece. £62 / bottle.
A: Deep ruby
N: Steely quality with aromas of fresh dark black fruit
P: Really pure varietal character – black / dark red fresh fruit and some spice. Lovely. Outstanding quality. Ageing potential