“Wine has to be upgraded”, says CEO Víctor Urrutia as he meets me at Cvne’s visitors centre, currently welcoming over 15,000 wine lovers per year. Next to the wine shop and until October 5 you’ll find the (at times distressing) exhibition by sculptor Cristina Iglesias called Pozos (wells). “The story we want to tell is that wine is much more than just a bottle,” he emphasizes.
Baby-faced Urrutia looks much like the young man who took control of Cvne in 2003 when his uncle retired and his father became president. He was not even 30 at the time. “I enjoyed wine but I didn’t have a technical background; I was just another wine lover: Even today I think I know less and less about wine.”
Urrutia was born in Madrid and educated at several British boarding schools. He studied law at CEU San Pablo University in Madrid and then moved to London where he worked in a bank and later as a consultant in the US. The experience he gained over those years is presumably behind his almost perennial skepticism, even at a time when Cvne is going through one of its greatest periods since the Real de Asúa brothers from Bilbao founded the company in 1879. One of them, by the way, was Víctor great-great-grandfather.
While echoes of Imperial Gran Reserva 2004, the first and sole Spanish wine ever to reach first place in Wine Spectator’s 2013 Top 100 list, still resound in the market, Urrutia remains vigilant. “The most difficult thing is getting people to know your wine”, he says.
Although Cvne is a genuine institution both in Spain or Mexico, the situation is quite different in the rest of the world. “When I’m abroad, I always go from general to specific information: first comes Spain, second Rioja and Cvne is the last step. I also tell consumers about Imperial being served at Prince Felipe’s wedding”, he explains.
Infinitely less passionate than most of his neighbours in Haro’s Barrio de la Estación, Urrutia notices that most wine producers repeat the same topics when interviewed. He prefers to talk frankly about the toughest years for traditional wineries in Rioja. “After a peak in the late 90s, classic red sales declined and recession brought Gran Reserva sales to a halt. In Spain though, the trend was more a matter of style rather than price,” he remarks.
Things had not improved by the time he returned from the US. “In 2003 no one would buy a 1995 Imperial Gran Reserva. The usual argument at the time was: ‘Don’t you have anything with fruit?’”
Although Urrutia is considered a financial rather than a wine guy by many, he is confident about his role in the company. “If I had been really good at my previous job, I would have changed everything and moved to modern wines, but fortunately the market has rewarded those looking beyond the short term. I’m also happy that our winemaker wasn’t a ground-breaking type willing to turn things upside down.”
Cvne’s most significant concessions to modernity over the last 20 years include the top 100% Tempranillo Real de Asúa, made along the lines of other new wave Riojas, with new oak and shorter aging periods. Cellaring times have also been reduced, including Cvne’s most outstanding labels. The current vintage for Imperial Reserva is 2009 and the Imperial Gran Reserva on the shelves is 2008. Moreover, fewer bottles are being produced. In the 1960s, 150,000 bottles of Imperial Reserva where made but during the 1990s figures raised to 250,000; nowadays, about 100,000 litres are produced per vintage. Imperial Gran Reserva approaches 50,000 litres but it is not released every vintage —such was the case in 2002, 2003, 2006, a pattern that is repeated in 2013 and 2014.
As in other historical bodegas, renovation of barrels and facilities has been an important issue. Nobody can deny Cvne’s pioneering spirit since the company acquired the pasteurizer Malvoisin in the late 19th century, a revolutionary machine at the time which now decorates the gardens. It was also one of the first to install cement tanks during the 1940s and to build gravity-led facilities, such as El Pilar, in 1989, followed by the construction in 2005 of Real de Asúa —this boutique winery is full of oak fermentation vats where the eponymous wine is made together with the Imperial range. All these wines will later age in the Eiffel cellar, which as the name suggests, was designed in the late 1890s by the studio of the renowned French architect. A major innovation was the use of metallic trusses extended from wall to wall avoiding the use of columns and resulting in a large airy space where barrels can be easily moved.
No doubt Cvne’s most precious jewel is the very old cellar (the cemetery, as it is called in Spain), as humid and lugubrious as you can imagine. There are 80,000 bottles with vintages previous to 1990, all of them covered with mould and cobwebs; 13ºC; 80% humidity. The oldest wines are confined to a small niche, its contents listed on an eroded chart signed by a public notary. The story goes that the niche was locked and the key thrown into the river. As is the case with its neighbour Tondonia, also boasting a large collection of old wines, these bottles are not for sale. They are intended for vertical tastings that help to enhance their brand reputation.
Anyone who has had the fortune to attend one of these tastings was likely surprised by the slightly darker and more structured character of Cvne’s reds and definitely by their higher alcohol content which reaches or rises above 13% vol. even in old vintages. In order to continue this legacy, Víctor Urrutia is clear: “Our wines must age because there lies the greatness of Rioja. In that regard we must do whatever is necessary to make good wines capable of standing the test of time.”
Luckily, the current trend towards more complex and elegant reds has brought old producers from Rioja back to the forefront. “No doubt the revival of Burgundy has helped classic wines like ours; Rioja and Burgundy are similar,” Víctor points out. “New York wine lovers can’t wait to uncork a Gran Reserva; the older the better. Not so long ago no one wanted to drink it and right now it’s liquid gold. Who knows what will happen in 10 years?” he wonders.
Behind glamorous Imperial and the old wines, Cvne has never stopped producing a wide range of affordable labels. The group includes Cvne, Viña Real, with state-of-the-art facilities in Laguardia designed by French architect Philippe Mazières, and highly respected Contino, located in Laserna, which is considered one of the first estate wines in the appellation. Overall production surpasses five million bottles per year.
Average quality is on the rise, specially for Viña Real Crianza and Cune, the brand that resulted from a typo when writing a “u” instead of the actual “v”. It’s easy to taste the difference in good vintages like 2010, which is worth looking out for. The original Cune was a ‘claret’ later turned into a 3rd year red and finally renamed Crianza. But the brand has grown to include a good value Reserva, a Gran Reserva, a rosé and a semisweet white that coexists with Corona, Cvne’s traditional brand for this category. The once legendary Monopole is currently a fruity, easy to drink white, although wine lovers should note that a special old-style edition is underway. Some years ago, the firm launched White, a slightly oak-aged white wine aimed at consumers looking for a youthful, modern image.
Viña Real has also extended its range with the modern Pagos de Viña Real, a barrel-fermented white and more recently a rosé wine. The group has even released some affordable labels from Rueda and Ribera del Duero and during my visit I spotted the new low-alcohol Nuve range (white and red) at the winery’s shop.
Contino, which is fully controlled by Cvne since 2013, is exclusively focused on premium class styles with a Reserva as its flagship wine. New additions over the last few years include a single-varietal Garnacha to add to its well-known Graciano, and an oak-aged white that somewhat mirrors the old classics.
The company is constantly evolving. In 1997 it went public to settle the highly atomized family shareholders —roughly 1,000 of them. Today, the Urrutia family retains a majority holding with Spanish investor Juan Abelló controlling 16% of the shares. If everything goes as planned, Cvne will leave the stock exchange ina few months. Basque roots remain intact though. Corporate headquarters had invariably been in Bilbao until a decade ago when they were moved not to Haro, where Cvne is based, but to Villa Real in Laguardia within Rioja Alavesa and therefore still within the boundaries of the Basque Country.
Essentially, Cvne is a family winery. “The competitive advantage is that a family story is far more attractive; most wine lovers prefer to talk to the owner rather than to a salesman. However, family management tends to be less professional,” Víctor considers.
Sales and export markets have been Urrutia’s main concerns over the last few years. Today, 35% of the wines are sold abroad with Switzerland, UK and the US as top markets.
In the US, for instance, Cvne is a major stakeholder at wine importer Europvin where it has partnered with Vega Sicilia and Sherry’s Lustau and Víctor stands as its CEO. Last year, news broke that subsidiary company Cvne Excellars had acquired Mikumi Wine, one of Japan’s largest wine distributors. China is the next step.
“Not long ago, export markets were ignored. It was almost a miracle that some wines reached other countries outside Spain. Now we sell Drouhin in Japan,” Urrutia points out proudly.
Yet he is still pretty aware of the risks and weaknesses: “You can’t just follow trends because you might be left out of the game; neither can you neglect the vineyards, the wines, the quality or the salesforce. In the 1980s Cvne was one of the best wineries in Spain but by the end of the 1990s things had changed a great deal. You really have to take care of all details; it’s so easy to spoil things.”
Even though Víctor Urrutia feels the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, he can’t deny that Cvne is gradually getting on the right track. “Yes, we might be enjoying the best moment in the last 20 years,” he admits.