The #1 Wine of 2013: CUNE Rioja 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva

by David Derby

If someone wanted a single reason to demonstrate why Rioja is at the top of their game and truly world class, I submit The Wine Spectator’s Number one wine of 2013:

The CUNE Rioja 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva (It has since sold out.)

Beating out 20,000 wines from 17 countries, this just validates what savvy wine connoisseurs have known for years: The quality and extreme value of Rioja’s wines. Aged in their original Bodega (cellars) and not being released until they start to reveal the depth of their complexity is just the beginning of the Rioja journey. These will continue to develop for decades in the bottle. When the cost/price value ratio is put in place, Rioja leaves the rest behind and stands on a pedestal basking in the light.

"Over the past 20 years, Spain has experienced a dramatic upheaval in its deeply rooted wine industry. The epicenter of this revolution in style and character has been the country's most prestigious wine region, Rioja. Beginning in the 1990s, a vigorous debate pitted traditionalist bodegas against a new wave of vintners. Should Rioja maintain the supple, elegant style that had flourished since the early 20th century? Or adopt a richer, more structured approach more in harmony with the world's other great reds?" - The Wine Spectator, 2013

My first visit to Rioja was back in 1999, the traditionalists were dominating the region, but the winds of change were in the air. Garnacha (Grenache) was the leading varietal and the low yielding Graciano was pretty much unheard of. Just over a dozen years later my most recent exploration of the region revealed new visions and endless opportunity. While the debate of traditional techniques compared to new technology rages on, each side has accepted and adapted aspects of the other, making the lines more blurry and wines superior. This selective compromise has allowed each to retain the honor while providing consumers with ever more desirable wines. Extra hard work and careful vineyard management has increased the acreage of the Tempranillo vine, so that it now is both the foundation and backbone of many Rioja cuvees.

The rare Graciano grape varietal is appearing more and more as it adds and extra dimension and ‘spice’, often compared to the way Petite Verdot is added to a Bordeaux blend. The similarities to Bordeaux are many, a reflection of the influence from those that left France and came to Rioja to plant vineyards in the late 19th Century. The use of barriques (small 60 gallon/225 liter) oak barrels mature the wine and give them the age-ability that Rioja is famous for today. In addition to developing and maturing for 20, 30 years like Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux, many reserve and Gran reserve from Rioja match similar foods to Bordeaux. In its native Basque region of Spain Rioja is often teamed with local lamb. Roasted game birds are also a frequent accompaniment. After trying a variety of food and wine pairing combinations, it becomes apparent that Rioja pairs wonderfully with most grilled foods.

If you've never tried one of the great Riojas of Spain, I invite you to try them now. Beating out every other wine in 2013 is no easy feat. Here is our selection.