Rioja, Duck and How to Avoid the Perils of Success and Fame

It’s great when old friends make good. The news cheers you, and you think, “Yep, I knew they had it in them” or “I knew them when.”

         With wine, we’ve discovered, broader popularity can be ruinous.  Several times a year, when John and I wrote our column, Tastings, we’d hear from readers who were irate that we’d written about their “secret” wine. They were now sure that one of two things would happen: Either the wine would be harder to find or the winery would increase its production to meet the greater demand, using inferior fruit to pad the good stuff or bastardize it some other way. Unfortunately, the second consequence, far more serious, does indeed happen time and again.

         So it’s refreshing when you hear someone who’s successful and determined to steer clear of the perils. Take Victor Urrutia, 41, CEO of Cune Winery, one of Spain’s oldest and most respected makers of Rioja. He and his sister Maria are the fifth generation family members to head Cune  (an acronym for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, the Northern Spanish Wine Company) since it was founded in 1879. The business consists of three wineries: Cune, the original location in Rioja Alta, northern cool-climate Spain; Viña Real; and Contino, each producing a different line from different terroir.

         One of their wines, the Cune Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva 2004, was Wine Spectator Wine of the Year for 2013. What’s more, it was the first wine from Spain to reach that height in the 25 years the magazine had been compiling its list of the most exciting wines of the year.  It bested 20,000 new releases from “13 foreign countries and four states,” the magazine said, adding that it was “a remarkable value” at $63. While Cune could have raised the price after such an honor, it did not, Urrutia told me during a recent visit to Manhattan. It made 4,000 cases of the mostly Tempranillo blend and much of it had already been distributed by the time it was cited, he explained.  Subsequent vintages—it’s only made with grapes from an extraordinary year—have flown out of the door. 

         “I think the key to that is to never be super-successful,” Urrutia explained.  I gave him my best “What?” look. “Seriously,” he continued, “because there’s a fine line. If you’re super-successful, you have the temptation to cash out, and if you’re unsuccessful, of course, then you might have to sell because you did badly.”

         Well, now, that makes sense. We’ve been long-time fans of Riojas because they generally over-deliver for the price.  They can be young and exuberant wines for everyday consumption or mature and thoughtful, special-occasion wines. Their high acidity makes them good with food.

         Talk about special-occasion wines. Ten years ago this Thursday, Cune’s  1994 Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva was served at the wedding of Prince Felipe, heir apparent to the throne of Spain.  It was selected by the King’s household officials in a blind tasting.  OK, this isn’t nearly as impressive, but in 2003, a 1999 Viña Real from Cune made the index of our Wall Street Journal column, which recommended Riojas with a slight chill for summer. Only eight wines of 50 blind tasted made the index. So there!

          Riojas are classified in levels according to how long they are aged before release.  The three that you’re most likely to see, from youngest and least expensive up, are Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva . A wine labeled just Rioja is a young wine, with upfront fruit and little or no oak aging. There’s been a debate raging between proponents of traditional Rioja and modern  Rioja. Broadly put, traditional Riojas are lighter in color and often elegant from longer contact with wood, and modern Riojas are darker and more powerfully fruity, intense. The Wine Spectator lauded Cune “for its ability to balance Rioja’s tradition and modern innovation in delicious harmony.” 

         Over lunch, we tasted the 2013 Monopole, made from the Viura grape. Monopole is the oldest white wine in Spain, produced by Cune since 1915, Urrutia said. It had hints of green apple and lime, fabulous minerality and a slight, attractive funk. The Cune Crianza 2010, the company’s $15 table wine, was tasty, with bright, cherry fruit and a nice balance of oak.  The Imperial Reserva 2007, my notes say, was “awesome, concentrated, with tobacco, chocolate, herbal hints.”  It sang with the duck I had, the acidity and tannins just right. All were relatively low in alcohol, one of Urrutia’s goals.  Last up was the wine that topped the Wine Spectator’s list, and it was immediately clear why. My notes read: “Huge fruit. Just the nose smells like it would last forever. Highly focused, great acidity. Cuts through the rich duck. Violets, earthy. Incredible.”

         All of this attention apparently hasn’t gone to Urrutia’s head.  “I think there's a fantastic test for wine, and it’s not how many points it’s got or how many whatever,” he said. “Put the bottle on the table with people having a meal, and the first one to be finished, to me, that is probably the best wine.”

         Well, again, that makes sense.

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times, as well as at The Journal. 

Read the extended interview with Victor Urrutia.

Dorothy Gaiter:   Your wine was served at the royal wedding? (The 2004 wedding of Prince Felipe, heir apparent to the Spanish throne.)

Victor Urrutia:     Yeah. We're very happy about that.

Dorothy Gaiter:   How did that happen?

Victor Urrutia:      It's another one of these flukes. They did a blind tasting, I think, of wines, and we were chosen. It was a '94 Imperial, again. It's always Imperial, for some reason. Ninety four, and we got a call from the King's Household, as it's referred to, saying, "We've chosen your wine and we'd like to buy it from you." We even sold it, amazingly.