Easter came early in this household as the Canadian branch of the family headed to the UK for a few days so this was an opportunity to make sure the new kitchen was in full working order and I blew the builder’s dust off some bottles in celebration.
Naturally there was lamb on the menu, not just because it is Easter but because I just love the gorgeous aromas that waft around my kitchen when it is roasting in the oven. Dotted with rosemary and garlic and served, still pink, with Yorkshire pudding on the plate and just a hint of redcurrant jelly in the gravy but absolutely no mint sauce, this was the centrepiece of what was a very brief family celebration.
Rioja is my first choice with lamb and I headed to the gorgeous, smooth, sweet-fruited flavours of Contino Reserva 2007 (£20 Wine Society, £23.49 Waitrose) for our special lunch. It was balanced, elegant and still had years ahead of it, but we drank my only bottle and stocks are low at The Wine Society, so if you want some, buy it now.
This wine turned my thoughts to my visit to Contino during last year’s harvest which was just after a hail storm had swept through the region, battering vines and grapes to destruction. Winemaker Jesús de Madrazo was philosophical as he looked at the broken vines and the damaged grapes: “Contino is unusual in Rioja because we are an estate so we do not buy grapes, nor wine. We have what we grow, and for 2013 we have nothing.”
In fact they harvested just six per cent of their normal crop so there will be just a few bottles of 2013, but so little that it is unlikely to turn up on shelves in Yorkshire. The sudden loss of the crop so close to harvest has enormous financial implications for the company but their owners CVNE, one of the large producers of the region, will carry the losses and support the team during what will be a quiet year in the cellars.
Rioja is full of producers who are rightly proud of their long history of producing wine, but Contino is different. Bought as a single estate in 1973, it is surrounded by its 63 hectares of vineyards on a plot of sandy-limestone soils which slope down to the River Ebro. With the river forming the boundary between Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, this is just on the Alavesa side of the line, blessed with stony soil and facing south.
“This is like Châteauneuf-du-Pape for its stony soil and because the stones hold the heat, we are usually the first to harvest,” said Jesús. The vineyards are mainly planted to Tempranillo with Graciano, Mazuela and Garnacha making up small parcels of vines, to add acidity and tannins to the blend. This is old-style cultivation with unirrigated bush vines that have to be hand-picked; there are no short-cuts at Contino.
This estate controls yields and maintains quality from the vineyards right through to the final wine.
Checking my notes from last September I discovered that I had given the 2007 Reserva Contino 90 points in a tasting, a mark I increased to 91 when I re-tasted it in London a few weeks later. With our roast lamb I didn’t give it a mark, just enjoying its layers of flavour with an edge of spice and fennel on the finish, which apparently comes from 10 per cent Graciano in the blend.
Contino Graciano 2007 (Corking Wines £331.80 for six bottles, 01904 636123) is an unusual, fresh-tasting, single-varietal wine with a modern feel. “I want to plant more Graciano because I love this variety, but the vines need time to age to produce their best,” said Jesús. Certainly I loved this wine for its wild-berry fruit and streak of herbs. The top Contino wine, from a single vineyard which surrounds an ancient olive tree, Contino Viña del Olivo 2009 is still tight with tannin but packed with potential. Deep-flavoured, ripe and concentrated it should be bought now and tucked away for Easter 2020. Marks & Spencer Wine Direct has the 2007 Viña del Olivo at £50 a bottle. I also tasted some older vintages from Contino, including the 1974 which was made just one year after it became an estate. Still fresh and vibrant, its shows that this Rioja estate is well worth trying when you find it.
If you don’t manage to find any Contino in time to go with your Easter lamb then there are several good Riojas on the shelves right now.
Majestic has a terrific range of Riojas and for sheer value head to the ripe, red-berried and supple tannins of Viña Eguía Rioja Crianza 2007 which is normally £9.99 but it comes down to just £6.66 when you buy two bottles on a multi-buy deal. Move up to the rather smooth cherry and vanilla elegance of Rioja Crianza from CVNE at £7.49 on two bottle multi-buy. If you want to splash out then the best value flavours have to be Muga Rioja Reserva 2009 at just £14.99 on a two bottle multi-buy. This is one of my top Rioja producers and its smoothness of style with delicate complexity and ability to age makes this a wine to buy and tuck away on a regular basis.
At Sainsbury’s the creamy, toasty fruit of Marqués de Montino Rioja Joven 2011 at just £6.99 is outstanding value, while a step up to Taste the Difference Viñedos Barrihuelo Rioja Crianza brings darker, more chocolate and plums fruit with a gentle underscore of oak.
At Waitrose the clear red berry fruit and sweet vanilla of Torres Ibéricos Rioja Crianza 2011 has come down from £9.99 to £7.49 until April 29 and CVNE Reserva 2009 is on offer at £9.74 down from £12.99. All of these wines will drink well with roast lamb this Easter.