Rioja Grande

A Legend in the Making: Imperial Gran Reserva 2004

One of the great privileges of working in the wine trade is that we are occasionally afforded the opportunity to live beyond our means. We’ve all had the experience of being invited to share a bottle of wine that, for reasons of price or rarity (or both), we would never consider seeking out for ourselves. I’ve been lucky enough to taste a good number of these wines over the years, and some of the best examples have been older vintages of CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva.

images-23CVNE’s Imperial Gran Reserva remains an important point of reference for the Rioja region. The Imperial is so-named because in the early years of the 20th century it was bottled in the half-liter “Imperial Pint” format for the UK market. The wine is produced from the fruit of bush-trained vines with a minimum of twenty years of age located around the towns of Haro and Villalba in the Rioja Alta sub-zone. It undergoes alcoholic fermentation in large oak vats before being transferred to smaller barrels for malolactic fermentation and at least three years of aging. It is then aged in bottle for another three to six years before release.

The 2004 vintage in Rioja (particularly in the Rioja Alta district) will go down as one of the greatest vintages of the region’s modern age. The winter featured plentiful rain and snowfall which outfitted the vines with good water reserves going into the growing season. The growth cycle started slowly due to low temperatures during the months of March, April and May. Ideal conditions in June and July made up for the slow start and brought the cycle up to speed. August and the first week of September were marked by lower than average temperatures and higher than average rainfall, but the vintage continued in brilliant fashion from the second week of September through to the harvest, with warm, sunny days and cool, dry nights. The Consejo Regulador used the word “historic” in their end-of-vintage report.

CVNE Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva 2004

The 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva is a blend of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo. It weighs in at 13.8% alcohol by volume with 5.7 grams per liter of total acidity and a pH of 3.60. The wine shows classic Imperial aromas of leather, woodsmoke, wet leaves, cedar and red berries. On the palate, the berry fruits are joined by beef jus, tomato, black tea and sassafras notes. This vintage is less overtly sexy than the 2001 was at this stage, but the tannic framework and generous wash of acidity suggest that it is in for a long, slow maturation and my gut feeling is that it will prove to be the longer-lived of the two. In his review (copied below), Wine Spectator’s Tom Matthews posits a drinking window which will extend to 2024. Having experienced the glories of a perfectly stored 41-year-old example, I would call that estimate conservative in the extreme. Many say that the 1917 is still drinking like a champ at 96 years old, I hope to find out for myself someday.