A Step Back in Time: CUNE Monopole Clásico

Until the 1980s, Rioja whites were made like the reds, with the juice in contact with the skins and fermentation in wooden vats or cement tanks. The finished wines were then aged in used barriques that were best described as storage vessels with little or no contact with air. They were bottled just before shipment. In fact the only improvement in winemaking since the nineteenth century came from the use of bentonite and later pectolytic enzymes as clarifying agents instead of egg whites.

This traditional style of white was a great success until the increased use of stainless steel tanks and temperature control for wines from other regions, especially Germany and France, gained popularity, and sales of white Rioja declined.

Today, white wines in Rioja are made in three ways:

  • fermentation in stainless steel tanks with temperature control with some skin contact to add aromatic complexity and fuller body on the palate – most Rioja white is made following this method or
  • fermentation in new barriques with contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) that are stirred occasionally (bâtonnage) or
  • fermentation in wooden vats or stainless steel tanks followed by ageing in barriques.

Only one Rioja winery is making truly old-style white today: López de Heredia in Haro with its enormously successful Viña Tondonia. Three wineries, as far as I know, are trying to make a similar style: Barón de Ley, Ontañón and most notably, CVNE with its Monopole Clásico.

CVNE says on its website that a few years ago an old customer mentioned during a tasting that he longed for the traditional style of Monopole, the winery’’s signature white. CVNE’s winemaker María Larrea found a single bottle of Monopole 1979 in the cellars and it occurred to management that it would be interesting to challenge 86 year-old Ezequiel García “El Brujo” (The Wizard), CVNE’s winemaker from the 1940s through the 70s to make a batch of Monopole the way it used to be. García was delighted!

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Ezequiel García ‘El Brujo’ (Tom Perry)

In the old days, Monopole was made from viura, white Grenache, malvasía de rioja and palomino. This last variety, from Jerez was used to add body to the blend, with permission from the Rioja Regulatory Council. After a light press, the juice was sent to a cement tank where the solid material was separated from the juice.

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Ezequiel García’s sketch describing white winemaking in the 1960s (courtesy CUNE website)

Alcoholic fermentation was in stainless steel tanks (a departure from the old days) and ageing was for about eight months in used 300 liter barriques and 500 liter botas (wooden barrels used in sherry wineries).

García said that what made Monopole special was the use of a small amount of wine from the sherry region, vinified under a layer of flor (yeast that forms a layer at the top of the wine) that gives the blend aromas of chamomile and dried stone fruit with lively acidity and a long finish.

I first tasted Monopole Clásico at the last Haro Train Station tasting in 2016, when a member of the CVNE export team dared me to guess the varieties in the wine after my first sip. Of course I didn’t guess correctly. Who would have thought to guess ‘palomino’!

I’m happy that CVNE made the effort to bring this style of wine to the attention of wine lovers. Younger consumers need to understand how winemaking and consumer tastes have evolved over time. It reminds me of a tasting I attended a few years ago in London. A veteran wine writer approached me with a young colleague in tow, glass in hand. The older fellow winked at me and said, “my friend here has a question”. The younger man asked me to sniff his glass while asking, “what’s wrong with this wine?” “Nothing”, I said. “It’s an old style Rioja!”

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9 thoughts on “A Step Back in Time: CUNE Monopole Clásico

  1. Nice to see you back. Question:The Palomino? That’s not authorized in Rioja so how do they pull this off to have it still be Rioja wine? Tiny percent? Even with the 5% laws, it seems like it’d be problematic.

    Sherry barrels are 600 liters but filled to 500. Not sure if they’re using actually 600s or if it’s 500s?

    Great story though and interesting to read.

    • Hi Miquel, Thanks for your comments. The CVNE website mentions that the winery bought sherry in botas from the Hidalgo family in Sanlucar de Barrameda. https://www.cvne.com/monopole/ You are certainly right that palomino is not an approved variety and I don’t know if CVNE has been taken to task by the Consejo. In most wineries’ literature they use the catch-all term “other varieties” in cases like this – it was especially popular when cabernet sauvignon was a hot button issue here. CVNE however is quite forthright in their admission that they use palomino.

      You may be aware that Ezequiel García passed away quite suddenly last August. I could kick myself for not taping the many hours we spent over a glass of wine or a caña in the bar in Logroño where we used to have ‘aperitivo’ almost every day. He was a walking encyclopedia of the last 60 years of history here.

  2. Interesting post. Nice to see another update. I just discovered your site last year and hoped you weren’t finished! I read about Monopole Clasico a while ago but haven’t got to taste it yet. I really like Gravonia and Tondonia blanco as well as Capellania from Murrieta. It’s great to see you mention that some wineries are reviving this style.
    Are there any traditional white Riojas that you particularly remember from the old days that have since disappeared?

    Darach

    • Hi Darach,

      Thanks for your comment. I was inactive for more than a year – was working on another project that kept me very busy but one of my New Year’s resolutions was to reactivate Inside Rioja.

      The old style whites that stick in my mind from the 1980s were Marqués de Murrieta white (discontinued but perhaps Capellanía is a revival, although not exactly old style) and Viña Ardanza white from La Rioja Alta (also discontinued).

      Most Rioja whites in those days were vinified in cement tanks and given time in oak vats and older oak barriques whose pores were plugged, so there was really little exchange of air through the pores. They were usually bottled just before shipment. Kind regards, Tom

      • Thanks for the reply. I wonder if you have had the 1986 Ygay Blanco released last year? I will have to rely on others descriptions as it’s over €400 a bottle!

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