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Savoring riojas of CUNE

It's a little confusing to talk about this historic, top-flight winery in Spain's Rioja region. Its official name is Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana, or Wine Company of Northern Spain. It went by its acronym, CVNE, at its founding in 1879. But then fans, seeking something they could pronounce, changed the V to a U and began calling it CUNE, or coo-nay.

Eventually the company gave in, and while it still officially calls itself by the original name, its wine bottles bear the "CUNE" label.

The first wine grapes were planted in Rioja, an area 100 miles or so north of Madrid, under the Romans, but the area came of age in the 1860s, when the root louse phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France's Bordeaux region, just across the Pyrenees Mountains in France.

Seeking uninfected vineyards, Bordeaux growers brought their money and expertise to Rioja, which has flourished ever since, according to Victor Urrutia Ybarra, Cune's CEO.

"Rioja wines have traditionally been light and elegant, with red tempranillo grapes producing flavors of dried fruit and leather, but with less oomph than Bordeaux reds," Urrutia said.

That changed in the 1990s, as some Rioja winemakers began to emulate the popular California cabernet sauvignons with bigger, fruitier, more alcoholic reds.

But traditionalists rued the decline of their leaner favorites. A backlash ensued, and many Riojas are going back to the old style.

"The pendulum swung back to more balanced, elegant wines that were no longer overblown," Urrutia said. "Fortunately for Cune, its wines had always remained in the middle. I like to call it elegance, with soft fruit and bright acids with some time in oak, making them pleasant to drink."

Cune also continues the Rioja tradition of aging its red wines longer in barrel and bottle before releasing them, so, unlike many big reds, they are ready to drink when purchased.

> Highly recommended:

* 2004 Vina Real Cune Rioja Gran Reserva (85 percent tempranillo, 25 percent graciano and mazuela): powerful oak aromas, lush, rich, complex black cherry fruit, long finish; $32.

* 1973 Vina Real Cune Rioja Gran Reserva (tempranillo): wide, white rim in the glass where the color has faded, aromas and flavors of prunes, leather, roasted fruit and dried roses, just enough acid left for balance; $210.

> Recommended:

* 2010 Cune Monopole white wine, Rioja (viura): fresh, clean, light-bodied, with aromas and flavors of green apples and minerals; $13.

* 2008 Cune Crianza, Rioja (80 percent tempranillo, 20 percent garnacha tinta and mazuelo): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of tart cherries and espresso, spicy, soft tannins; $13.

* 2004 Cune Imperial Rioja Reserva (80 percent tempranillo, 10 percent graciano, 10 percent mazuelo grapes): racy acid, notable oak aroma, flavors of red plums, bittersweet chocolate and herbs, silky and smooth; $40.

* 2008 Cune Continuo Rioja Reserva (grenache, tempranillo grapes): intense floral aroma, powerful, ripe, black cherry fruit, rich and full-bodied; $50.