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Cune Blazes A Trail For Rioja In The U.S.

January 17, 2017

In 2013, Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year, pointing the way forward for a storied Spanish wine region trying to honor its historical legacy while appealing to a new generation of American consumers. These days, the Cune brand is on fire in the U.S. market, having roughly quadrupled in size since 2012. That year, Cune shipped about 13,000 cases to the U.S. annually. By the end of 2016, company CEO Victor Urrutia tells SND, it reached 50,000 cases, bolstered by a portfolio ranging from accessible premium wines to upscale prestige offerings.

Leading the charge for Cune are its entry-level Crianza ($13), Rosado ($13) and Viña Real Rosado ($15) labels. Further up the ladder, its Imperial Reserva ($44) is also making rapid gains. Depletions for both Cune Crianza and Imperial Reserva rose by more than 60% in the eight months from April through November, while the two Rosados vaulted by 36%. “The trend toward finer, more balanced wines has played right into what Cune makes,” says Urrutia.

Cune is also benefiting from a more hands-on approach in the U.S. In 2015, it quietly partnered with Spanish compatriots Lustau and Vega Sicilia to acquire its U.S. importer, Europvin, based in Denver. “I like to think of Europvin as the old school Spanish house. We also import similar Spanish family wineries such as Mauro and Clos Mogador,” Urrutia notes.

Regarding the potential for new products, Urrutia says, “What came before is our future. In this sense, we just re-released our Monopole Clásico, which historically was aged for a long time in old barrels with some Sherry blended into it. We even brought back Ezequiel Garcia, winemaker at Cune until 1973, to help with the blend.” The Viura-based Monopole Clásico ($29) is available only in small quantities, but offers a look back at a traditional style that Cune ceased producing in the 1980s, owing to the ascent of fruitier white wines.

Overall, Rioja shipments have been roughly flat over the past few years in the U.S. following a growth surge from 2009-2013, in which the segment expanded by nearly 75% to 1.1 million cases. But Cune, as well as other major Rioja-led Spanish producers like Marqués de Cáceres (Vineyard Brands), Marqués de Riscal (Shaw-Ross), Campo Viejo (Pernod Ricard) and Bodegas Muriel (Quintessential Wines) have all seen depletions rise in recent years, according to Impact Databank. And Cune was again represented on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines list for 2016, along with fellow Rioja labels Bodegas Palacios, Bodegas Ontañon and La Rioja Alta.

“I have only one major concern,” says Urrutia of the outlook for Spanish wines in the U.S. “Spain mass-produces cheap, impersonal, boring wines; it also makes beautiful, unique, finely crafted wines, often from vineyards that are equal to France’s finest. Right now, both camps are at play. I hope the latter can prevail in American minds, restaurants and stores. Spain already produces what America nowadays wants. We just need the confidence to say it out loud.” —Daniel Marsteller

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