THERE IS STILL A CHANCE to buy into the fabled '82 vintage at reasonable prices -- not the '82 bordeauxs, but those from Rioja, Spain's pre-eminent wine region. You can't get the '82 riojas yet, because rioja reds are traditonally held for several years in bottle before release; but the '82 vintage was excellent, as well as plentiful, and is bound to present bargains once the wines are available.
Rioja lies just over the Pyrenees from Bordeaux, whose wine-making methods were brought to bear a hundred years ago in Rioja. More recently, the methods of California have become apparent. Less exposure to wood, and controlled fermentation in stainless steel tanks, have produced fruitier, fresher whites and more harmonious reds.
Although Rioja is best known here for its reds, Rioja whites are also good and relatively inexpensive. One of the best producers is Cune, whose best white wine, Monopole, is popular in Europe, and a good buy in America at $5. It is made from a blend of viura -- the principal white grape of Rioja -- and malvasia and garnacha blanca. Monopole has none of the harsh woodiness associated with some Spanish whites.
Cune's reds have depth but not that dried-out quality that too much wood imparts. They are still aged longer than most reds, and held longer than usual in bottle. The '82 vintage was reportedly the best in Rioja since the classic vintage of 1970. The '82s will not be released for three years, which means someone else -- the producer -- is cellaring the wine for you in the meantime.
The vintages on sale now, less spectacular but still very good -- the '75s and '78s -- cost $12 a bottle, and less. They provide a tantalizing taste that falls somewhere between Bordeaux and Burgundy, though much closer to pinot noir. It is hard to find such good wine with some age at such appealing prices, a fact that has not changed much despite the drop in the dollar's value, and the entry of Spain into the European Economic Community, which tends to raise prices of wine from member countries. There was a big price increase in 1983, but even with that Rioja wines have remained relatively inexpensive.
Cune was started in 1879 and stands for Compania Vinicola del Norte Espana. Contrary to popular and some scholarly opinion, is not a cooperative of grape-growers and wine-makers, but a family-owned business run by Luis Vallejo, great-grandson of Cune's founder. Cune's reds are mostly tempranillo, with other grapes blended in; for the reserva wines a special selection is made by Vallejo and his wine-maker, Basilio Izquirdo. The Vina Real contains more grapes from the Alavesa, a hilly region in the west, and so has a slightly different flavor.
Cune's production is 400,000 cases annually. That is a lot of wine, and with such a good and copious vintage as the '82 in the cellar, it must be tempting to try to sell the wine before it is officially released. The world may be ready for rioja futures. I for one would buy the '82s, going purely on past performance and, of course, on those unbeatable prices.