It’s little more than an hour’s drive south east of Bilbao till you reach the small town of Haro, which is the beating heart of Rioja Alta, Rioja’s best quality subzone, and home to many of Rioja’s most famous producers including La Rioja Alta, Muga and Roda. But it was to visit one of the world’s most revered wineries – Bodega Lopez de Heredia – that I had made this journey.
A visit to Lopez de Heredia is one of the wine world’s truly memorable experiences, equivalent in some ways to a football lover visiting Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium or a Catholic visiting St Peter’s in Rome! For this producer is the bastion of all that is traditional and classic in the world of wine and has surely changed barely at all since its beginnings in 1877. In our current era of never-ending “progress” and developments in mobile phones, computers, cars, communications etc, a visit to Lopez de Heredia is a comforting step back into the past, into a reassuringly simple world of old casks and home-made barrels, dusty bottles and natural temperature control. And it gives an opportunity to taste some of the most elegant, fresh and long-lived red and white wines in the world!
So how does this producer swim against the tide of fashion so successfully, and why do their wines taste so special?
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There are 3 main drivers behind Lopez de Heredia’s unique personality.
First and foremost there is Maria Lopez de Heredia, who together with her sister Mercedes is the joint winery owner and winemaker. Maria is a fascinating and deep-thinking lady who is steeped in the history and traditions of her family’s winery, and who is determined to preserve its quality and reputation long into the future. She has a deep respect for her late father, and in a whirlwind of stories and anecdotes is a wonderful communicator of Lopez de Heredia’s story and winemaking approach. Maria is clearly not someone who reacts to current trends or fashions but thinks for the long term and is entirely comfortable being different to her competitors. It is this resolute belief in continuing her family’s winemaking tradition which is behind the high quality and reputation of Lopez de Heredia’s highly sought after white and Rosado Riojas and their long-aged Reserva and Gran Reserva reds.
Then there are the winery’s very special vineyards, perfectly situated on the hilly southern banks of the Rio Ebro. Each of Lopez de Heredia’s wines comes from a single vineyard – which in itself is highly unusual in Rioja – the most famous (and largest) being the Tondonia vineyard. All Tondonia’s vines are self standing bush vines with an average age of 40-50 years, but several plots are over 100 years old. The soil here is stony gravel, which as you go up the hill becomes ever stonier, on a base of clay and limestone – very similar to the best terroirs of the Medoc in Bordeaux. La Rioja Alta, this sub-region of Rioja, is cooler and windier than the rest of the Rioja region, and even in late May the strong winds blowing down from the Atlantic in the North and West were surprisingly chilling; night time temperatures here are consistently low throughout the Summer. It is this combination of relatively cool temperatures, gravelly soil and wonderful old vines which helps give the wines their freshness, elegance and long term structure.
Finally there is the winery; a beautiful, romantic, castle-like building situated right next to Haro’s old train station, from where the region’s Riojas used to be transported to Bilbao for onward shipment around the world. Inside the winery there is not a gleam of steel tank in sight! Instead you are confronted by an array of large old oak vats – 72 of them in total – made of French, American or local Spanish oak and used to ferment the different plots of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano grapes.
Once fermented, the wines are racked into used American oak barrels – all hand-made in the winery’s own cooperage – for the lengthy ageing process. The winery has almost 14,000 barrels in total, stored underground at naturally-maintained room temperature in a myriad of damp, dark, spider-web-filled tunnels. The winery’s youngest red – their Cubillo Crianza – spends a minimum of 3 years in barrel, whilst their Tondonia Reserva spends 6 years and Gran Reserva 10 years in barrel! All the wines are then stored in bottle until release onto the market, only when they are considered mature and ready to drink.
It is this completely natural, traditional way of making the wines and their exceptionally long ageing time in barrel and bottle which really distinguishes Lopez de Heredia’s wines from all other Riojas.
Lopez de Heredia’s Reserva wines are released onto the world market at the same age as most other producers release their Gran Reservas! And they offer exceptional value for 12-13 year old wines of this quality…
Wines tasted with lunch We finally emerged from our tour of the winery at 3pm and my heart fell when I realised how late it was – surely too late for lunch I thought! But this of course is Spain, so we were able to enjoy a wonderful lunch in a nearby restaurant, where Maria Lopez served up the following special wines:
Vina Tondonia Garnacha 2015 (cask sample) – it is extremely rare that one gets the chance to taste a young, unblended wine from Lopez de Heredia, so I was fascinated to try this 100% Garnacha from the very warm and ripe 2015 vintage. Maria Lopez seemed a little worried about this vintage because of its 14.5% alcohol (usually her wines have no more than 13%!) But it was tasting fantastic already – packed with purple berry fruit, perfectly ripe, fuller bodied than Vina Tondonia usually is, but retaining the vineyard’s hallmark freshness and elegance. In Rioja the law allows producers to blend up to 15% of “nearby” vintages with the current vintage, so it is highly likely that the final 2015 blend will include some cooler 2013 and 2014 wines.
Vina Tondonia Red Rioja Reserva 2006 (just released) – Complex and restrained, full of elegance and freshness, still youthful with enough tannic structure and acidity to keep this evolving in bottle over many years to come. A very fine vintage of Tondonia with a great future! Made from the winery’s traditional blend of 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 5% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo. 13% alcohol.
Vina Tondonia White Rioja Reserva 2005 (just released) – this was my favourite wine of the lunch. Nutty, rich and slightly honeyed in flavour, fairly full bodied and with amazing freshness and vitality for a 13 year old white wine! Made from 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia to add aromatics and lift.
Vina Tondonia White Rioja Reserva 1975 (no longer available) – Rich, full bodied, unctuous and slightly oily in texture, with a myriad of honey and nut flavours. Still drinking remarkably well for a white wine over 40 years old, but I preferred the freshness and lift of the 2005.
Sadly the winery’s stocks of older vintage Gran Reservas and white Riojas have been severely depleted in recent years, so it is becoming more and more difficult to get hold of these amazing wines. Please do be aware therefore that any orders of Lopez de Heredia Riojas needs to be linked with their most important wine, Vina Tondonia Reserva Rioja Red.