Bodega Lopez Heredia – Rioja
Possibly the most famous of all Rioja producers, and certainly the most eccentrically traditional, López de Heredia have been crafting wonderful red and white Riojas from their ancient vineyards in Rioja Alta since 1913. Key to their unique style are their 100% – owned bush vines with an average age of 40 years; perfect south-facing vineyards on a hillside leading down to the Ebro River; and the myriad of large old wooden vats where their wines spend years patiently fermenting and ageing before being bottled. Everything here is done naturally, in almost the same way as the wines were made 100 years ago.
An unforgettable visit to Bodega Lopez de Heredia
THE HEART AND SOUL OF RIOJA
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?
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…