It is hard to know even where to begin, but we found ourselves on the road to Rioja mostly because of one thing: R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia. The most old school of old school Rioja producers. And one of the most traditional wineries in the world. The aura around this winery, it’s wines, and the family behind it are almost mythical in the world of wine. We had been enchanted drinking the wines, and by the stories, the rumors, and most of all by Maria José López de Heredia. I was lucky enough to meet her at a tasting of the wines of López Heredia earlier this year, and as struck by the wines as I was, I was fascinated by the story of the winery, it’s history, and the family and philosophy behind the wines. A lot has been written about López Heredia. I am going to try and not go over too much of the same old ground, and try not to wax too poetic about it all. But forgive me if I indulge a bit, but that is what López Heredia can do to a man. As I am a photographer by trade, I am going to let my images from our day at López Heredia tell much of the story. It is very hard not to take a postcard perfect photograph at the 130 year old winery.
The story of any winery begins in the vineyard. With the land, the soil, the grapes. While López Heredia has several vineyard holdings that create some of their different wines (Tondonia, Bosconia, Cubillo, and Zaconia), none is more important than Tondonia. It is where the namesake for the winery comes from: Viña Tondonia. And it is adjacent to the bodega (as they refer to wineries in Rioja) and it lies in a massive meander in the River Ebro. This makes it unique in that the vineyard is virtually surrounded on all sides by the river and it rises dramatically from the waters edge to create an infinite number of micro climates. These micro climates are partitioned to grow the various grape varieties that go into Viña Tondonia. There are Viura and Malvasia for the Tondonia whites and Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Graciano and Garnacha for Tondonia reds.
We were in the Tondonia vineyards on a beautifully crisp fall day not too long after the harvest. The leaves were autumnal hues and there were still some grapes left on the vines (yes of course we tried them, they were awesome). Though the harvest was over, I cannot think of a time of year that could be more beautiful to be in the vineyards. One of the most striking things about Tondonia was the amount of round rocks in the soil. They have been rolled by the river Ebro over the centuries and deposited in the soil. And they certainly make the vines struggle more and produce better wine and Mercedes López de Heredia says that they actually serve other purposes such as reflecting light onto the vines and warming the soil. Mercedes is Maria José’s sister, and she overseas the wine making at the bodega. Maria José happened to be in the United States while we were in Rioja, and Mercedes was certainly her equal in terms of charm, enthusiasm, and knowledge about López Heredia. Mercedes also commented on vineyard practices, such as that while they are not organic, they try and grow the grapes as naturally as possible, only fertilizing with manure compost every third year. Another interesting note of the vineyards of Tondonia is that the plants are grown in the traditional bush style. That is, they are free standing plants and not trellised or supported as one would see in most vineyards. We did not get to see the other vineyards of Bosconia, Gravonia, Cubillo, and Zaconia, but the incredible views of Tondonia, the soil, the gnarly old vines, and the smell in the air certainly gave us a totally unique sense of place. I doubt there is a more picturesque point in Rioja.
The bodega at Viña Tondonia is a constantly evolving thing. It has been under constant construction and expansion since inception. Yet visibly it seems to change little. It evolves so slowly that change is actually not noticed. There are so many buildings, levels, rooms, nooks and cranny’s at López Heredia that I am not sure anyone knows every corner. And they say that wine is made in the vineyard, but at López Heredia, a case can be made that the bodega and its myriad rooms and levels, certainly contributes something to the uniqueness of the wines.
All the wines at López Heredia are fermented in huge old wooden tanks called “tinas”. The newest of these tanks date from 1973 and most are much much older. Whereas most wineries in Rioja, and throughout the world, now ferment their wines in large stainless steel tanks, López Heredia maintains all their old tanks and they are a very impressive site to behold. Stepping into the rooms that hold these massive tanks is literally like stepping back into time. But that is pretty much how most of López Heredia feels.
Out of all the incredible things about López Heredia, the most unique thing is their vast stock of old wines. Every wall is covered with mold and cobwebs. Some of the bottles are so think with mold and cobwebs, it is impossible to tell what might lie beneath. But Mercedes seemed to somehow know what was in each section of wine. It is also rumored that there is an inner room somewhere below the bodega known as “the cemetery.” We did not get to see “the cemetery,” but we did get to go into a room that is typically closed to visitors. Mercedes said that the rooms where the bottles are kept are usually not open to visits because it scares the spiders who are an integral part of the living environment throughout the bodega. The amount of mold and cobwebs is totally Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It would certainly have most Americans reaching for their hand sanitizer. But this was also the most awe inspiring part of our entire visit. It is like finding a lost city full of treasure, and I could not help having a total Edgar Allan Poe moment, recalling The Cask of Amantillado. Without having seen all the old bottles, one can only wonder how many tens of thousands of bottles lie in the cellars of López Heredia. While most wineries release their wines to market as quickly as possible and keep little back, López Heredia only releases wines when they are ready to be drunk. They also keep stocks of older wines which seemingly continue to improve with age or at the very least maintain their ethereal brilliance for ages.
While we were marveling over the treasured moldy bottles in the cellar, Mercedes suggested we go to lunch and pulled from the dusty stacks a white 1970 Tondonia Gran Reserva and a red 1981 Tondonia Gran Reserva. We were totally taken by surprise not only at the invitation to lunch but by the generosity of opening such rare older bottles. Merecedes whisked us away from the bodega with the prized bottles of Tondonia in hand and we went to a tiny village not far from López Heredia to have lunch. Merecedes chipped away the wax seals of the wine as we waited in anticipation. We were beaming actually, because we had only expected a few hours with her and now here we were about to have lunch at taste some very rare wine.
After several minutes of chipping away the wax seal and gently extracting the cork, we were able to taste the 1970 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva. The color was an intense vibrant yellow. All I could think was how is this white wine 40 years old and so fresh? It could have something to do with the fact that it has been resting in the cellars of the bodega for decades, but all the older Gran Reserva wines of López Heredia seem to have the ability to age forever. The nose of the 1970 Tondonia was intense honey mixed with pear brandy, and cured Spanish olives. There is a toasted almond nuttiness to the wine and despite its intensity it remains delicate, ethereal and utterly refined. There really is not another white wine experience quite like the aged white wines of López Heredia. One of the all time best bottles of wine I have been fortunate enough to taste.
Following in the footsteps of such a grand wine is no easy feat, but as our main course of meat arrived (we were in Spain dammit, meat and a big lunch go without saying) Mercedes poured the red 1981 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva. The most striking thing about this bottle, and the other aged Gran Reservas I have tasted from López Heredia, was its balance. The greatest wines of the world have balance and depth. This bottle was no exception. Totally refined with subtle layers of sour cherries, chesnuts, olive oil, and earth. The wine is extremely fragrant with a nice dose of acidity that suggest the wine is going to last and last. This wine, like others I have had from López Heredia, seems simultaneously aged to perfection, yet incredibly fresh and young.
While we were very lucky to have tried these glorious older wines, the current wines from López Heredia that are available in the market place are all drinking extremely well and available for fairly reasonable prices. Most fall in the mid $20 price range and all are usually available for under $40. Remember, even the “current releases” from López Heredia have significant bottle age before being released. I have tried all the current release wines (listed below) and they are all fantastic and all readily available from a number of great wine shops.
The Final Word
The wines of López Heredia are so singular because they have not changed much over the past 130 years. Time has passed, fads and styles have come and gone. López Heredia has remained constant. This alone makes them unlike almost any other.
Current releases from López Heredia
- Viña Gravonia Crianza 2000, ~$21-$26
- Viña Tondonia Rosado 2000, ~$20-$25
- Viña Cubillo Crianza 2004/2005, ~$21-$26
- Viña Bosconia Reserva 2002, ~$29
- Viña Tondonia Reserva 2000, ~$39
All of the current López Heredia wines represent amazing quality and value for the price. Many shops also carry older Gran Reserva wines as well. These wines are more expensive, but are something not to be missed on special occasions.
Where to find López Heredia
There are many places to find the wines of López Heredia in New York City, and throughout the United States. Here is a short list of shops where I often buy wine. They all carry most of the current releases, and several carry a stock of older vintages.
The Rabbit Hole
1. The website for López Heredia is awesome. Filled with all the details, stories, images, and trivia that keeps wine geeks like me coming back for more.
2. Others singing the praises of López Heredia. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov has waxed poetic about Viña Tondonia on several occasions. This piece is a particularly great read. Click here to read the article on his blog, The Pour.
3. Want to catch the enthusiasm of Maria José López de Heredia. Watch her captivate the uncontainable Gary Vaynerchuk on Wine Library T.V. Click here if you have a few minutes to spare. p.s. There are two parts, yeah!