Lopez de Heredia
Haro, La Rioja
October 22, 2015
The first appointment that I made for this trip was with a Bodega many in America consider to be the greatest producer of distinct, traditional Rioja wine: López de Heredia (LdH).
LdH is based in Haro, the old school winemaking heart of Rioja. In a courtyard near the Ebro River, down the hill from the city center of Haro, lies a cluster of century+ old Rioja wine producers. López de Heredia is but one in this cluster that also includes CVNE, La Rioja Alta, and Muga to name just a few. This cluster exists here because of practicality. In the late 19th century, the main railroad station for the region was located here in Haro as it was centrally located as an export point. Rioja was in a stage of rapid growth in the mid to late 19th century when phylloxera ravaged Bordeaux. The Bordelaise descended upon Rioja in search of wine for their production that was currently in a downward spiral from the phylloxera scourge. The train station in Haro made it easy for wine to be transferred onto a train headed to other markets in Spain like Bilbao or Madrid, or as was often the case at this time to Bordeaux. We descended upon the same courtyard to the reception area set in a new, modern tasting salon. The beautiful structure is shaped like a wine decanter, with steel and glass making up the facade.
At the larger producers, the visits are pretty standard so I picked the two that I was most familiar with to save more time for other Bodega that offer a more personal visit. For anyone that has not been in a cavernous, cobweb and mold infested wine cellar I have to imagine it is quite an eye-opening experience. Even for a more experienced wine traveler it is also worth a visit. Just seeing the old cellars and stocks of barrels and bottles deep below ground was enough to impress. The cavernous underground is 3,500 square feet and not complete according to the original plans of the founder Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta. Though it has taken decades – 4 generations – to get to this point, the family continues to slowly move towards achieving the complete design of the founder.
Another aspect unique to the larger Rioja producers is that they have their own cooperage that can be seen in action sawing, hammering and toasting away barrel production. Barrels here all have 2 holes aligned in the same exact position at 7 and 6:30 (like the face of a clock) The upper one at 7 is for clean racking younger wines while the second and lowest hole at about 6:30 is for removing the sediment after the clean wine has been removed. Over time, less sediment remains and the bottom hole is the only one used to rack the wines. Barrels are constantly recycled into the production regimen and the average barrel is 20-25 years old.
Above ground, the start of the vineyards for LdH lie a short walk away with Tondonia closest to the courtyard and expanding out on a long peninsula shaped by the Ebro River. The name Tondonia comes from this unique section of the river and the land that it surrounds on 3 sides – it is shaped like a fish without a tail. The soils here are similar to the other traditional Rioja soils, bedrock limestone with clay and sand on the top soil. At a massive 130 acres, 100 are planted and most are black grapes (Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano). The remaining white grape varietals are Viura and Malvasia. The other 2 vineyards are found on the other side of the Ebro. Gravonia has more gravel in the top soil but at its core has brittle limestone bedrock and is planted almost exclusively to the white varietal Viura. El Bosque, the vineyard that is the source for the Bosconia wine, is planted on foothills among the native forest trees to Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano. The wine’s name comes from the word used locally for forest, Bosco. The elevation and exposition create added difficulty for vine growth so the wines here tend to be more structured from a higher level of tannin. Across all of the vineyards the Tempranillo vines average 75 to 80 years of age.
All wines made by LdH are single vineyard wines. Gran Reserva Tinto and Blanco are the top of the pyramid of the production scale in size. Quite rare, they are only made in the most special and meaningful of years typically from Tondonia or on rare occasions from the Bosconia vineyard. GR has only been made in 24 out of 138 vintages. The typical GR production is 20,000 bottles and is typically held back for 20 years before they leave the cellar, if they leave at all. The qualifications for making a GR seem to be typically more family related events, such as the passing of a family member, than actual vintage conditions.
That may seem at odds with what the overwhelming majority of producers do, but that is traditional for LdH and you have to respect (and expect when you taste the wines) that LdH have always done things their way. In the USA, the Sommelier crowd and influential wine writers have been praising the unique qualities of these wines for a while now. Even for me when I think about traditional Rioja wine, LdH is the first Bodega that comes to mind. However, that exact thought has changed some because of this trip. LdH are traditional, but are also just as bold as Telmo, Abel, Benjamin, Juan Carlos and a short list of others in Rioja that have decided to make individual wines, driven by their own beliefs and fueled by a deep passion for Rioja.
2002 Tondonia Reserva Blanco
90% Viura 10% Malvasia Nutty, roasted lemon, herbs ,and a strong mineral character. A slight oxidized note, but not too much. The concentration is more than I expected from a notoriously tough vintage. In all facets, this is a classic rendition that should age quite well. A clean and long finish, this is bright and crisp with fresh acidity. A crystalline taste of citrus and sea salt lingers on the finish. 30-45k production.
Cinnamon, damson, and cherry with a brilliant brightness. Excellent acidity and firm tannins that should mellow with more time in bottle. Thoroughly enjoyable now, if you decide to drink make sure to decant for at least an hour. True to form this is darker with more body than the Tondonia with firm tannin. Bosconia is bottled in the 5th year typically as a Reserva, though in exceptional vintages Gran Reserva are made in small amounts of 5-10k bottles. The Reserva is typically 30-40k production.
Well balanced and fleshy on the palate, we have ample acidity, with good fruit depth and concentration. A bit more fruit forward because the 2003 vintage conditions were so hot, but only if you are familiar with other vintages can you really pick that up as it is far from overdone. True to form Tondonia Reserva in style, this is a quintessential LdH Tondonia Reserva that is just showing more, sooner.