Among the most traditional of Rioja bodegas, Lopez de Heredia owes its origins to phylloxera, James Lawrence discovers.
A plague on both your houses
A great bastion of tradition, this classic bodega was founded in 1877 at the height of the phylloxera epidemic that devastated vineyards across France in the 19th Century. As a result, French negociants from Bordeaux were forced to seek new land to cultivate and soon arrived in Rioja‘s regional capital, Haro, looking to recover their losses. They quickly realized that although conditions were different from those they knew in Bordeaux, it would still be possible to produce good wines – as was subsequently demonstrated when they dramatically improved wine production in Rioja.
It was this newfound interest in a formerly unremarkable corner of Spain that first attracted a Chilean student of wine, Don Rafael López de Heredia, to the small village of Haro. Quickly sensing the exceptional potential of Rioja Alta, he founded Haro’s first major winery – López de Heredia.
A legend is born
Don Rafael wasted no time in drawing up plans for his pet project, which would include an imposing winery designed to emulate the great châteaux of Bordeaux. The bodega’s distinctive tower, christened “Txori Toki” (birdhouse in Basque) dates back from 1892, when Don Rafael decided the bodega needed an observation post from which to study his vineyards and the incoming weather (not to mention the marketing clout of having one’s name displayed several hundred feet above the ground). Construction of the cellars, offices and family residence took place over a period of several decades into the early 20th Century, using quarried stone.
After establishing a base of operations in Haro, Don Rafael quickly realized that he couldn’t make superlative wine without the corresponding raw materials. Therefore, he founded what is arguably Rioja’s most famous vineyard, Viña Tondonia, on alluvial and limestone soils between 1913-14. He subsequently planted three additional vineyards in the Rioja Alta sub-zone: Viña Cubillo, Viña Bosconia and Viña Zaconia.
However, it is Tondonia that really excites López de Heredia aficionados; a beautiful shell-like expanse of vines, which flanks the River Ebro and serves as a border to the Rioja Alavesa sub-region further north. It continues to provide the fruit for the winery’s top Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. Today, the bodega owns 180 hectares (445 acres) of land in total, with 110 ha currently in production. The remaining land is allowed to “recover” for a period of up to 14 years and is used to grow cereals.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Under the direction of Don Rafael’s descendants, López de Heredia has stayed remarkably true to its roots. In fact, current sister duo Maria José and Mercedes Lopez de Heredia claim that nothing has essentially changed in the winemaking since the 19th Century. “We continue to cultivate the vineyards and indeed make our wines following the techniques and philosophies laid down over 140 years ago,” says Maria José Lopez de Heredia. “This has been no accident – we have taken the conscious and voluntary decision not to use modern technology in our winemaking.”
Watch your step
Entering this iconic bodega’s cellar is a journey back through time and is an essential stop on any visiting enophile’s itinerary. Their cellars are 15 meters below ground, which, according to Maria José, helps to maintain an even temperature of 12C. Over 3000 square meters of cellarspace has been expanded and improved upon over a 100-year period. Inside, you’ll find 12,900 American oak barrels, 72 ancient wooden fermentation vats still in use, wine transference by hand in cellars black with mold and giant cobwebs designed to terrify the arachnophobics among us. Oh, and they have their own cooperage.
Flipping the bird to modernity
The winemaking at López de Heredia stands in marked contrast to the approach adopted by Spain’s growing firmament of new-wave producers, eschewing both modern technology and the powerful kiss of new French oak. Instead, Maria José favors long aging regimes and unfiltered wines that are the anthesis of concentrated, fruit-driven Rioja. All the wines start their life in old oak vats, sourced from Spain, the US, France and the former Yugoslavia. Most are then subject to a prolonged aging regime in used barrels, with the bodega’s small assortment of new barrels reserved for very young wines. The silky smooth Tondonia Reserva for example, spends six years in wood while the Gran Reserva is aged for 10 years. Moreover, the wines are subject to frequent racking, egg-white fining, and are bottled without filtration.
But are they a ridiculous anachronism in a region increasingly committed to modernization?
“López de Heredia will never changes its approach, for two reasons,” answers Maria José. “Firstly, our customers constantly tell us that they like our historical approach to Rioja production and the resulting wine style it gives. Secondly, we don’t desire change; we like the results of what we do.”
Maria José has also been a staunch critic of the Spanish paradigm that a dollop of new oak heals all winemaking deficiencies. “New oak has become too prominent a force in Spanish winemaking,” she argues. “The cask historically was simply used to transport wine – it was never intended as an enological tool. Oak should remain a secondary feature of wine production, used to stabilize wine, rather than used to impart aromas or flavors that trample over the fruit and terroir character.”
Today, López de Heredia’s refusal to modernize continues to attract its fair share of acolytes and party-poopers in equal measure. The 2003 Tondonia Reserva was awarded 95 points by James Sucking, who described it as: “Full bodied in style, with ripe, textured tannins and a palate of intense and powerful fruit.” In contrast, leading UK wine merchant Ted Sandbach of the Oxford Wine Company believes that: “Old-style Rioja is an anachronism, consumers don’t want wines that have been aged in oak barrels for an excessive period, with a resulting lack of fruit and a tired, oxidative character.”
López de Heredia produces a wide range of red wines at different price-points, although the house style of oaked refinement and a lightness of structure comes shining through in the entire portfolio. Vina Cubillo is the younger range, with a large dollop of Garnacha added, while the Bosconia Reserva and Gran Reservas are richer, more complex wines.
Of course it’s the Tondonia Reserva and Gran Reservas that frequently attract the most acclaim. The 2003 Tondonia Reserva is typical of the standard Tondonia blend, comprising 70 percent Tempranillo, 20 percent Garnacha, 5 percent Graciano and 5 percent Mazuelo, fermented with natural yeasts. Nothing unusual there; however, in another breakaway move, López de Heredia permits reserve wines (up to 15 percent) in their cuvees, as Maria José argues it maintains consistency throughout the vintages. In total, between 300,000 to 400,000 bottles are produced per annum, depending on the vintage.
In a region that has (until relatively recently) largely marginalized white Rioja styles, López de Heredia once again stands out due to a considerable output of aged, complex white wines. Indeed, about a quarter of the wines made at this venerable bodega are whites, including the smooth, elegant and utterly delicious Gravonia. The 2000 is a classic case in point: based on 100 percent Viura, the wine is aged in oak for four years and is a classy, well-balanced wine of considerable proportions.
Yet the Tondonia Reserva and Gran Reserva whites are in a completely different league altogether. Indeed, these remarkable wines are aged in barrel for longer than any other white wine in the world, imbuing them with a legendary aromatic complexity and depth of flavor, underpinned by a silky sweetness. For, unlike modern-style whites, López de Heredia consciously rejects primary fruit flavors in favor of secondary and tertiary aromas – these are wines perhaps best avoided by those searching for clean, uncomplicated winemaking.
But for the rest of us, they represent the pinnacle of classical white Rioja. The 2000 Tondonia Reserva, composed of 90 percent Viura and 10 percent Malvasia, is a firm favorite with the Wine Advocate, who noted that: “There are plenty of balsamic aromas plus notes of old furniture, waxed noble woods, pollen and honey that show slightly more evolved than the 2001. The wine fills your palate, has great intensity, focused flavors, very good acidity and persistence.” It can be yours for less than $50 a bottle, which is a steal for such a unique and iconic wine.
The great Rodriguez debate
The Rioja region remains gripped in a controversy unleashed by Telmo Rodriguez in January 2016, when he unveiled a document that caused a surge of excitement across Spain’s viticultural landscape: The Manifesto in defence of Spanish terroir.
Rodriguez, one of the great names of modern Riojan winemaking, explained that he co-drafted the manifesto in an attempt to challenge the inertia of the country’s top DOs and their reluctance to promote Spanish terroir. Currently, he is campaigning to allow specific village names on Rioja labels, although the end goal is that each sub-region and vineyard can express itself, as Rodriguez resents the monolithic structure of the Rioja DO. Of course, the Consejo’s response was less than enthusiastic. “This sets the stage for self-interested parties to take advantage of supposed splits and inflame them with wild rumor,” was their riposte.