“Wine to put a smile on your face” — Maria Lopez de Heredia, Proprietress & Winemaker
We visited the Lopez de Heredia winery in the small town of Haro in the Spanish wine region of Rioja as a part of the Fine Vintages wine tour. We were very excited about this stop on the tour as we have been enjoying their wines for years and also because this winery holds a place of near reverence within the established wine community. We were about to learn first-hand just why this winery is so revered.
If you have read our other articles on the wineries we have visited in Northern Spain you will know that Spain embraces a wonderful dichotomy of the old and the new. At Lopez de Heredia it is no different and this was abundantly apparent is we walked into the winery compound. At the centre is a large watch tower which is then flanked by several old buildings made of brick and stone. Nestled into the middle of all of this is their tasting room: an ultra-modern, mostly glass affair, made in the shape of a decanter. It was specifically created with the help of world renowned architect Zaha Hadid in order to enclose and protect the original wooden selling stand used in the early 1900s that sits inside the tasting room and is still used today.
The winery was founded in 1877 by Don Raphael Lopez de Heredia y Landeta who moved to Spain from his home in Chile. He accumulated vineyard land in Rioja and planted his vineyards to predominately Tempranillo with the reds as well as some Graciano and Mazuela and for the whites he has planted Viura with a little bit of Malvasia Riojana. There are now a total of four vineyards that cover 173 hectares. Tondonia, the largest at 115 hectares was the first planted and is the flagship property. From this property come their Reserva and Gran Reserva wines in both red and white as well as a rose. Bosconia, the smallest at 15 hectares, produces Reservas and Gran Reservas from red grapes while Cubillo (red) has 19 hectares and Gravonia (white) produce Crianzas from 24 hectares.
All grapes used to make their wines come from estate vineyards. Interestingly, and rather uniquely in this day, they employ no trellis in their vineyards. All of their vines are bush vines that stand alone. The soil is limestone rich alluvial clay. The vineyards are in the Rioja Alavesa, the part of the appellation situated in the Basque country.
Our tour through their cellars was a trip backwards in time. We have done a lot of winery tours, many of which have been fascinating. But touring at Lopez de Heredia is unique: things are done today using substantially similar methods, substantially similar tools and substantially similar equipment as was done in that exact location more than 130 years ago. When you are in their cellars you are truly taking a journey back into history.
Entry into the cellar is down a long and steep set of stairs, probably taking you down about 30 feet. The first thing that you notice is the mould that grows on the ceilings and the walls. To the uninitiated, this can take you aback. Mould growing on the walls? What does that say about cleanliness? Any fears were quickly allayed. It is all a part of the healthy eco-system that exists in the cellar to foster the ideal surroundings for making wine, just as it has done for the past 139 years. The Penicillin mould actually helps to control the humidity maintaining it at a relatively constant 85%. The occasional spider is left alone as they control the moths. It is a perfect and natural ecosystem.
Fermentation takes place in huge wooden vats holding 30,000 litres and that are over 100 years old. Alcoholic fermentation takes 8-10 days and is temperature controlled, not using the modern technique of cooling jackets, but the old fashioned way: they open the windows! These fermenters sit up above the floor on concrete blocks. Originally this was to allow space for a small fire to be built under the fermenter to create heat that may be needed to get going a stuck fermentation. With global warming this has not been needed for many years.
After fermentation the wine will stay in those vats for one year with pump-overs occurring twice a day. The wine is then filtered through a filter made from vine branches, just as was done over 100 years ago.
Aging of the wine takes place in neutral oak barrels made of American wood and coopered on the premises by their own staff. They have one cooper dedicated to barrel making and one to maintenance and repair. These coopers also make the special wooden baskets that the pickers use to put the grapes in during harvest. These too are maintained and repaired and many in the field are now decades old. The baskets are covered in natural yeasts from the vineyard that are used in fermentation. Being in their cellar is as close as you could get to travelling back in time. The sense of history is quite astonishing and has to be experienced to be believed.
The wines of Lopez de Heredia are as unique as the methods used to make them. Traditional Rioja can be difficult to fully appreciate by North American palates that are more oriented to New World wines. The big, voluptuous and fruit forward paradigm that can be the go-to for many North American palates is nowhere to be seen in traditional Rioja. And Lopez de Heredia is the most traditional house in Rioja. What traditional Rioja offers, and by extension what Lopez de Heredia offers in excelsis is elegance and finesse, great complexity in a light to medium body redolent of cherries and raspberries, a slightly oxidative note with subtle barrel influences. Uniquely, the whites tend to have more body than the reds. It is a style not known for its immediate allure but rather one that grows on your palate over time. It has great intellectual (as opposed to hedonistic) appeal.
Served at cellar temperature (how the winery recommends their whites be drunk and we agree) this wine has a medium gold colour, no doubt the result of 6 years in American oak averaging 25 years of age. It has a medium+ body that coupled with its juicy acidity creates a sensation of precise balance. Nougat, almonds and pear are found on the nose. There is a delicious taste that resembles honey dripped over a cantaloupe! This wine is marvelously complex and gains weight in the glass and offers different nuances with each sip. The long finish is punctuated with a zesty lemon drop note. Totally unique and very delicious!
Excellent ($56.99 + taxes at BC Liquor Stores)
2004 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia
Brightly coloured medium red/garnet. Cherry, strawberry, fennel and minerals rest on medium minus body that is lithe and elegant. Vanilla and balsamic notes can be coaxed out with swirling. The mouthfeel is silky and very Burgundian. Earthen notes couple with a juicy acidity on the finish. Very suave.
Excellent + ($57.99 + taxes at BC Liquor Stores)
Imagine just releasing a wine 20 years after the vintage! Such is the Lopez de Heredia commitment to quality; they will hold a wine until it is ready to drink. (The company accountants must be in fits over this!) Still youthfully red in colour the nose offers up a panoply of raspberry, cherry, coffee and earth. The mouthfeel on this wine has to be experienced to be believed: like dragging a silk scarf over a satin sheet! The balance is perfect; the juicy finish is long and redolent of citrus peel. A wine that is majestic in its finesse. The Gran Reserva is only made in special vintages including 1994, 1976, 1973, 1970, 1968, 1964, 1961 and 1954.
Extraordinary (€60 at their winery & particularly good value for a wine at this quality level)