It’s a special feeling when you get to meet your heroes. Well, I’m not sure it’s considered correct to call a winery a “hero”, but R.Lopez de Heredia in Rioja is a maker of wines which has made me ecstatically giggly.
With all these references to “natural wine” it’s refreshing to find a wine which is made that way for no other reason than that minimal intervention is the way they have always done things No added yeast, harvest by hand, 140 year old oak vats for fermentation, no new-oak influence from the loooong time in their chilly cellars. With 13000 barrels resting in the mouldy caves, they might be storing more than any other winery their size.
Nothing is added except grapes, nothing taken away, no aggressive treatment. The result is brilliant. It IS a special style, a very light, elegant, hauntingly subtle wine.The reds get a bit of white mixed in for stability and freshness, and thus have a light color. Like it was done before the “Rioja revolution” of the 80’s. The whites, sold as aged as the reds (the current vintage release for white Tondonia is 1996), have an oxidized tone which reminds me of sherry. Though I love the reds, it is the whites from the vineyards Tondonia and Gravonia that knock my socks off.
And speaking of socks being knocked off, after a five hour visit with the fourth generation running this family winery, Maria José Lopez de Heredia took all six of us down to a VERY special tasting room. You need to see it to really get the full experience, but they are a bit restrictive of how many times they bring visitors down there. Otherwise, the lights would scare off the spiders. The spiders, which are the key to the feeling of the room. You have NEVER seen spider-webs like this – huge, dense, covering floor-to-ceiling stacks of old vintages. In the center of the room, the webs go down to attach to a huge candle holder. It feels like something straight out of Harry Potter.
To top it off, the spirited, beautiful Maria Jose served a bottle of white Tondonia from 1973. It was gorgeous. I could have drank that wine all night. From the scent it might as well have been a sweet sherry with all the oxidized honey, honeysuckle and toasted almonds that was in there. However, Tondonia is perfectly dry. It ages quite gracefully, getting more complex without losing its freshness. The slices of chorizo served with it were possibly the best I’ve ever had.
“We make wines with immense capability for aging,” says Maria Jose. “This way of doing things is the right way to get the wines to age well.” Her wines support her argument. “The real reason we have not changed our ways is because we are a family. Being faithful to this style is part of a family decision.” She doesn’t think everyone should make wine in their way though, “It is part of the beauty of the wine world that there are different opinions,” she smiles. Her only critique is of the producers who don’t even pretend to make quality wine, who just mass-produce for volume, using any methods available to meet a price point.
“For us, making wine is a way of life, not a way to make a living,” says Maria Jose who refused to be stressed out by the things she should or could do instead of talking to us. Thus, it is in the end Tim who makes us rush off in the middle of a languid 4PM lunch to go to our next winery meeting at Bai Gorri. “This is not how we do things,” says Maria José’s new export manager while shaking her head, referring to the boys’ stress. I understand her. They take their time and they get the results to match. We should follow their example.
Overall, it felt like we had spent an afternoon in the high temple of my conviction. Those few drops of wine and that atmosphere will keep me faithful for quite a while and were an excellent reminder why I am taking this path in life. I hope Maria Jose sticks to hers. A slow and steady pace to create moments of heaven.
PS. Thanks to Lenka Sedlackova at R.Lopez de Heredia’s UK importer Fields Morris and Verdin for arranging the meeting for us (“Us” on this trip being Justin Knock MW, Tim Wildman MW, sommelier Donald Edwards, photographers Johnny Midlin, Ken Kaban, and myself)