An Evening with Lopez de Heredia
What does the idea of tradition really mean? There are daily traditions, better known as habits, that help us maintain consistency in our lives. There are traditions like family heirlooms or recipes. There are also cultural traditions that play a deep seated role in the life of the societies in which we live. But none of these concepts captures what tradition means to Spain’s famous winemaking family Lopez de Heredia.
Imagine that each part of your daily life followed in the footsteps of earlier generations of your family doing the same things in the same place. Think of a business that is so unique its techniques cannot be learned outside of the business itself. Think of a chef who hasn’t just received recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation, but also whose garden, tools, and cutlery physically derive from earlier iterations of family. If you put each of these parts together, you might begin to understand what tradition means at Lopez de Heredia.
It’s hard to understand this sui generis nature of the winery by research alone. I was fortunate to meet with current winemaker Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia on her recent visit to Vancouver and she managed to imbue a sense of winemaking in two hours unlike anything I have experienced before.
Maria Jose passionately and at length espoused her philosophy of honouring the history of the land and her family’s relationship with it despite trends and market fluctuations. Somehow, she said, her family managed to survive over 130 years without consciously tapping into a full-on business mentality. They’ve simply had a passionate group of aficionados who love and buy their wines.
Of course, over time, this has expanded from passionate locals to passionate wine geeks from around the world, including some of the top estates in Bordeaux. And let’s be straight here, these are not wines for beginners, but play entirely to those with a significant amount of palate experience. This accords with Maria Jose’s understanding that wine isn’t simply about instant gratification just as much as it is not about being a trophy. Wine is, emphatically, meant to be drunk, but great wine need not come rushing out of the vineyard into the bottle and into the mouths of drinkers within a mere one to two years. Rather, Lopez de Heredia makes wine that only begins to taste good from 5 to 20 years after harvest. This patience goes hand in hand with accessibility, for Maria Jose swore that, despite increasing popularity, they would never raise prices into the stratosphere. Wine, she said, is meant to be appreciated by those who love it for what it is, and not for those who love it for the status it represents.
And yet, as much as Maria Jose talked, nay revered, the tradition of the winery, there were clear signs of an expert with modern training at work (she attended oenology school). The wines are all surprisingly clean and mostly free from fault, which is no easy feet given the extended oak aging. I do not fault Maria Jose’s passion for tradition as an ideological technique nor as an obfuscation of the reality of the winery. I simply think that she feels happy to add little bits of her self to the history of the place – which is, really, how tradition becomes tradition in the first place. If traditions do not evolve then they become stagnant, and Lopez de Heredia is anything but.
The True Story of Rioja
The traditional story about Rioja goes as follows. The phylloxera louse infected Bordeaux requiring the Bordelais to rip up their vines and relocate to Spain until a cure was found their own vineyards were replanted on grafted rootstock. Thus did the Bordelais bring all their traditions to Rioja, including aging wines in oak. It eventually came about that Rioja preferred to use American to French oak and so began the differentiation in styles between the two regions.
Maria Jose presented a slightly revised version of this traditional history. In the 19th century, tradition in Bordeaux was to blend the red wines with white wines from Alsace. It was the vines of Alsace that were first struck by phylloxera in France and so the Bordelais needed a replacement for their traditional blending whites. Enter Rioja, which originally developed as a white wine growing region. It was during this time that the tradition of extended barrel aging of the whites developed – a technique that is now extinct in Rioja except for the wines of Lopez de Heredia.
Lopez de Heredia’s history is also an interesting one. Maria Jose’s grandfather came from Chile to Spain, fought in the Monarchic war, lost, was taken prisoner, escaped, ended up in France, studied for a while there and then was offered a job in Rioja making wine. I wasn’t quite sure in that mix when and where he learned how to make wine, but given the breadth of experience I can’t say that it surprised me.
Winemaking from Outside of Time
The methods at Lopez de Heredia are unlike most any other winery in the world. Some things are common to great wineries – attention to detail starts in the vineyard and the quality of fruit anchors the entire operation (fruit quality is essential for extremely long ageing). Everything is done by hand, including picking, bottling and corking. This is impressive given that Lopez de Heredia can make up to 500,000 bottles a year.
The fun begins with the stylistically 130 year old wooden harvesting buckets. Nowhere else in Rioja makes these. Many of them are very old and still in use because they have developed an amazing ability to transfer indigenous yeasts to the grapes and into the winery. New ones are made at the in-house cooper because no one else in Rioja knows how to do it.
Lopez de Heredia still uses the original 130 year old iron grape presses, and the original large open vat wooden fermenters, in which wines can stay for up to a year. Again, the older vats have developed incredible colonies of indigenous yeasts that have become so efficient that all of Lopez de Heredia’s wines ferment until completely dry.
Despite attending winemaking school, Maria Jose has learned that her winery often defies the rules. Fermentations take place at temperatures that would put any technically oriented winemaker into shock for fear the fermentation would not complete. Temperature regulation is not centrally controlled; rather, windows and doors are open and closed as needed to adjust the temperature. Somehow all of these crazy techniques seem to work and don’t seem to negatively impact the final quality of the wine. They are, according to Maria Jose, the very reason the wines are what they are.
Lopez de Heredia has also never been about vintage. They do not make vintage wines meant to reflect the year. Rather, they try to produce wine that reflects the house, the land and its traditions. It is a unique philosophy these days as most wine drinkers internationally care profoundly about vintage and pronouncements of great vintages sell wines on futures markets. But it also seems to fit hand in hand with everything else that is singular about this place, and it made me happy they are content to keep doing what they have been doing for over 100 years.
The Iconic Wines of Lopez de Heredia
The wines themselves – well, they are unlike anything else being made in Rioja, and, indeed in all of Spain. All of these wines should not be decanted given their extremely long aging and accordant micro-oxygination through the barrels. They whites should not be served very cold and should be served in Pinot Noir glasses.
As for the whites, they ranged from the vibrant, clean fresh citrus fruit and cream of the Vina Gravonia 2000 (Very Good+ to Excellent) to the varnish-like, and extremely briny Tondonio Reserva Blanco 1992 (Very Good+) to the absolutely stunning, nutty, mushroomy and chocolate-like Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco 1981 (Excellent to Excellent+). All were oxidative, but not dominantly so. Each wine also had a completely distinct character, reflecting the massive influence the wood aging has. The Gran Reserva, for example, spends 10 years in oak before bottling. What other white wine in the world is like that? None that I know of.
The reds are a different game. The Cubillo Crianza 2005 (Excellent) is easy drinking and more fruit forward than any of the other wines. But it also manages to keep secondary flavours of stone and spice a significant part of the experience. The Tondonioa Reserva 2001 (Very Good+) dropped back significantly from the forward fruitiness of the Cubillo. Instead, it offered a very dense, earthy and smoky palate with a level of youthful tannin that would make it almost impossible to guess its age at almost 10 years, and previous 6 years aging in oak. The grand-daddy Bosconia Gran Reserva 1991 (Excellent) was the most profound red of the bunch: cassis, cherry, spices layered on top of a savory and forest-like bed of flavour. There were also roots and licorice in the mix. Incredibly fresh for its age and it is amazing how much fruit still comes through given the wine’s age.
Meeting Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia helped me to understand this iconic winery that many consider to be the most traditional in Spain. If nothing else, they are keeping alive a family history that makes truly exciting wines and they are keeping alive the inspiring idea that you can find success doing what you think is right and not what is trendy or popular in the moment.
Thanks to Firefly wines for hosting this tasting.