Ideally, this article would begin with a preamble about visiting the historic property at Rioja’s R. Lopez de Heredia, telling you about how I ran my hands through the cobwebs and dust covering the old bottles in their “Cemetery” cellar museum, strolling in the half-light through the corridors of barrels in the late-1800s El Calado Cellar, finally taking in the sunset at the Viña Tondonia vineyards on the river Ebro.
But none of that has ever happened, so I’d be lying about all of it (unless you don’t count dreams as lying as a matter of technicality).
R. Lopez de Heredia remains the most iconic producer I’ve not visited while touring a wine region. The fact that I made it to Rioja and didn’t sneak away to see these guys is something that will haunt my days until I return there, and is a serious contender for number one on the list of reasons why I suck and should be destroyed.
While it wasn’t on the itinerary during my jaunt to Rioja last year, I did manage to order and drink the stuff that Heredia churns out every chance that I could get as we tapas-crawled our way through the narrow streets of the older towns there. And that’s because Heredia, along with La Rioja Alta, S.A. (which I did happen to visit), remains the class of act of Rioja, having established their vineyards in the early 1900s and progressively kicking higher and higher volumes of ass in the ensuing decades.
Now, this is the part in the feature where I’m supposed to tell you some history about Heredia, sprinkled with a few quotes from their winemaking or vineyard staff, setting the scene for the tasting notes on the wines that will follow. But we already know that I haven’t been to the place, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to regurgitate a bunch of text on their history that you could easily go and read on their website (hey, since you’re here reading this we can safely presume that you already know how to use the Internet, right?).
Instead, I will tell you that the time between when I received these Heredia samples – a ten day minimum that I normally wait before opening any wines, in order to allow the wines to recover from any shipping-induced bottle shock – and when I opened them can best be described as bitter, gnashing-of-teeth agony. And that all you really need to know about Heredia’s approach to making wine is that the white and red they sent me are just under ten and twenty years old, respectively, and are the current releases…
In a time when the average bottle aging a wine sees is its short slumber in the back seat of your car during the trip home from the wine shop, Lopez de Heredia is either an anachronistic artifact, or a wine geek’s wet dream, depending on your point of view. And here I will need to quote their website, if only because of how defiantly awesome the quote seems in a world where instant gratification isn’t hardly quick enough for most people:
Ageing wines should be seen as a pedagogic act; the wine is “educated”, and hence should never be rushed through speeded-up improvisations which would destroy the biological process which give it its character. Wines need to spend a minimum of three years in barrels to begin to manifest their “education”.
Put another way, Heredia’s Rosé (the Viña Tondonia Rosé Gran Reserva) has a current release vintage of 2000. No, it’s not a typo.
You shouldn’t be too shocked at the current release vintages on the wine recommendations below, then. But if you’re a wine geek who’s not yet tried Heredia’s polarizing style, you’re flirting with suck-and-should-be-destroyed territory. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
2003 R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Gravonia Crianza (Rioja)
Price: about $30
100% Viura, and 100% showing why Heredia’s wines (particularly the whites) can lodge themselves firmly into love-it-or-hate-it territory. Four years in barrel give this white wine more of an off-gold hue, and more than a little oddness. Citrus, earth, wet cement, even some dried banana action… those reared on generously fruity whites will almost certainly not feel at home here. But if you’re at all paying attention, even if you hate it you’ll instantly recognize how good it is; this is a cool and stylish character, so cool that it knows how cool it is but doesn’t think to dwell on it. And it will probably stay that cool for another ten years or so (I won’t know, because I drank the hell out of it).
1994 R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Todonia Gran Reserva (Rioja)
Price: about $95
Tempranillo (75%), Garnacho (15%), Mazuelo and Graciano (10%), ten years in barrel. So much ass is kicked by this red that a colon shortage may very well ensue among wine geeks lucky enough to try it. Tobacco leaf, dried herbs, black cherries, tart red plums, spices, cedar… It’s earthy, woody, smoky, leathery, energetic, and spectacular with chicken sausage and millet paella (what, you don’t make that?). To me, it was more like a night out at a fabulous high-end restaurant somehow combined simultaneously with an amazing Iron Maiden concert (I’m thinking Piece of Mind tour… or maybe Seventh Son). And it made me want to fall into a deep, Snow White-like sleep until the next vintage is ready for release…