This column will not be about an obscure winery or region or grape. It will not offer the secret password for a society to which only a cell of certified wine adventurers have access. It will not be an offbeat take on something familiar. But it will be about discovery nonetheless, for the wines of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia hide in plain sight.

These classic Riojas are some of the best known in the world, rightly garnering praise far and wide. Perhaps because of their renown, we tend to forget how special they are, how important, how useful and above all how good.

R. López de Heredia expresses the essence of tradition, but the traditions it embodies are freeing rather than constrictive, so separate from time that they will always be on a leading edge. Much like cooking, fermenting, or for that matter collecting vinyl records or manual cameras, the vision these wines offer for more rooted modes of interaction with earth and fellow human is (or ought to be) beacon-like for younger generations distressed at the loss and anxiety brought on by industrialization and globalization.

The winery was founded in 1877, and not a whole lot has changed since then. All the grapes used to make the various wines are on R. López de Heredia’s vineyards – Cubillo, Bosconia, Tondonia and Zaconia – more than 1,000 feet above sea level in northern Spain’s Rioja region. Vine ages vary, but averages for each of the distinct vineyards are above 40 years.

The grapes are exclusively traditional varieties, and all of the red wines utilize some combination of tempranillo, garnacha, graciano and mazuelo. The whites are from viura with some malvasia.

All fermentation takes place in dozens of large oak vats, most of which are 140 years old and have never been washed, the history of the winery thereby literally carried forward vintage after vintage. After fermentation, the wines are transferred into barriques (smaller oak barrels) made from Kentucky oak, whose staves have themselves been aged three years straight outside (including in the snow) and then three years inside. There are roughly 14,000 such barrels at R. López de Heredia, each made by hand.


Once in barrique, the wines undergo three to four years of élevage (the “raising” period between fermentation and bottling, often thought of as a wine’s adolescence), during which they are racked twice annually by hand. Racking is the process of moving a wine as it raises from one container to another in order to help sediment settle; López de Heredia performs no filtration on its wines. Temperature during fermentation and élevage is controlled by the opening and closing of doors to the cellar.

Then, there’s the bottle age, the most obvious and most thrilling distinguishing characteristic of traditional Rioja generally, and of R. López de Heredia in the extreme.

Once in bottle, the wines are held there from three to 10 years depending on classification (crianza, reserva, gran reserva). Here are the current vintages for the R. López de Heredia wines available in Maine (distributed by Mariner): 2002, 1996, 1991 and 1987 for the whites; 2005, 2003, 1999, 1991 for the reds.

Classic Rioja bodegas basically don’t trust us. They know that despite all the vociferous entreaties from retailers and writers, and because of the cash-flow limitations on sommeliers, most wine-drinkers will not keep the bottles they buy unopened long enough for the wines to mature fully. Most wineries all over the world throw up their hands at this. In Rioja, they take on the burden we’re too poor, impatient or unruly to take on ourselves, holding bottles back until they are deemed ready to drink, un-decanted. (Even at that point, the great wines can age much, much longer in your home or restaurant.)

Most importantly, due in part to the careful, loving and uncommon viticulture and vinification practices of R. López de Heredia, but especially due to the long bottle aging and late releases, these wines present a vast number of aromas, flavors and textures that simply are not available in other wines.

The majority of wines on the market all lean together. They taste the same. Variations arise mostly from column A/B/C ratios of fruit, acidity and tannin. They rarely pierce the veil, rarely peek into the heavens where planets rather than earthbound fruits reside. Such cosmic traits unique to old wines remain out of reach for most people, because letting wines mature requires time, discipline and money.


The wines of R. López de Heredia require money, too, for sure. But the value they offer is incontestable. They acquire a smoothness, richness and fineness that young wines are too raucous to understand. Instead of tasting fruits, you taste wine itself. My notes for the whites include words like salt, nuts, straw, chicken broth, honey, acacia, but also the phrase “no metaphors, no analogies! these aren’t ‘like’ anything, they are something.”

For the reds, which all are savory, gentle yet probing, I wrote “the lyrics to Neil Young’s ‘Old Man.’ ” I meant that I heard a conversation between young and old, alternately tense and tender, the expedient and the eternal getting to know one another. Perhaps this is why the wines remain so fresh and even crisp despite their age, and why alcohol levels are usually below 13 percent.

In even the Crianza red, the Cubillio 2005 ($27), the freshness and pristine clarity are offset by a seriousness and grandeur most Riojas wait decades to attempt. The Tondonia 1999 Reserva ($45) goes so deep, multifaceted, balsamic and mysterious you’d swear you’ve entered a tale from Chaucer. The profundity of the 1991 Gran Reserva Tondonia ($100), for which the closest cognates are Barbaresco or Burgundy, cannot be spoken of.

In the long R. López de Heredia dinner of my dreams, I would drink the whites after the reds. Well, I’d start the meal with the Gravonia Crianza 2002 ($34), creamy and vinous, alongside a curry or spice-rubbed vegetables and shrimp off the grill. Then to the reds for more food, and then to the impossibly spherical, richly resinous Tondonia Reserva 1996 ($44) as it grew time to draw toward meditation. That wine ages six years in bottle, while the Tondonia Gran Reservas 1991 and 1987 ($100) see 10 in barrel and 10 more in bottle. And are exceptionally lively. And have more vigor and curiosity than we do. I preferred the 1991, feeling its stories more clearly told and capable of even more time under cork to continue becoming.

What I’m really looking forward to is the release of the next rosé, the 2008. It will be released to the market in 2017.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:


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