Tradition Ascendant in Rioja
By ERIC ASIMOV
August 11, 2009
One of my stops on my recent trip to Spain was Rioja, where I was able to spend quite a bit of time at the venerable winery López de Heredia, which is the focus of my column this week.
As those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time may guess, I’ve had a long love affair with the wines of López de Heredia. In fact, my second post ever was about its wonderful rosado, which, unusually for any wine, let alone a rosé, is generally released when it’s about 10 years old.
It’s almost reflexive when talking about López to describe it as classic or unyielding, because it is quite immune to the trend-following that so often guides decision-making in the world of wine. That is true. But it took me this visit to realize that in its own way, López de Heredia is now a cutting-edge winery.
It’s a case of what goes around comes around, as forward-thinking winemakers have in many ways come around to López de Heredia’s ways of doing things. This is particularly true in the vineyard, where its gentle, natural viticultural approach is now the preferred approach my many of the world’s great producers. In the winery, it’s harder to say, except that Lopez’s gentle handling, reliance on natural yeasts and overall artisanal methods are likewise an ideal today.
Of course, the fact that Lopez uses old barrels, including enormous wooden fermentation vessels that have been around almost as long as the 132-year-old winery itself, leaves a lot of room for debate. Very few producers use barrels that old, though one that comes to mind is Biondi Santi in Montalcino.
Still, styles oscillate over the years, and I believe we are now retreating from an era of overly oaky wines, back to wines where the barrel regimen is as much if not more about imparting texture as it is flavor.
In fact, oaky flavors can be important in López de Heredia wines. All you have to do is taste one of its wonderful older white wines, like the 1991 reserva, to taste the hazelnut, coconut flavors of American oak beautifully integrated with the wine. And if you ever get a chance to taste a rare 1964 white, as I did in Rioja, you will be rewarded with a rich, pure wine tasting almost entirely of minerals.
The strange thing about López de Heredia is that because its wines have never changed, people tend to think of the company as a dour, humorless, rigid sort of place, haunted by the imperative of adhering to tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For instance, while the winery is largely a sturdy example of late 19th century architecture, the new boutique for visitors, designed by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, is fully in keeping with the non-linear architectural look of modern Rioja. It was in the boutique that I watched one afternoon as Maria José López de Heredia, along with her sister, Mercedes, and father, Pedro, about to turn 81, regaled tourists with a boisterous Spanish drinking song.
Many people might be surprised, for example, at some of the winery’s plans for tourism. Maria José, who often takes the lead role in public but runs the winery with her sister, father and brother, Julio César, would like to build a little train line to take tourists back and forth between the winery and its most famous vineyard, Viña Tondonia, just across the Ebro River.
“Why not?’’ she said. “It’s very important to teach people, and it’s easier to teach them if you give them a good time.’’
Of course, she has a serious reason as well. “It’s impossible for people to understand the soul of a wine if they don’t know how the grapes are grown,’’ she told me.
For people who do have the opportunity to visit López de Heredia, doubtless the most striking moment is seeing the thousands of bottles of gran reserva wines, aging in a cellar covered in mold and cobwebs. For people who are used to the squeaky clean hygiene of New World cellars (or for somebody like my mother, for example, who did not permit dirt in her kitchen) such a sight might prove troubling.
But the mold and cobwebs are typical of more than a few old Old World cellars, where they are considered an intrinsic part of the terroir. Maria José, for example, insists that the mold and webs are absolutely beneficial to the wines, and that cleaning them out under the mistaken notion of pursuing hygiene would have many unintended consequences.
“It’s protection, not affliction!’’ she said, and I don’t doubt her. Her wines, at least, are paragons of purity.