Untouched by science, Rioja winemaker sticks to her great-grandfather's ways
If you want to question everything you think you know about wine, spend an afternoon with Maria José Lopez de Heredia, a fourth-generation winemaker in Haro, capital of Rioja Alta.
Lopez de Heredia is gatekeeper to one of the most unusual wineries in Spain. She runs Vina Tondonia in the same way as her father, grandfather and great-grandfather did before her, committed to traditions that are untouched by modern science and yet produce bottles of enormous beauty.
Here, the white wines are routinely aged longer than reds. The wine is made in 5,000-litre oak vats with no temperature control besides open doors and windows for ventilation. The vats are the same ones in which Lopez de Heredia used to play hide and seek as a child. When they pull up vines that have become unproductive, they leave the ground for 10 to 15 years before replanting, and then do so with young plants grown in their own nursery.
The flagship gran reserva wine is bottled and corked by hand, then sealed under wax (all 15,000 bottles of it, although it is not made every year). In the underground cellars, 20 years worth of vintages are stored in nearly 13,000 barrels stacked five high in cobwebbed tunnels. Less than 1 per cent of the barrels are renewed each year, in a region where the vanilla sweetness of new oak has become a routine part of the taste profile. And after emptying the wine the barrels are cleaned with water from their own fountain.
There is a cooper onsite, producing one barrel per day and repairing older ones, but Vina Tondonia doesn't just produce its own barrels. The Lopez de Heredia family (Marie José works with her brother and sister) also travels to the Appalachian mountains in Virginia to choose the most suitable white oak trees, imports them back to Spain where they are cut into staves in the nearby region of Cantabria, then the staves dried for 36 months in their Haro winery. Nothing is mechanised. Each barrel is signed and dated with origin, level of toast imparted to the oak during production and the details of any repairs.
The story of Vina Tondonia dates back to the mid-19th century. At the time, Rioja was gaining a name in France as a source of high-quality grapes to replace those being devastated in their own vineyards by the phylloxera epidemic. Don Rafael López de Heredia was attracted by the same potential and, in 1877, began the design and construction of Bodega López de Heredia Vina Tondonia. It is the oldest winery in Haro and even today parts of his original plans are unfinished and awaiting completion. "No changes have been made that were not part of his original design," his great granddaughter tells me.
The current generation is not clinging to tradition without an understanding of modern winemaking. Maria José has studied oenology, first in Rioja then Montpellier, France.
"When I first came back from wine school, I was full of new ideas. The lack of temperature control means that sometimes we get stuck fermentations during winemaking. When I suggested remedies, my father would say, 'Calm down, relax, it will work itself out.' Today I see he was right. We've been doing things this way for 138 years and it has always worked.
"I understand we have to intervene in the winemaking process or we will get vinegar. But we make choices that help - for example, we use 70 per cent tempranillo grapes, but also use grenache, graciano, malvasia and viura. Together they create naturally lower alcohol wines than some in Rioja, so temperature control during fermentation isn't so critical - it is high sugar that drives temperatures dangerously high. And we watch it continually.
"Then in the cellars we have a system for protecting the wines during ageing, even with the vast number of barrels. Every six months, three groups of three people move more than 60 barrels per day, rotate them, draining out the wine, cleaning the barrels then putting the wine back. This naturally removes the sediment as we don't filter the finished wines."
The results are astonishing - the whites have an oxidised character with a nose that becomes richer and more complex with a decade of ageing. The reds - my favourite was the 1994 gran reserva - are a delicate blend of gentle red fruits and fragrant roses.
These are wines to try to understand and to accept that you may never truly be able to do so - just as Lopez de Heredia has done.
Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine and travel writer