The other night I had reason to celebrate so I headed downstairs to find something a little special. I was making Pan-Fried Chickpeas with Chorizo, a recipe from Mark Bittman that I have quickly come to love. Bittman says the recipe is from somewhere in Spain (though he dosn’t know precisely where). Given the menu, I thought I would pick something from Spain. When I think Spanish wine and one of the first things that comes to my mind is Lopez de Heredia — and a bottle of their “Viña Gravonia” Crianza Blanco Rioja seemed like the perfect choice.
For a hundred and thirty one years, three generations of the López de Heredia family have devoted themselves to producing unique and exceptional wines. The founder, Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic student in the art of wine making. He fell in love with the region and especially the area around Haro, the capital of the Rioja Alta region. There he observed a magical combination of soil and climate that would offer the perfect environment for producing wine. Around 1877, he began the design and construction of the complex that is today known as the López de Heredia, the oldest in Haro and one of the first three bodegas in the Rioja region.
I would consider Lopez de Heredia as not only one of the most iconic wineries in Rioja, but in all of Spain. Lopez de Heredia would probably be my first and last recommended stop on any exploration of Spanish wines. Their wines are unique, pure and virtually capture the definition of integrity.
When we were planning our time in San Sebastian last year, I really wanted to go to Asador Etxebarri which was really only possible if we rented a car. It seemed silly to just rent a car for lunch so I thought it might be a good idea to visit Lopez de Heredia as well. It was well worth the trip. Everyone there was extremely friendly and felt like I left with a real sense of the place (history, traditions, people, convictions, etc) — and an understanding of the attitude, focus and pride in everything they do.
Their tasting room was designed by Zaha Hadid, the notable British/Iraqi deconstructivist architect. It’s a beautiful space — and I loved how some of the old pavilion is enclosed in her design. It really captures how they have protected and celebrated tradition while at the same time embracing the modern. Many people might classify Lopez de Heredia as being very traditional, and while that is true — they do also continue to reflect, grow and evolve. They seem sincere in speaking of other bodegas in Rioja that fall into the modern camp, saying that variety is good for the consumer — and others should have the right to do things the way they see fit, just as they have their way of doing things.
The Lopez de Heredia way includes gentle handling in the vineyard, natural yeasts, artisanal methods, old barrels (including enormous wooden fermentation vessels that have been around for about as long as the winery) — all steeped in family tradition, love and huge dose of patience. As is often the case, many of those searching for the new have come full circle, back to where a select group (like Lopez de Heredia) have been all along. As Eric Asimov wrote in his column:
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. 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.
The cellars are just as impressive as the design of the tasting room. The walls are covered with layers of mold and cobwebs, which they contend are part of the terroir as well as beneficial to the wine and possibly even their good health (the mold is said to have some of the same antibacterial properties found in penicillin).
Empty bottles from historical vintages (including the first) are reminders of just how much history it has witnessed. Time and patience are consistent themes here. Rioja requires gran reserva wines to receive a minimum of six years of aging before they can be released. The current vintage for many gran reserva producers is 2001 — and López de Heredia has just released gran reservas from 1991 and 1987.
In addition to their reds, Lopez de Herdia also makes an amazing rosé (Lopez de Heredia Rioja Tondonia Rosé 1998) and the “Viña Gravonia” Crianza Blanco Rioja 1999 is also outstanding. The wine is 100 percent Viura from the estate. It is spends 4 years in barrel. It is racked twice a year and fined with fresh egg whites. Aromatics of orange blossom, caramel, sherry and some lemon peel. Rich and smoky on the palate, with poached pear, some orange and tropical fruit as well as sherry, hazelnut and mineral flavors. 12 percent alcohol. 28,900 bottle produced. Imported by Polaner Selections.
I love their wines and am not alone in thinking they are some of the most treasured in the wine world — and I appreciate them even more after having visited the winery. We eventually found our way to Asador Etxebarri, which was extremely difficult to find — but was worth every bit of effort. The drive from San Sebastian to Haro is certainly beautiful and including Lopez de Herdia and Etxebarri in the route made for a very memorable day.
Lopez de Heredia Rioja Tondonia Rosé 1998