Every great wine has an element of mystery to it, but Rioja can feel particularly obscure. Between the four-tiered classification system, the sometimes unusual grapes (graciano isn’t exactly ubiquitous), and the fact that Rioja includes red, white, rose, and sparkling wine, there’s a lot for even the most dedicated enophile to keep track of.
To complicate matters further, a stylistic schism has recently emerged among Rioja’s red wine makers: Traditional versus modern. Traditionally, Rioja’s red wines focused a lot on maturation, including oak and bottle maturation. Those wines are tremendously delicious, but consumer preference for fruitier wines has given rise to a more modern style of winemaking that eschews long barrel aging in favor of a fresher, lusher style. Both styles can be delicious, but for the drinker, it can be hard to know which style you’re getting based on the label alone.
In the case of the producer we’re spotlighting this month, we can clear up any potential confusion right now: R. Lopez de Heredia is firmly in the traditional camp. Founded 142 years ago, this remarkable bodega in Rioja Alta is rightfully recognized as one of the world’s great winemakers. We were thrilled to get to share a bottle of R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Todonia Reserva with some of our club members recently. Here’s what makes this family-owned producer so special.
Lopez de Heredia was founded by a Chilean winemaker named Don Rafael López de Heredia. In Spain to study wine, he found himself drawn to a then little-known region in northern Spain called Rioja Alta.
Bordeaux winemakers still recovering from the devastating epidemic of phylloxera that began in 1863 had traveled to Rioja in search of new, promising regions where they could make wine. With them, they brought the distinctive Bordeaux philosophy, a style of winemaking that favors the use of small barrels for maturation and blending different grape varieties.
The impact of these new techniques dramatically improved the quality of the wines being made in Rioja, drawing the attention of Don Rafael. Inspired by the potential of this emerging region, he founded his own bodega, R. Lopez de Heredia, in 1877.
Over the years, R. Lopez de Heredia has grown to encompass four different vineyards: Viña Cubillo, Viña Bosconia, Viña Zaconia, and Viña Todonia. Together, they comprise more than 170 hectares. Currently, about 110 hectares are planted to vines, with the other 60 hectares in cereal rotation to ensure soil health and fertility. Those 110 hectares are plenty, though—the annual harvest at R. Lopez de Heredia is over 1.7 million pounds of grapes each year.
That vast size means that R. Lopez de Heredia has the privilege of being a wholly estate winemaker, utilizing only the grapes it grows itself. That’s important because it gives them total control over the grape growing process, from initial clonal selection all the way to the ultimate harvest date. In addition to the classic red varieties of tempranillo, garnacho, graciano, and mazuelo, R. Lopez de Heredia also grows viura and malvasia for white wines.
While tempranillo is by far the most famous of Rioja’s red grapes, R. Lopez de Heredia believes blending it with other varieties is essential. “A greater proportion of tempranillo would give wines that are too consistent and pasty,” they say, “with strong dark colors and a bland palate.” Each of the other three red grapes R. Lopez de Heredia grows plays a key role in the blend. garnacho increases alcohol, important in Rioja Alta’s relatively cooler climate, while mazuelo and graciano add aromatic intensity, freshness, acidity, and structure as well as making it possible for these wines to age successfully for a very, very long time. (R. Lopez de Heredia reportedly still has some bottles of the 1883 vintage stored away in its cellar!)
For traditional Rioja producers, winemaking is just as important as grape variety. At R. Lopez de Heredia, things are done in much the same way as they were nearly 150 years ago, which means a focus on blending, active maturation, and the prolonged use of old American oak barrels.
Historically, Rioja has favored old American oak rather than new French oak as a barrel material. Those old American oak casks layer in subtle flavors of vanilla, coconut, and green herbs while also giving the wine opportunity to gently oxidize, an important part of Rioja’s traditional maturation. That oxidation gives the wines gentle flavors of leather, dried fruit, and earth, as well as less primary fruit character.
However, international preferences for fresh and fruity wines, as well as the signature buttery and toasty flavors of French oak, have led many contemporary producers to swap out their old American oak barrels for new French ones, which have a very different influence on the wine. One isn’t “better” than the other, but traditionalists are beginning to mourn the loss of those older styles.
Fortunately for traditionalists everywhere, as long as R. Lopez de Heredia is around, that historic style isn’t going anywhere. “Lopez de Heredia will never change its approach, for two reasons,” Maria José Lopez de Heredia, a member of the current generation of ownership, told Wine Searcher in a recent story. “Firstly, our customers tell us that they like our historical approach to Rioja production and the resulting wine style it gives. Secondly, we don’t desire change; we like the results of what we do.” In a world that favors the new, the next, the flashy, and the trendy, there’s something refreshing about sticking to your guns.
For more information: http://www.lopezdeheredia.com