Day 19.2: The Future of Spanish Wine?? (Part II) – Talking about Tondonia
Linda Milagros Violago is a sommelier at Trio in Malmo, Sweden and has previously been at Mugaritz in Spain, and Charlie Trotters in Chicago.
Working as a sommelier, I obviously get to taste a lot of wines throughout my day. When it is a list with which I am familiar, there are generally no surprises: I’ve chosen the wines, I know what to expect. Of course, it is always a treat to try older wines that don´t move very much to observe their evolution. When it is with a new list, i.e. when I am starting a new gig, I obviously have to pay more attention. This is even more important if I am in a new country and seeing wines that I may never have seen before.
I was a Tondonia virgin when I first arrived in Spain. I had heard the name, of course, but never really knew anything about the wine or the bodega. I had previously tasted red Rioja from the 1970’s and liked what I had tried but…white Rioja?! And then one evening, in my early days in Spain, the 1973 Viña Tondonia Blanco was ordered. Apart from an old German Riesling, I have no recollection of ever tasting a white wine over thirty years old tasting so fresh. It was indeed a revelation and became one of those few wines that I couldn’t get out of my mind. Every bottle after that – from vintages 1968, 1970 and 1973 – was always shocking in its freshness and vitality.
It was over six months later that I finally met the petite and enthusiastic María José López de Heredia. She had come to the restaurant for dinner and we had both wanted to meet one another. We immediately hit it off. We talked about wine, travel, food, holidays, work and on and on and on and promised each other that we would see each other again (soon) in her bodega.
(Running into María José at Renaissance des Appellations tasting, VinExpo 2009. She’s particularly happy because she is there as a taster, not presenter.
A Little Bit o’ Background
Bodega López de Heredia was founded by María José’s great-grandfather, Chilean-born Don Rafael, 133 years ago. As the story goes, Don Rafael followed the lead of the French négociants that had come to the area post phylloxera to find alternative vineyard sources. He figured they were on to something and decided that the Rioja area was the ideal place to plant vines and make wine. In 1877 he began the design and construction of the winery buildings that still stand today in Haro. In 1913, he began planting vines.
Very little has been changed in the production of this wine. Together with her sister, Mercedes, and her brother, Julio César, María José oversees the family business, adhering to Don Rafael’s vision: making wine made from grapes grown only in their own vineyards, using natural yeasts, long ageing in beautiful, large, old oak barrels – longer than is required by the Consejo Regulador – and no filtration. As María José explained to me, “If the way in which one works is good and gives good results, why change? Moreover, if we get more and more clients who tell us ‘Please, don’t change!’ why would we change?” This remains one of the few Rioja family-run wineries still run by the family that founded it.
I have had many discussions defending their wines to critics that think that they are too “old-school,” “too traditional” (what does THAT mean, anyways?), “backwards,” and who accuse them of not evolving. It is easy to forget that change and modernity doesn’t always mean better. Given that I don’t understand the arguments of the critics, I am happy to agree to disagree. After all, it is about personal taste. I wanted to get into a lengthy rant about points, but this is neither the time nor the place. Let’s just say that (speaking from the point of view of someone who has bought wine and worked in the market for a number of years) the wines of López de Heredia are highly underrated and underappreciated in its own country.
In the vines, there is no use of any chemicals, although they do occasionally use sulfur and/or copper sulphate “when necessary.” This point along with the fact that they have large-ish production (a few hundred thousand bottles annually) is what may upset the natural wine proponents. Indeed, earlier this week on this blog, the winery was called “almost industrial,” and was followed by a number of comments (see Day 10 in case you missed the exchange). Ironically, a totally different point of view to that expressed to me when I was living in Spain.
María José and I have discussed at length the plight of Rioja wines (and that of Spanish wines in general) as we see a future of shady rule changes to the Denominación(es) that seem to have nothing to do with tradition (i.e. the culture of wine life) and respect for the wine, and more to do with international sales and trends. I have written elsewhere that I have observed a certain misunderstanding and perhaps lack of pride as the possible reasons for the fluid regulations of the Consejo Regulador in Rioja. When asked if I think things have gotten better, I respond with skepticism. So… Are the wines of López de Heredia “natural” in the way that we have all discussed on this and other forums? No. Are they “industrial?” No. And I don’t think that size always counts (reference to vineyard size and total production). Does smaller production always mean better? We all know that isn’t true. Look, I like the old wines (pre-1980s) from this winery. I like what they do. And for the size that they are, I think they are doing a good job and as close to natural as they get in Spain. In Spain, we are seeing a trend of wines labeled “organic, biodynamic, etc. etc. etc.” because it is in fashion. This winery has been doing what they’ve been doing for a long time. Quite frankly, I’ll drink these wines over most other Spanish wines any day.
It was a chilly February morning that we piled into the car and drove south to Rioja. I had been in only a handful of bodegas and all had been modern (i.e. young and some were pretty flashy). I was really looking forward to this visit. Apart from the store, a new addition designed by Zaha Hadid, the buildings were old and crusty (in a good way). Tasting in “el Cementerio,” where all the old vintages are kept, was a blast! Wines tasted included the Bosconia from 1964 and the Tondonia Blanco from 1968. Again, I experienced a freshness (yes, freshness), especially in the white wine, that was completely unexpected. The medium-bodied whites still had lively acidity and loads of complex flavours that evolved over a couple of hours. And the Bosconia was earthy and light and would have been a perfect complement for any of the food that we were serving at our restaurant at the time – i.e. unlike most Spanish wines in the market which would have overpowered our food.
“El Cementerio – The Cemetary” Photo by Iñaki Rodríguez
Over time working at Mugaritz, I sold many wines from 1981 and older. The last time I had the good fortune of trying these wines was in September of last year. Bipin Desai was in the house. That’s all I need to say. María José joined in for the fun. Below are the wines we tried. Unfortunately, not visible are the 1947 and 1954 Viña Tondonia reds.
September, 2009 – wines tasted
The whites from 1968, 1970 and 1973, all a little waxy (a character that I have always found in their whites) were remarkably fresh, the 1973 being the favourite of all. Definitely it showed age, but there were still dried fruits, minerals, herbaceous notes and bright acidity. The reds showed more oxidation and earthier tones and were perhaps a little less vibrant than the whites, although the Bosconia and Viña Tondonia from 1954 still had great acidity. Even the 1947 was still alive. To be able to taste wines from this region, with this much age, and still find them palatable (which we all did) is a testament to the care that went into the wines. I doubt that any industrial/commercial (whatever you want to call them) wines made today will retain their freshness in 60 years’ time. More than just about any other Spanish wines that I have tasted, these wines hold me captive. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Note: Today is a two part post, so be sure to check out: https://saignee.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/day-19-1-pithon-paille/
Follow day by day here: https://saignee.wordpress.com/32-days-of-natural-wine-links/
Up Next: Jarred from Detroit goes into the thunderdome of Natural Wine, or; Maybe i just wanted use a Mad Max reference.