Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My winery and wine of the year

Lopez de Heredia
Rioja, Spain

Walking into the cellars at Lopez de Heredia was one of my most memorable experiences in the wine world. The glass tasting building has a cool decanter-shaped design by architect Zaha Hadid, so what's awaiting you underground is a shock.

Black mold and cobwebs, everywhere. You feel like you've stepped back in time, maybe to the Spanish Inquisition.

"Many wineries don't really use the cellar so they clean off the walls," says winemaker Mercedes Lopez de Heredia. "They don't want the mold. This is how a natural cellar really looks."

"Of the year" awards tend to go to new kids on the block -- people making innovations that have changed the market or industry.

But this year, tradition is the new black. Wine geeks aren't into pushing science forward anymore. Everybody's excited about open-air fermentation, cement tanks, native yeasts -- the way wine was made by our grandparents.

You could probably get more traditional than Lopez de Heredia. But this winery is so into age, it's freaky. The current release of their Vina Tondonia red wine, their flagship brand, is 1991. For the Vina Tondonia white, it's 1987. Even their bottom-of-the line Cubilla wine, a Crianza, has a 2001 current release.

"We are famous for not accelerating the making of a wine," Lopez de Heredia says.

And not just with wines -- they have some oak barrels that are 80 years old. Rather than buy new barrels, they prefer to replace individual broken staves on the old ones. For this, they have an onsite carpentry staff, which they keep busy by also making all their own doors.

"It costs more to repair barrels than to make new ones," Lopez de Heredia says. ""But it is better for the wines. We want the micro oxygenation of the wine to be as slow as possible. For us, oak is a way for the wine to get better but it must not taste of wood."

As for the cobwebs, she says, "The spiders are a natural way of taking care of fruit flies," which are a problem for the corks. This is an issue when you have whole racks of wines from 1890 sitting around in your cellar. But Lopez de Heredia says wines that are too old are a gamble, so she refuses to sell anything bottled before 1942.

Lopez de Heredia learned her excellent English as an exchange student in the US. She spent 12th grade in Kentucky.

"My father sent the family wine for Christmas," she said. "They were Baptists, they don't drink. They gave it away to some Catholic friends. I was 18. I couldn't believe I didn't have wine with Christmas. I drank a beer and they almost sent me back to Spain."

What I can't believe is that anyone would turn down the chance to try one of these wines, well-preserved by cobwebs and mold. I used flash to take a photo of one particularly ancient looking pile of bottles and noticed they were whites. Turned out they were from 1970, the year of Mercedes Lopez de Heredia's birth, and yes, they are for sale (if you ask). I asked to try one. To say she "dusted it off" doesn't really convey the amount of cleaning the bottle needed before it could be opened. But wow -- that was my most memorable wine of the year, from my most memorable winery visit of the year.

What's greatest about Lopez de Heredia is that your granddaughter might be able to go there, to that exact pile of wines, and buy a bottle, and it might be even better.

1970 Vina Tondonia Rioja white
The color is golden yellow, and despite its age and lack of filtering the wine is clear. Initially it smells of ripe pear, honey, dried apple and wildflowers. The floral complexity increases as it warms. On the palate, there's still plenty of acidity. I could write a lengthy paragraph about the flavors using just nouns. Here are a few: pear, dried apple, flowers, walnut bread, minerality, macadamia nuts, cashews, peanuts. It gets more and more nutty with air. The mouthfeel is mead-like, honeyed but completely dry. It's sensual and still very fresh. An amazing experience. I refused to leave the winery until we finished the last drop; the wine deserved our complete respect. 100 points.

This ran yesterday on Wine Review Online.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice post and good choice for winery of the year... your tour sounds like an amazing experience.

I just tried a great lineup of Heredia wines the other day: