López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva 1987
Although I focus a lot of my time on the Loire and Bordeaux I'm always keen to taste from beyond these regions, whether the wines be old favourites or new discoveries. Not only does this help me to keep a finger on the wine pulse of the 21st century, and thus maintain a context for the regions that particularly interest me, but these wines also offer unique intrinsic pleasures; no matter how fine the products of the vineyards dotted along the Layon, the Loir, the Ciron or the Garonne, they will never produce anything that resembles a Dönnhoff Spätlese from the Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle vineyard, or the Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial from Marqués de Murrieta, or a Vintage Port from the likes of Taylor's or Fonseca.
Actually, come to think of it, there are some wines made not that far from the Garonne that do look and taste a little like young Vintage Port, but that's a different story. And it doesn't really derail my argument; there are great wines made all over the world, and it's a shame not to at least glance at them from time to time, if not on occasion to drink more deeply. And one estate I've been keen to take a look at in this fashion for a long time is López de Heredia, one of Rioja's longest-established estates.
It seems fashionable to knock Rioja and its wines these days; if the wines spend enough time in oak for this to play a role in the final flavour profile then the wines are, in the eyes of some, old-fashioned old-timers, wines from a bygone era which would apparently do well to yield to the more modern, minerally and fruit-rich wines of today. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for concentration and savoury mineraliness in wine, but that's not primarily what Rioja is about - to me at least. Yes, traditionally-made gran reservas may startle with their intense, oak-bound fruit in their youth, but I say to those who decry the style, have you never experienced these wines with another ten or twenty (or more) years of bottle age after that first stark taste? Given time they show a spicy dried-fruit style that is unique to the region and thus indisputably Rioja, and more importantly the wines can develop a silky texture and feelings of great harmony and completeness that cannot be rivalled. Why would we want to lose this style from our wine tasting lexicon?
And sometimes I wonder: how does clamouring for a more modern, less oak-influenced style differ from being a card-carrying supporter of homogenisation? Am I exaggerating? I accept that just because new-wave wines might be less oak-influenced does not mean they will suddenly stop talking to us of Rioja; there is much more to the DNA of a wine region than the oak barrels. But it is surely the thin end of the wedge; to discard any part of a region's heritage in this fashion, no matter how small, surely diminishes it in some way. American oak is part of Rioja. To remove it, or change it, makes Rioja less unique, less tied to its past. Maria José López de Heredia, quoted by John Gilman in View from the Cellar (No. 19, Jan-Feb 2009) agrees, saying "the aromatics and flavours of American oak are, after nearly a century and a half, really part of the cultural heritage of the Rioja region". Having visited Rioja only a few years ago, and having savoured its wines for many years, I certainly wouldn't want the region to disconnect from such a grand heritage, either by aiming for richer fruit-driven wines, or by switching to French oak instead. Sadly some would say it is already too late, that many have already changed direction to follow one or other of these paths, and that there are few estates still making Rioja in the most traditional fashion.
Whether that is true or not, what we should perhaps look for in Rioja - or at least what I believe I should look for - is the highest quality within the style that I enjoy, and for me that is principally traditionally made wines, sometimes aged and silky smooth, sometimes stark and challenging, but never modern and never anything but very, very Spanish and thus very typical of this particular region of Spain. The wines of López de Heredia carry just such a reputation (indeed some would argue they are the only estate with such a reputation), and this recently released Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva (yes, the 1987 is a recent release) is typical. The wine itself is a blend of 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia from López de Heredia's Tondonia vineyard, held in old American oak barrels for nine years before bottling. The bottle itself is amazing; no-one could miss that the neck is sealed with a large dollop of wax over the cork rather than a modern capsule, but it is the ullage I found more remarkable, a bare millimetre of air sitting between the cork and wine. Once released into the glass the wine displays its fine golden hue, rich and appealing, but not so rich when we consider it already has 23 years behind it. The nose initially carries a blast of fennel, then following up with some dried fruits, candied and intense but not sweet. And thereafter fleeting moments of lanolin, oyster shell and roasted peach skin. The palate has a good substance, with a leaner midpalate than expected, although there follows a rising up of flesh and substance towards the end. There is a sour quality to the fruit, thankfully not over the top, in fact I find it rather appealing, and it is counterbalanced by very light notes of salty caramel. Overall a lovely sappy character and a good composition, the wine giving the pleasing sensation on the palate of gentle substance with a slightly detached feel, as if it is keen to maintain a distance from the senses that investigate it. Very good, and very long too. This has a long future ahead of it I think. 17.5+/20
Over the next year or two the wines of López de Heredia will be popping up on Winedoctor from time to time, in tastings and I am sure in my regular Weekend Wine feature too. Put simply....I can't wait! (20/9/10)