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The most traditional bodega in Rioja: R. López de Heredia (Part 2)

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In part 1 of this blog I wrote about my introduction to this bastion of tradition among bodegas in Rioja. We pick up the story about the most distinctive of their wines, the Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva. This aged white wine, like the red Gran Reserva, spends nearly ten years maturing in barrel, during which time the wine is racked twice a year – that is, piped to another barrel so as to leave the lees behind. Cash flow is not king at Heredia – there are 12,900 barrels in the 135 year old cellars.

Finally the wine is drawn off, clarified with egg whites but not filtered, and bottled, the corks then being sealed with red wax. Even once bottled, the GR spends several more years in the cellars. Slumbering peacefully in the cool but damp air, the bottles all but disappear behind a curtain of cobwebs; the spiders are not just tolerated but encouraged, for they eat the fruit flies that would otherwise attack the corks.

This ageing regime is far in excess of the requirements laid down by Rioja DOCg for white Gran Reserva, which is at least one year in barrel and a minimum of four years in the cellar in total.

Eventually judged ready, the bottles are brought up, washed and labelled; the bottle is caged in a trellis of gold wire, and then wrapped in tissue paper printed with the family crest. Though beautiful to behold, the original purpose of the wax seal and cage was in fact mundane: to prevent substitution of inferior wine, a trick played on the Nazi regime at every opportunity during the second world war.

Once on the market, this wine is ready for drinking, but there is no rush! Like a good Sauternes, it keeps for decades, deepening in colour and gaining complexity. But this is not a sweet wine. On first acquaintance it is obviously dry, but to make a fuller description is not so easy; indeed, Maria-Jose advises not even to try! There is a beautiful backbone of acidity that never seems to fade, but what are the flavours that envelope it? Quince maybe, or preserved lemons, but at the same time there is a hint of salt like a Manzanilla. It taxes even Masters of Wine such as Simon Field of Berry Bros & Rudd, who wrote as their buyer for Spain, of the 1991 vintage:

‘The taster’s pen gets carried away ( probably because he finds it hard to spit the wine out during a professional tasting) and starts writing, in a somewhat inchoate fashion, a ‘sentence’ along the following lines; waxy, banana, decadent, lanolin, pear-skin, citron pressé, bitter sweet symphony, wonderful, is there any more…..…What more is there to say?’

No, there is nothing more to say; well, just one thing: taste some yourself, perhaps at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, and discover the bodega that dances to a different beat. The Blanco should be chilled just slightly – no need to decant – and drunk either by itself, perhaps as an aperitif, or with tapas, seafood, smoked salmon, or fish or chicken in a creamy sauce – and it’s one of the few wines that complements asparagus perfectly.

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