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The most traditional bodega in Rioja: R. López de Heredia (Part 1)

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This blog is an adaptation of an article published in La Revue du vin de France (Mandarin Edition) in January 2013.

Some of you will already know everything I have to say about the wines of this bodega, and to these readers I say: please feel free to move on. But I suspect some of you do not, and there is no middle ground with unique wines like those from the house of Heredia! Either way, I would like to share with you the story of my discovery of this (literally) cobwebbed corner of the global wine cellar.
My story begins in a remote corner of Wiltshire, a two hour drive west from London. Situated in a tiny village is a remarkable restaurant: The Harrow at Little Bedwyn. It is run by Roger and Sue Jones – Roger is the chef and Sue the maître d’. The Guide Michelin has awarded them a star on account of the very fine cooking and service, and no doubt their extensive wine cellar has also helped. Roger is a not infrequent contributor to Decanter magazine on account of his pioneering work exploring Australian wines in particular. The range of Australian wines in the restaurant cellar is impressive, but what makes The Harrow truly remarkable is to be found tucked away in one corner of the cellar: the greatest store in Britain, and possibly anywhere outside the bodega itself, of the wines of R. López de Heredia. Here, a couple of shelves and cases hold Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva vintages from Heredia stretching back nearly a century to 1920.
For those of you not already familiar with these wines, here is a brief profile. The winery in question was founded by Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta in 1877, in the town of Haro in Rioja Alta. Its methods were regarded as innovative then but have not changed since – there is no need – so today Heredia stands as the bastion of traditional Rioja. It has four vineyards: Tondonia, Zaco, Cubillas and Bosque, producing red, rosé and white wines. The Tinto and Rosé are both very fine wines, but it is for the whites – Viña Tondonia Blanco and especially the Blanco Gran Reserva on which we will focus – that Heredia is most famous. (You may be unaware that until the seventies more white wine was produced in La Rioja than red.)
I first encountered these wines at a dinner in London in the spring of 2012 hosted by Berry Bros & Rudd. The guest of honour was María Jose López de Heredia, the charming great grand-daughter of the founder who now runs the winery, and she had brought some of her best wines for us to enjoy. Between courses, María José was articulate and voluble on the history and characteristics of her wines (impressively and thankfully in English). The Blanco Gran Reserva was quite unlike any white wine I had ever tasted, simultaneously delicious yet mysterious. I had the good fortune of being seated next to her and was therefore able to ask her all my many questions.
So what is Viña Tondonia? The encépagement is 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia. It is fermented in very old 60 hl Spanish casks, their insides thick with tartrate crystals, then aged in barrel, the period varying between the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
I discovered that Heredia is uniquely permitted to declare its own GR vintages independently of DOC Rioja, and that the most recent GR on the market at the time of writing is the 1991!

Part 2 of this blog will attempt to describe the unique character of the Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva.

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