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Fizz Fit for the New Year

December 28, 2011 8:52 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink, Eat, Learn

Bubbly is a basic when ringing in the New Year – but there are some differences between the different bottles that go “pop”. Here’s a quick guide to what you need to know – and pick – to toast with on the stroke of midnight.

What we most commonly toast with is known as méthode traditionnelle – or rather wine that’s made in the signature style of the most famous and most prestigious wine of all-time; champagne.

To be labelled as Champagne, a wine must be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France – in one of the five districts of The Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. These are the traditional wines chosen to ring in the new year, and include famous brand names like Taittinger (James Bond’s favorite), Bollinger, Perrier-Jouet and Moët & Chandon.

Throughout the world, however, there are thousands of vineyards that produce wine made with the same grapes, and in the same style, as champagne. Although they’re not allowed to label it as such, it has most of the same characteristics and increasingly rival the “original” for quality.

Champagne-style wine is unique because the fermentation process gives it the signature effervescent bubbles. This is achieved by first fermenting grapes in a regular wine vat, and then bottling them and adding additional yeast and sugar. The second fermentation saturates the wine with carbon dioxide; which is what causes the cork to burst out of the bottle upon opening.

Whether produced in Reims, or in any of the hundreds of other sparkling wine regions of the world, the final designation of the wine depends on how much sugar is added after the secondary fermentation to balance the acidity. Doux or demi-sec wine has a high sugar content, while the most popular designation, brut, has very little sugar (and brut nature has none.)

There are other methods for producing sparkling wine, however – and many of these alternatives are equally popular on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps the most popular is the Italian spumante – which is made in a style similar to traditional champagne, but using sweeter grapes, like Moscato. The result is a sweeter wine with a lower alcohol content. An even sweeter and less alcoholic variety is frizzante, which has about as much alcohol in it as beer.

Metodo Italiano is another Italian variety, in which the secondary fermentation is carried out in a stainless-steel vat, rather than in the bottle. The most famous wine made in this style – and one of the most popular alternatives to champagne – is classic Prosecco.

In England and Northern France, a popular sparkling product is Cidre, or Perry. This is made from fermenting apples (in the case of cider) or pears (with perry) to produce a fizzy beverage similar to beer. Perry, especially, is often sold in champagne-style bottles and marketed for celebratory events – so much so that champagne wine producers even attempted to have it banned at the turn of the 21st century. However, neither of these products are strictly “wine” in the classical sense.

The final method for producing sparkling wine is considered “cheating” – so much so that its actually illegal in the European Union. This is because it involves injecting carbon dioxide into traditional white wine – in much the same way bubbles are injected into Coca Cola or lemonade. Although the finished product is undeniably inferior to more traditional “bubbly” wine products, carbonated wine remains a popular – and cheap – alternative to champagne throughout the world (and speaking from experience, some of it’s not all that bad.)

Ultimately, though, whatever you choose to toast 2012 with is less important than those you choose to toast it with – and the hopes and ambitions you have for the coming twelve months. Happy New Year!


2005 Marques de Riscal Reserva

I’ve come to the conclusion that you drink wine with more than just your nose and taste buds – your memory also plays an important part in the process.

That’s why people often gravitate towards the same grapes, the same terroirs and the same brands when they choose their wine. Certainly, for me, memory is the primary reason I’ve developed a mania for wines from La Rioja, in Spain.

This February, I was lucky enough to travel with Jody Ness and the crew of Wine Portfolio to experience the wines of this venerable region first-hand; and it’s colored my experience of drinking them ever since.

Just a whiff of the earthy combination of mountain-grown Tempranillo and old oak is enough to whisk me back to the amazing food, stunning scenario and warm hospitality I experienced on my trip to Spain.

But there’s more to it than that.

Touring some of the region’s most traditional wineries – and its most innovative – gave me an appreciation for the heritage, history and pride that goes into making every bottle of Rioja.

For example, when I bought a bottle of 2005 Marques de Riscal Reserva today, I chose that wine because I’d been lucky enough to visit the Bodega where it was made. While there, I witnessed every step of the journey that turns a plump, juicy grape into a rich, rewarding drop of wine.

It’s knowing that journey – and the passion and precision which went into it – which makes every mouthful so flavorful. 

Let me share the journey my wine went on with you. It makes it taste just that much better:

Every bottle of Marques de Riscal starts life here, at Bodega Riscal. This is the stunning hotel that overlooks the winery, designed by Frank O. Gehry.

Surrounding the Bodega, and for hundreds of acres all around, are the vineyards that supply Marques de Riscal with their signature grapes.

Riscal is famous for how gently they treat their grapes. These whirling scoops sort them while minimizing bruising and broken skin.

Grape juice becomes wine on its first fermentation; in one of the enormous stainless steel vats far below the cobblestones of the Bodega.

Between fermentations, every drop of juice is squeezed from the grape pulp using gigantic wooden presses little different to those used a century or more earlier.

The second fermentation, one floor higher, adds character and clarity.

After fermentation, each batch is painstakingly analysed to ensure perfection; one of the ways in which traditional vineyards like Marques de Riscal have remained on the cutting edge.

Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva earn their distinctive character here, in oak barrels deep beneath the cobblestones.

After many months, the wine is racked and bottles. Here, a shipment of corks arrives to seal the bottles.

Each bottle is aged to perfection in the sprawling cellars of Bodega Riscal - sometimes for months, sometimes for decades.

Finally, each bottle is labelled and prepared for sale. At Marques de Riscal, a foil netting is added as a nod to the days when the unscrupulous would refill bottles from La Rioja with inferior produce.


Corked! A Movie Review.

October 11, 2011 1:17 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink

Wine aficionados with Netflix can find some vintage humor in the 2009 “mockumentry” Corked!

Poking fun at the pretension of California’s wine industry, it features a cast of colorful characters who teeter perilously between stereotype and satire.

The plot sees a crew of filmmakers descend on Sonoma to cover the local “Golden Harvest Awards”, visiting four distinctly different vineyards in the process.

One is a former family-run winery taken over by a Texas billionaire; who plants his irresponsible son in charge (with predictably dire consequences.) Another is run by a snooty connoisseur who finds himself rebuffed by the same “wine snob elite” he’s trying desperately to become a member of.

Financial misfortune and industrial skullduggery also contribute to the chaos; loosely modeled on the real-life machinations that Sonoma’s winemakers sometimes fall foul of.

Although Corked! roasts its targets with a sometimes unnecessarily broad brush, the comedy is reverent to the industry. Two of the minor supporting characters, for example, truly make the movie with their introduction to Sonoma.

A retired midwestern couple, who have travelled to California to indulge their newly adopted passion for wine, they get rebuffed by the cellar snobs and instead spend a day picking grapes with the Mexican day laborers.

After hours spent picking grapes in the blazing sun, the wife remarks just how hard it all was; gaining an appreciation for what the laborers do (one that their employers didn’t seem to.) The husband, meanwhile, looks at his sweaty, exhausted wife and points out that she’s never looked lovelier. It’s sweet – and kind of a reminder of what wine and winemaking is really all about.

Although the rest of the characters sometimes border on the clumsily stereotypical, Corked! scores points for never making fun of wine itself, or the people who enjoy it – just the pretension surrounding high–dollar California wine. As a result, wine drinkers who feel like they’re the butt of any of the jokes might want to ask themselves if, deep down, they actually deserved to be.

Corked! (2009)

28 Entertainment

Directed by: Ross Clenenden, Paul Hawley.
Written by: Brian A. Hoffman, Devin Westberg, Ross Clenenden, Paul Hawley, Miguel Medina
Starring: Ross Clenenden, Martina Finch, Brian A. Hoffman, Kimbell Jackson, Steve Lucanic, Marte Mejstrik


Is the 9/11 Wine Exploitative?

August 23, 2011 1:55 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Learn

Lieb Cellars of Long Island, NY, are producing a special 9/11 anniversary wine – but does that pay tribute to those we lost on September 11, 2011, or merely exploit their memory?

9/11 MEMORIAL Commemorative Merlot is described as: "a soft straw-yellow color, with dominant flavors of fresh green apples, tropical citrus and pineapples with a toasty vanilla finish."

To mark the tenth anniversary of the devastating terrorist attack that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000, a Long Island winery is releasing a special 2010 vintage Merlot, with some of the proceeds going to the 9/11 memorial being built at Ground Zero.

“Lieb Cellars has been a proud supporter of the 9/11 Memorial since 2004 through the SEPTEMBER’S MISSION FOUNDATION,” reads the website of Lieb Cellars, under the Wines for Good Causes tab. “We’re honored to produce this wine for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, to honor and remember the victims of the terror attacks at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, PA.”

But not everybody finds this gesture touching. In fact, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, whose former New York eatery Les Halles was planning to serve the wine, condemned the release on his Twitter account.

He ranted: “Holy sh*t! That’s vomit inducing. What kind of piece of sh*t would create such a product? 911Wine?!!? Are you out your MIND?!! EPIC FAIL.” He also pledged to try and have the wine taken off the shelves of his old restaurant. “I no longer work there and have no stake but think I can sway management. Will fix if I have to buy it all and give every cent.”

New York City’s first responders where equally outraged, labeling the vintage “blood wine” and tweeting: “It’s never time for 9/11 Memorial & Museum Wine.” They pointed out the hypocrisy behind Lieb Winery pledging between 6-10% of the proceeds from their 9/11 wine to the 9/11 Memorial, whereas: “They donate 20% of profits from the memorial wine they made for their dog.”

But the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, who approved the wine, and Lieb Cellars themselves have so far refused to comment on the controversy; leaving some questions about whether this was a well-intentioned charitable act as they claim, or, as Bourdain described it, “grotesque, exploitative bullsh*t.”

The New York first responders complain: “Lieb Cellars gives 6-10% of the profit and keep 90-94% of it for themselves.” Yet on their website they plege 6-10% of the “sales” of the wine, not profits, so its difficult to know whether that refers to net or gross proceeds; a significant difference. Winemaking on Long Island is not known to have a magnificent profit margin, so 6-10% of “sales” might equal 100% of profits.

Similarly, the wine is being sold with the blessing and cooperation of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which means that whatever blame leveled at Lieb Cellars for “exploiting” the twin towers tragedy should be equally directed at that organization – already mired in controversy and criticism over its fundraising efforts.

So what do you think? Is a 9/11 tribute wine is appropriate? And would you consider buying it? Or is it just a cynical ploy to cash in on a national tragedy?


Prince William and Kate will toast their wedding with non-vintage Pol Roger

As the resident Brit, my colleagues and friends state-side are constantly quizzing me about the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. To be honest, I’m not much of an authority on royal happenings – but I am at least able to shed some light on what the three-hundred guests toasting the royal nuptials will be drinking.

The word on the street is that William and Kate personally requested non-vintage champagne from Epernay-based, family owned winery Pol Roger – most likely their Brut Réserve.

If you’re not familiar with Pol Roger, don’t feel bad. As a fairly small, if venerable, winemaker, their products are currently only available in Europe and Australia – retailing for around 30 EUR for non-vintage. Despite a fairly exclusive market share, Pol Roger have both history and reputation to boast about. They’ve been making champagne since 1849 and list Sir Winston Churchill as their most loyal customer (they even produce a vintage Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill to recognize that fact.)

If you’re looking to toast the royal wedding and don’t have access to Pol Roger, a good alternative that also comes with royal approval is classic, non-vintage Bollinger. This was the fizz Prince Charles toasted with at both his bachelor party and his wedding to Princess Diana in 1981.


Is this beer… or wine?

March 24, 2011 8:28 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink

Brewed with Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc grape juice

There are few wine lovers who don’t also appreciate a good glass of beer – and Stones Vertical Epic Ale attempts to bridge that gap by adding juice from Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes to this beer’s second fermentation.

Aficionados will buy the 10.10.10 edition and shelve it until the official ‘opening’ date of 12.12.12 – but if, like me, you’re impatient, this Epic Ale is ready to drink now – and is a treat.

Brewed in classic Belgian Pale Ale style, Epic Ale weighs in at a heft 9.5% a.b.v. – not far off wine itself – and any added sweetness from the grape juice has converted to alcohol during the fermentation process for a dry, delicious finish that takes this beer into territory any wine lover would be comfortable exploring.


Wine… With a silencer!

March 22, 2011 9:35 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink

The Ravi instantly chills red or white wine to the correct temperature

A very dear friend of mine, Lauren, was inspired by my blog post Drink Like James Bond – so she gave me a wine gadget even 007 would be proud of: The Ravi Instant Solution Wine Chiller.

“It’s like a silencer,” she told me, “for your wine.” And Lauren was kind of right. The Ravi attaches to the top of a wine bottle the same way James Bond’s silencer screws into the top of his 7.65mm Walther PPK.

But fortunately the Ravi has a much more practical purpose. This cunning three-piece gadget contains a chilled metal core which instantly cools wine poured through it. Stick it into the top of your wine bottle and BAM! What comes out the bottom is 10 degrees cooler.

As the box itself boasts, it’s an idea so simple it’s a wonder nobody didn’t think of it before. The literature claims that a few seconds with the Ravi chills red wine down to ‘cellar temperature’ and about ten seconds takes white wine from room temperature to drinking chill. I’m not quite sure how you regulate how quickly the wine goes through the Ravi, but it certainly delivers results in roughly that area.

The Ravi consists of three parts. There’s a clear plastic cover, a black plastic ‘plug’ than attaches to the wine bottle where the cork should be and the chilled metal core that you need to keep in the freezer for six hours prior to use. Just remember the same rules James Bond presumably has with his silencer – blow through it before sticking it in the freezer, or any drips or condensation in the sleeve with bung it up.

As far as wine gadgets go, it’s one of the most practical and useful I’ve ever come across. It’s great for when you pick up a bottle of non-chilled white wine at the liquor store and don’t want to wait to chill it in the freezer – although doesn’t quite get the wine to the perfect temperature, so is more suited to plonk than anything spectacular. Where it really shines is with red wine that deserves a bit of a drop in temperature – I tried a Beaujolais nouveau with the Ravi and it came out at a crisp coolness that would the envy of any French brasserie.

I’m normally wary of wine gadgets, but the Ravi is both ingenious and practical; and anybody who might find themselves needing to pop open a bottle when it’s at the wrong temperature would be grateful to have it chilling in their freezer compartment.


How to Buy a Bottle of Rioja

March 8, 2011 1:05 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink, Learn

The four tiers of Rioja wine are identified by the D.O.C.'s official labels.

One thing that turns many people off buying an ‘Old World’ wine is the seemingly complex system of rules, names and labeling surrounding bottles from each region – which some customers might think were designed specifically to befuddle the newly minted wine aficionado!

This is why wine from La Rioja is a perfect introduction to the Old World –  because the Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja has a simple, straightforward labeling system that lets even the most fledgling wine enthusiast know exactly what they’re getting when they buy a bottle.

We spoke to several of the region’s top winemakers about what the name Rioja really means – and how to go about choosing a bottle.

“To carry the name Rioja on the label, a bottle of wine needs to have been produced from grapes grown 100% in La Rioja,” explains Ricardo Aguiriano, Consejo Regulador of the D.O.C. “But more than that – it has to have met the standards of the D.O.C.”

Victor Fuentes, International General Manager of the Baron de Ley group of winemakers, digs deeper:

“A blind tasting panel of Rioja winemakers is set up each harvest,” he explained, “and they sample the wines offered by the region’s producers. Each batch has to meet with their approval before it can be sold under the name ‘Rioja.’”

So wine can be produced from 100% Rioja grapes, but if the finished product doesn’t meet the standards of the blind tasting panel, it can’t be sold as such; and has to be marketed as plain, old Vin de Table instead.

“This is one of the reasons consumers can trust the name Rioja,” Ricardo tells us. “It guarantees the basic level of quality you can expect from every bottle.”

Wine that does meet the standards is then sold with one of four Guarantee Labels issued by the D.O.C.

“Those labels are like legal money,” explains Roberto Alonso, of Bodegas Valdemar. “Each label is certified. It can’t be faked, and proves the age and classification of the bottle you’re about to open.”

When you buy a bottle of Rioja, the label on the back tells you much of what you need to know about it.

  • Green Label: Garantia de Origen The green label on Rioja certifies that this is a wine produced from 100% Rioja grapes and that meets the strict standards of the D.O.C. Rioja.
  • Red Label: Crianza Wine labeled Crianza has been aged for at least two years before being released to market; and at least one of those years has been in an oak barrel.
  • Burgundy Label: Reserva A Reserva is a wine that’s been aged for a minimum of three years, with at least one year spent in oak.
  • Blue Label: Gran Reserva Gran Reserva guarantees that the wine inside has been aged for at least five years before hitting the marketplace; and two of those years were spent in oak aging.

The labeling process is most useful for wines bought to be consumed immediately – each label is a guarantee of how many years the wine’s been aged before it hits the shelves of your local wine store. However, each label will also tell you a little about what to expect from each bottle; especially the richly oaked complexity of Gran Reserva.

Just don’t make the assumption that the four tiers of Rioja classification follow a ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘best’, format – because they’re much more egalitarian than that.

Take the green label that declares a wine to be Garantia de Origen. Just because it’s the first label on the hierarchy, you can’t make the assumption that this is an ‘entry level’ Rioja.

Why not? Well, one example is because many wine producers experimenting with aging and barreling techniques that fall outside the traditional classification of Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva label their wine Garantia de Origen even though the aging process might meet or exceed the standards of the other classifications. This ultimately means that some of Rioja’s most innovative and exciting wines might be labeled plainly Garantia de Origen.

So the real merit of this region’s wine isn’t the color of the label on the back – more that it has the label in the first place.

As Roberto Alonso explains: “Rioja is the perfect wine for those who don’t know much about wine – who might even think that Rioja is a grape variety, or a brand. All they need to know is that the name ‘Rioja’ adds value. They’ll find out for themselves that it’s Rioja’s consistency and quality that have earned them the most loyal customer base in the industry.”

For a taste of La Rioja’s winemaking heritage, we explored the third oldest bodegas in La Rioja, R. López de Heredia. Now it’s time to compare the traditional with the modern – visiting state-of-the-art winemaker Bodegas Baigorri.

Part 1: Bodegas Baigorri

“We make wine to be consumed,” explains Simón Arina Robles, technical director of Bodegas Baigorri. “To appeal to a new audience – that’s what we see as the future of D.O.C. Rioja.”

If it’s the future you’re talking about, you’d be hard pressed to find a more visual representation of it than the astonishing concrete and glass structure that houses the Baigorri winemaking process.

Buried deep within a hillside in Vitoria-Logroño, Bodegas Baigorri is a beehive of gleaming, stainless steel vats and a forest of sterile concrete – making the underground facility resemble something from a James Bond movie.

“The winery was built completed in 2002,” Simón explains. “At the same time as many other bodegas in La Rioja invested in architecture and remodeling.” But there’s one thing that seperates the stunning architecture of Bodegas Baigorri from the Frank Gehry-designed hotel at Marqués de Riscal, or Santiago Calatrava’s design for the nearby Ysios Bodega: Practicality.

Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu Iza designed Bodegas Baigorri to be as visually stunning as the other architectural landmarks in La Rioja, but also created it to be brutally functional – with every aspect of the design planned with the wine making process in mind.

“The building allows us to use gravity during every stage of production,” Simón shows us, as we stand on one of the upper floors of the looming structure. “The grapes come in on this level, and we can then load them into the vats below, using nothing but gravity.”

Avoiding having to heft the grapes up into towering vats helps protect their skins and stems, which Simón says ultimately makes for a better wine.

The level below is where the first fermentation takes place – in a row of gleaming 17,000 liter vats.

“This is a new shape of vat,” Simón says with not a little pride. “The shape allows more of the grape skins to be in contact with the wine, and we can heat each vat individually to the perfect temperature.”

There’s another innovation Simón has pioneered at Bodegas Baigorri, which makes his wine unique amongst those of La Rioja: He triple-filters every drop of water used in the winemaking process.

The water in the mountainous La Rioja region is notoriously hard, and Simón believes removing the calcium improves the taste.

“It makes better wine,” he explains simply, “and also protects against TCA,” the chemical compound chiefly responsible for cork taint.

After the first fermentation, the inspired design of Bodegas Baigorri makes it simple to transfer the wine to the second stage of production – straight down, with gravity powering the process.

It’s at that lower level, however, that even a winemaker as innovative and pioneering as Simón Arina Robles has had to make such concessions to tradition: Specifically, Rioja’s signature barrel aging process – which modern technology can’t (yet) eclipse.

“Winemaking in La Rioja was modeled after the style of Bordeaux,” Simón tells us. “Traditionally, they aged wines in French Oak – but now more and more bodegas have switched to American Oak.” Baigorri actually has stocks of both French and American oak, and Simón carefully balances aging between both – to take advantage of the strong vanilla and coconut components of American Oak and the more traditional complexity offered by the French variety.

Although barrel aging is a process essentially unchanged for centuries, Simón’s eye for innovation means he’s still looking for ways to improve the technique. “I’m looking more and more at American Oak,” he explains, “because they’re managing to grow more fine grain wood there, more similar to traditional French Oak.”

On the bottom level of Bodegas Baigorri, one corner is dedicated to something Simón is particularly proud of – his experiments.

Racks of assorted barrels and small, stainless steel vats line the concrete walls.

“This is where I experiment,” Simón beams, with a fervor that once again conjures up images of the villains in James Bond films. “I love experimentation: It’s the future!”

In the small vats, Simón experiments with different grape varieties, blending techniques and even different sorts of yeast – including varieties modified in a lab. His passion is palpable; and some of the innovations he tells us about are potentially mind-boggling. Simón hopes that, one day, some of his pioneering discoveries will help winemakers worldwide make a better product.

“We need to keep things modern,” Simón explains. “It’s very important to invest in new projects. One of the biggest problem for winemakers in Spain – all over the world, in fact – is approaching a new generation of wine drinkers. Doing what we’ve always done just won’t do any longer.”

He points to the statistics: “In the 1970s, the average Spaniard drank 70 liters of wine per person, per year. Today, that figure is just 16 liters. Wine is less relevant to the new generation and modern techniques and styles are the key to winning them over.”

He discusses the way many young Spaniards are introduced to wine – mixed half-and-half with Coca Cola in a cocktail known as Calimocho (or, alternatively, Rioja Libra, in the spirit of the rum and Coke cocktail Cuba Libra.)

“The problem is that young people no longer progress from Calimocho to wine,” Simón laments. “That’s what we need to get them to do.” In pursuit of that aim, he discusses options that might have the more traditional winemakers in La Rioja turning white – like Lambrusco-style sparkling wines and other ‘easy drinking’ products.

Ultimately, though, Simón’s current focus is not on revolutionizing Rioja – just keeping it modern and relevant. He’s embraced the latest winemaking innovations and technologies; but the wines made at Bodegas Baigorri remain true to the spirit of Rioja; crisp and modern, yet recognizable in both scent and palette.

There’s little argument regarding Simón’s success in bringing a modern edge to one of the world’s most traditional wines – and that success has been recognized worldwide. The wines of Bodegas Baigorri won 35 different medals in global competitions in 2009, and upped that to 46 in 2010.

“That’s about enough,” Simón admits, somewhat sheepishly. He reminds us that they produce wine to be consumed and enjoyed – not just to win medals (although that part is nice.)

If there is one medal to be justifiably proud of, however, it was the gold in the Japan Wine Challenge 2009.

There, Bodegas Baigorri’s entries earned them the title of “Best Old World Red Winemaker in the World.”

If there’s a better way to recognize Simón’s commitment to blending tradition and modernity, I’m hard pressed to name it.


Winemaking in La Rioja embraces both the traditional and the modern.

To illustrate that concept best, we’ll compare two very different wineries – the third oldest bodegas in La Rioja; R. López de Heredia, and the state-of-the-art winemaker Bodegas Baigorri.

Both face the challenge to blend the modern with the traditional; and both succeed in very different ways.

Part 1: Bodegas R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia

“One thing La Rioja has is history,” says Maria José López de Heredia, head of Bodegas R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, “whether you like it or not.”

And she should know – the name López de Heredia is inextricably entwined with the winemaking heritage of the region.

Bodegas R. López de Heredia is the third oldest winery in La Rioja; founded by Maria José’s Chilean-born great-grandfather, Rafael. A single-minded young man, he ran away from Jesuit school when he was just a boy to learn the art of winemaking in Bordeaux.

“He was following his dream,” Maria José tells us. “Something he taught us all to do. In that respect, we’re not a conventional family.”

It was in 1877 that Rafael founded Bodegas R. López de Heredia on the banks of the Ebro River. Today, those same towering sandstone buildings look like they’ve become part of the very landscape itself; although Maria José thinks her great-grandfather might disagree.

“To him, Bodegas R. López de Heredia was never completed,” she explains. “Everything was provisional – to be completed later.” She gestures to the magnificent iron bridge spanning the courtyard, and the glass and wood panels of the wine shop. “These were just temporary, even though they were built over a hundred years ago.”

To the rest of us, though, Bodegas R. López de Heredia is perhaps the best example of La Rioja’s oldest winemaking heritage. When Maria José leads guests into the barns and cellar, you can  smell the history almost as strongly as the rich musk of fermenting grapes.

“We don’t use modern equipment,” Maria José reveals the towering oak vats, built over a century and a half ago and still in use today. “We don’t update things because they still work.”

“Unlike other bodegas, we’re proud not to change what we’ve always done – although that’s not always easy to execute.” Maria José shows us an old wine press that’s served the winery for almost a century. When things went wrong with it, she explains, she’s always been pressured to replace the press entirely, instead of repairing it and keeping it going for another decade or two.

If the fermentation rooms seem ancient, they’re nothing compared to the barrel rooms and cellars of Bodegas R. López de Heredia. Maria José leads us through a rusted, cast-iron doorway and a wall of musk and moisture hits us in the face.

“We have 100% natural humidity down here,” she explains. “It’s very moist.” That explains why the barrels of Bodegas R. López de Heredia, despite being made new on site, are already black with mold. The walls, too, are furry with a thick layer of penicillin – starkly different to the clinical sterility of many New World wineries.”

“There’s another cellar beneath this one,” Maria José explains, “but it floods. I remember paddling through it in a canoe when I was a little girl.”

It’s passing references like that which remind you just how ingrained winemaking is in Maria José’s DNA. It’s the life she grew up with – as Jody Ness remarked when he spoke to her: “Here’s a woman who’s forgotten more about wine than most of us will ever know.”

But despite all of that knowledge and experience, Maria José always remains humble and pragmatic about what Bodegas R. López de Heredia produces.

“Wine is just to give pleasure,” she tells us. “To have with food. The wine world has turned it into something it’s not,” which seems very much against the winemaking tradition she upholds today.

Secrets of Viña Tondonia

You can almost hear her grandfather’s voice when Maria José tells us: “You can’t make a great wine without great grapes.”

This is why the wine is produced exclusively from grapes cultivated from the four vineyards López de Heredia owns in Rioja Alta – including 100 hectares right on the banks of the Ebro.

“You make wine in the vineyard – you just keep it in the cellar. The land should be left to have it’s own personality – and great Bodegas are run by vinemakers more than winemakers.”

In addition to the carefully tended vineyards and the reliance on traditional winemaking equipment, there’s one other way in which Bodegas R. López de Heredia stands apart from more modern winemakers in the region – they’re one of the few wineries to still make barrels on site.

“We have our own cooperage,” Maria José explains. “Due to the aging rules of the D.O.C. Rioja, wineries need to maintain their barrel inventory.” Although most producers buy barrels elsewhere, López de Heredia continues to craft their own from imported American oak because, like everything else, Maria José insists on upholding the winemaking traditions of her great-grandfather.

“The character of the oak should never be on top of the character of the wine,” she tells us – adding that the secret to Viña Tondonia’s reputation for aging so well is because: “The point of wine is not to get older, but to be enjoyed. If you age it, you must always ensure that part of it remains young.”

In many ways, all of this tradition and adherence to practices past flies in the face of what we’ve learned about La Rioja – and the region’s commitment to modern, relevant and innovative winemaking techniques. Maria José shrugs such concerns off.

“Fashion in wine is cyclical,” she explains. “Sooner or later, what is fashionable right now will be what we’ve always done – and continue to do.”

Old and New

When called for, however, it seems modernity is something López de Heredia can blend with their history as easily as they blend their home-produced Tempranillo, Garnacho, Graciano and Mazuelo grapes.

There’s perhaps no more striking example of that then the beaker-shaped boutique resting in the courtyard of Bodegas R. López de Heredia.

Built by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the glass and steel boutique was actually created to showcase another stand within it – the beautiful walnut and glass boutique built by Rafael for the 1910 World Expo in Brussels.

After a painstaking restoration of the original wooden stand, López de Heredia commissioned Hadid to create the modern ‘boutique’ to protect the wooden stand when it went on display at the Food and Drink Fair of Barcelona, celebrating the 125th anniversary of Bodegas R. López de Heredia.

It’s just one of the ways in which innovation and evolution are clearly continuing – even at a Bodegas that values tradition as much as R. López de Heredia does.

In that respect, Maria José López de Heredia remains as dynamic and innovative as her pioneering great-grandfather.