From Tradition to Modernity – Two Sides to La Rioja: Part 1

March 1, 2011 11:27 am - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink, Learn

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.

3 Responses to “From Tradition to Modernity – Two Sides to La Rioja: Part 1”

  1. Angela says:

    I met Maria José at a wine tasting in NY about 3 or 4 years ago and I walked away thinking that this woman shouldn’t just be making wine but she should be running Spain. She’s Hillary Clinton plus Robert Mondavi all rolled into one dynamic little ball. And they make good wine.

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  3. […] some of the region’s most traditional wineries – and its most innovative – gave me an appreciation for the heritage, history […]