The Yin and the Yang of Rioja
May 31, 2013
María José López de Heredia is one of my favorite people and I love her wines, so when I was offered the chance to attend a tutored tasting of her wines, I jumped. An extra added attraction was the venue: Benjamin Romeo’s Wine Bar La Tercera Estación in San Vicente de La Sonsierra. The event was a tasting of three vintages of Viña Tondonia white (1998, 1991 and 1970), three Tondonia reds (2001, 1994 and 1964) and a dinner made by Benjamin’s wife Iraide Somarriba, one of the chefs at the well-known restaurant Regi, near Bilbao. The meal was accompanied by Benjamin’s wines from Bodega Contador.
This event was a unique opportunity to taste wines with diametrically opposed character – Viña Tondonia is the essence of elegance and delicacy while Contador is big, bold and in your face. It’s amazing that both styles coexist in Rioja, perfectly illustrating the Regulatory Council’s motto ‘Rioja, land of a thousand wines’.
I’ve heard María José speak many times but each time I learn something new about her family and the origin of the López de Heredia winery. She told us that her great grandfather, Rafael López de Heredia, had no intention of making a wine for the masses. His dream was to promote the concept of ‘vinos finos’ as opposed to ordinary table wines. His target market was elitist: people who had a car, wore a tie and spoke languages, a very small market in early 20th century Spain.
To accomplish this, he decided to set up an office and tasting room in downtown Madrid between Cibeles and the Puerta del Sol. Every day he received news from the winery and sent detailed instructions to Haro, no easy task in an age where telegrams and letters were the most efficient means of communication before widespread use of the telephone.
María José explained that the wide variety of styles of Rioja is due more to the way vineyards are tended and vinification than to climate change. It was surprising therefore to note that the alcoholic strength of the three whites increased with newer vintages: 1970-11,5%; 1991-12% and 1998-12/12,5%. This seemed to be a contradiction until she explained that until 1970, Tondonia whites had a larger percentage of malvasía, which produces wines with lower alcohol.
It would be interesting for María José to meet professor Gregory Jones from the University of South Oregon, who has done extensive research on the effects of climate change on wine. According to a report I recently read, research in St.-Émilion and Pomerol revealed that climate accounted for over 50% of the variation in quality parameters, 25% was due to soil, 15-20% due to cultural practices and varietal differences the rest.
It was hard for me to concentrate on the wines while listening to María José’s storytelling, but my tasting notes follow.
1998 white: medium pale yellow; delicate citrus aroma; racy acidity. It took the wine about an hour to really show its character. I wondered, ‘ if the 1998 took this long to open up, how long would it be for the 1991 and 1970?’
1991 white: straw yellow; chamomile, wildflowers; high acidity, good structure. Amazingly alive for a 22 year old white.
1970 white: a little darker straw yellow; slight oak aroma, melon, grapefruit, wildflowers; good structure, long mouthfeel. Amazingly alive for a 43 year old wine. It was blindingly obvious that high acidity provided the backbone allowing this wine to retain its characteristics after so many years.
On to the reds.
2001: cherry/light brick; lively; maraschino cherries; great structure with firm, elegant tannins and lively acidity.
1994: color a little more towards brick than cherry; same delicate sensation of cherries; round, elegant tannins, very polished, high acidity.
1964: brick with an orange rim; delicately floral; red fruit just perceptible, still good acidity. An interesting wine but past its prime. Who cares? What an experience! It was hard to believe that this wine was thirty years older than the 1994.
On the subject of ageing, María José explained that her great grandfather didn’t intend his wines to be laid down, except for consumption by the family – this was his concept of a ‘reserva’, something for the family to keep and drink. Judging from the acclaim received for these old vintages from wine writers and consumers, it’s fortunate that the stock of these old vintages of Tondonia has surpassed the family’s thirst!
For dinner, Iraide Somarriba prepared a fantastic offering of dishes to go with her husband’s wines. By this time (since no spit buckets had been provided), the conversation around the table was lively and we concentrated more on the food rather than the wine.
White asparagus mousse with hollandaise sauce.
Wine: Predicador white.
Tuna tenderloin topped with anchovies, roasted red peppers and fried slices of potato.
A tempura-fried Gernika pepper with a piquillo pepper sauce.
Hake on a bed of crushed crabmeat topped with a hake cheek.
Wine: Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2011
Stewed pigs’ trotters served in a ‘Vizcaya’ sauce (stewed spicy pepper meat with olive oil and ham) with wild mushrooms.
Wine: Predicador 2011.
Benjamin, who has a reputation for being a smart aleck, remarked while grinning at María José, that the wine had been bottled that afternoon. That got a big laugh from the audience!
Brownie (well, sort of)
Wine: La Viña de Andrés Romeo 2009
I have to admit that because of the lively conversation around the table and the speed with which both the dishes and the wines were served, I didn’t take detailed tasting notes on either the food or the wines, but I can say that the food was excellent and the wines promising, but largely inscrutable, at least to my nose and palate. I preferred the two whites to the reds, which showed great concentration and jamminess. They were very closed, almost like a black hole, with just a hint of what would undoubtedly open up in time to great complexity.
It would have been fun to spend another two hours talking, waiting for the wines to open up, but it was a week night and the fear of police cars on the prowl for tipsy drivers made me leave right after the meal.
Benjamin is going to give a tasting of his wines in the near future where I’ll be able to give them the attention they undoubtedly deserve.