“Since my great grandfather’s time our philosophy has always been modern”.. María José López de Heredia

img_0467_editIf you saw María José López de Heredia walking across the square in Haro wearing a backpack, you would think she was on her way home from high school.  But this bubbly, dynamic woman, a member of the fourth generation of her family’s winery,  is a law graduate from the University of Deusto with experience at an international auditing firm and has been the managing director of the familycompany since 1993. She  has very clear ideas about the impact of  132 years of history on the company’s philosophy.

María José is proud to say that the script written by her great grandfather in 1877 has been followed by her grandfather, father and her own generation but flatly rejects the idea that R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia is old fashioned.  “Each generation has been modern in its own time”. María José  proudly cites her great grandfather’s passion for “modernismo”, the cultural movement popular at the end of the 19th century that inspired the original design of the winery.  Two of his unfinished projects are a crypt inspired by the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, and an Arabic castle in the middle of the Tondonia vineyard where bottling was supposed to be done following the ‘château’ concept in Bordeaux.  “As a matter of fact, our Tondonia, Bosconia, Gravonia and Cubillo brands are single vineyard wines, but we’d rather promote them as brands than as single vineyards.”

She argues that there have always been fashionable and unfashionable wine styles in Rioja, and the longer a region has existed, the more styles it has produced. In López de Heredia’s case, over 130 years’ experience has proven that  consumers want  elegant wines that go well with food and don’t tire the palate.  When asked about the current trend toward overripe grapes, high alcohol, concentration and new oak, she is adamant.  “Wines that are not easy to drink, even though they’re trendy, will never have a strong presence in the marketplace.”  She does admit, however that new wineries have to find a niche in the market and the current trend seems to put power over elegance.

How does she account for the incredible longevity of her family’s wines (the current vintages of Viña Tondonia white and red are 1990 and 2000 respectively, and the ‘baby’, Viña Cubillo, is a 2003)?  “A very important lesson is to pick the grapes when they’re ripe (not overripe), use mazuelo and graciano for their high acidity and to use oak to stabilize our wines rather than oxidize them.” 

What food pairings does María José recommend?  Once again she refers to the original script.  “My great grandfather made wines to accompany the food enjoyed by consumers in northern Spain.  Tondonia white was made to go with turkey, chicken, pork and white meat in general as well as seasoned seafood, while Tondonia red, because of its elegance, was meant to be enjoyed with fish.”

We spoke for over an hour, so more to follow in a future post! 


Fruit vs. oak, Round One

The first Thursday of every month, a local hotel, the NH Herencia Rioja, organizes a wine dinner, ‘Los jueves y el vino’ (Thursdays with wine).

Usually about 100 people attend, and it’s a lot of fun because everyone knows one another, we get the chance to catch up on local gossip, politics, have a nice meal, (usually) drink good wines and hear what the winemaker has to say about the wine and food pairings.

Our table includes a banker, a divorce lawyer, an advertising executive, the manager of the local theater, a high school math teacher, a flying winemaker and yours truly, so it’s not a collection of wine geeks, but rather consumers who happen to love wine.

Most of the dinners feature Rioja but on April 2 a wine from one of northern Spain’s upcoming winery groups, Bodegas Emina, was on stage, so naturally there was a lot of expectation.

The menu was:

  • duck liver foie gras with a red wine reduction and crisp bread with a carrot and raisin jam (Emina semisweet white 2007)
  • cod on a bed of fresh white asparagus with flower petals (Emina verdejo 2008 from Rueda)
  • roast baby lamb with piquillo peppers and roast onions (Emina Prestigio 2005)
  • a crêpe stuffed with creamy chocolate with raisins and a plum sauce (Emina Oxto – the ‘X’, the sign of multiplication, is ‘por’ in Spanish, so it’s pronounced ‘O por to’ and a Port-like wine it certainly was!)

Hearty fare, right?  All of us expected some heavy duty fruit in the wines but we were surprised to taste wines that seemed to have been aged in a sawmill.

Jesús the flying winemaker and I usually lead the conversation about the pairings at these dinners and this time, we couldn’t help but comment that whatever fruit the wines might have had, it was hidden under a heavy layer of new oak.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  This is not a gratuitous hit on another region. I’m a great admirer of the wines from Ribera del Duero but it seemed clear to me that these wines were chasing points with wine writers rather than going with food. Sadly, they didn’t make any points with us.

Since when does ‘modern’ mean overoaked?  I enjoy complex wines with lots of fruit as much as traditional wines, but I think wineries need to pay more attention to satisfying consumers than playing the points game.

More to follow.

The ‘cosecheros’

One of the most enjoyable things about my former job as the international public relations guy for the Rioja wine district was showing journalists and chefs around the region.  I almost invariably elicited a ‘wow’ when explaining that one of the most popular types of Rioja is almost never sold outside northern Spain.  These are the ‘cosechero’ Riojas.

A ‘cosechero’ is a grape grower who makes young red using a modified version of carbonic maceration, or whole berry fermentation.  In its most primitive form, largely unused today, grapes were dumped into an open wooden or cement tank, called a ‘lagar’ .  Fermentation began inside the grapes themselves until the pressure caused the skins to break, releasing the juice.  Once fermentation stopped, the juice, stems, pips and skins were trodden with the workers’ feet, the wine was filtered and bottled.

The modern variation of this method is technically called ‘semi-carbonic maceration’ because the stems are removed and fermentation takes place in a stainless steel tank.

Probably the best known wine made this way is beaujolais nouveau, which is certainly marketed more aggressively than ‘cosechero’ rioja, but arguably, ours tastes better, and selfishly, we keep it for ourselves, as it’s a staple in the tapas bars in Rioja and the Basque Country.

All Rioja was made this way until the beginning of the 19th century when a priest, Father Manuel Quintano from Labastida, discovered that wines from Bordeaux arrived to the Spanish colonies in the New World in good shape, while the wines from Rioja were often oxidized, following the long journey by ship.

Father Quintano went to Bordeaux to discover why this was so, and returned to Rioja with a recipe for success (better vineyard management, destemming, fermentation in closed vats and aging in small wooden barrels).  A batch was made and sent to the New World, arriving in much better condition than the wines made using the traditional method, but Quintano’s ideas were not accepted due to the increased costs of production.

In the mid-1800s, the government of Álava decided to sponsor a project to make wines in the Bordeaux style, called Médoc Alavés and went so far as to hire a winemaker from Château Lannessan, Monsieur Jean Pineau, to supervise it.  Bordeaux grapes and barrels were bought and several wineries enlisted, but after several years, most of them abandoned the idea for the same reason Father Quintano’s project failed – it was too expensive to make.

A forward-thinking Spaniard, the Marquis of Riscal, who had spent some time in Bordeaux in exile because of his political ideas, decided to hire Pineau in 1862 for his own project in Rioja.  Although the wines were not initially a success in Spain, they won a number of awards at international exhibitions, which created demand. The rest is history, as gradually other wineries adopted the winemaking techniques adopted from Bordeaux.

Bodegas Marqués de Riscal is still going strong under the administration of the descendants of the founding family, but that’s another story!

Today there are more than 700 ‘cosecheros’ but only about 150 bottle their wine.  The rest is blended into other styles of Rioja.

What’s it like?  Intensely purple, with an extremely grapey nose and taste and low acidity (which is the main reason it doesn’t travel well). 

So, the next time you visit us, don’t hesitate to ask for a glass of ‘cosechero’ .  You will not only enjoy the wine but will be tasting a bit of the history of Rioja!

The only ‘cosechero’ I’ve seen outside Spain is ‘Erre Punto’, made by Fernando Remírez de Ganuza in Samaniego in Rioja Alavesa.  If any of you have seen others, please let me know!

Ribaguda Cepas Viejas 100% garnacha crianza 2001

Photo taken from the winery's website

Photo taken from the winery's website

Preface:  a short note about my wine notes




After giving considerable thought to the matter, I’ve decided not to give points to the wines I like.  I realize that numerical ratings drive the wine trade today but find it impossible to benchmark the wines I like against a hypothetical 100-point ideal.  Maybe in the future I’ll rate the wines by “smiles” or raised eyebrows but for now, if I write about it, you know I like it!

As a matter of fact, a statistical analysis of eight wine guides in Spain done several years ago by the business school at the University of La Rioja proved that there was very little correlation between the guides, leading the authors to conclude that wine guides are not a reliable means of assessing quality.

With that in mind, what I aim to do is describe the wines I’ve enjoyed, in most cases in the context of the meal I ate. I’ll also give you some information about how to find it locally, usually a website.

I bought a case of this wine last year after visiting the winery with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday.  It was interesting not only because of how it tasted at the time but because garnacha in Rioja Alta is a rarity, and old vine garnacha even more so. This variety was predominant in Rioja at one time, especially in Rioja Baja, but most of it was pulled up and replanted to the easier-to-cultivate, higher yielding tempranillo.  Today, it represents only about 6,500 hectares out of 60,000 hectares of red varieties in Rioja, with most vines located in Rioja Baja where it’s used mainly to produce rosé.  Most old vine garnacha is located further east in the Ebro valley, where wine regions like Calatayud and Campo de Borja are successfully selling it in the UK and the USA.

In Rioja there’s been a resurgence of garnacha in recent years, that I applaud,  as wineries are looking for compexity in blends in the face of a trend towards 100%  tempranillos.  As long as the vineyards aren’t overfarmed, I believe that garnacha from Rioja is capable of rivaling anything produced in Châteauneuf-du-Pape!

Tasting notes:

light garnet, aromas of strawberry jam, Mediterranean hillside herbs with a hint of oak, relatively high acidity, alcohol (14%) not apparent, medium tannin, well balanced with a long finish.

We felt that the wine had reached its peak but was drinking well.

We enjoyed it last Saturday with a meal of pork chops with green peppers smothered in tomato soup with sliced potatoes roasted in the oven (patatas panadera).  I thought it was a good match.

Bodegas Fin de Siglo, 26311 Arenzana de Abajo (La Rioja)


El Soldado de Tudelilla

El Soldado de TudelillaMy favorite tapas bar, hands down, is El Soldado de Tudelilla (The Soldier from Tudelilla), on calle San Agustín in Logroño.  The bar is named after the owner’s father-in-law who lived in Tudelilla, a village in Rioja Baja .  This village is known for its wines, made from the garnacha grape, prized by the wineries from Haro for blending with their often low alcohol tempranillo.  The ‘soldado’ (not a soldier, but rather his nickname because he was short and stocky, apparently prized soldierlike characteristics in the Spanish army) brought his family to Logroño in 1947 and opened a bar to sell his town’s wines. 

Ther bar is run by ‘el soldado’s’  daughter Jacinta and her husband Manolo and is a favorite of the locals, who stand at the end of the zinc bar nursing their glasses of wine for hours, not going from bar to bar like everyone else.

A word about tapas bars in Rioja.  Unlike the pintxo bars in San Sebastian, where you can find a large selection of elaborate little dishes prepared by armies of white-aproned chefs, bars in Rioja usually specialize in one or two dishes, creating the reason to go to that particular place.  In El Soldado’s case, these are a fillet of sardine and a piece of green pepper between two pieces of bread called a ‘capricho’ (a ‘whim’) and a tomato,  sweet onion and olive salad made at the bar by the staff while you wait.  The tomatoes and onions are kept cool floating in the sink along with bottles of young cosechero Rioja (more about that in a future post).  My wife Toñica and I always get a kick out of watching Jacinta prepare the salad, throwing a big pinch of sea salt with a flourish, à la Emeril Lagasse, over the tomatoes and doing a little dance while pouring the olive oil over everything from a little glass porrón like the ones groups of people used to drink wine from in villages.

Another reason to visit El Soldado is to have el almuerzo in the back room.

Warning:  health nuts are avised to read what follows with caution!

Almuerzo, or mid-morning snack, is a Spanish tradition, as breakfast is usually a quick gulp of coffee while running out the door for work and one’s stomach starts to growl at about 10.  At El Soldado, you can order fried eggs (farm-fresh ones with huge orange yolks, not the ones with little yellow yolks you get at the supermarket in the USA), bacon, ham, spicy sausage,  hot sauce, huge chunks of bread that you jam into the yolk as soon as the plate is served and, of course, a bottle of Rioja (one never “does” almuerzo alone, but with a group of friends).  THAT really gets the blood moving until lunch time!

Almuerzo nirvana, however, is during the wine festival in September when it becomes breakfast and lunch combined, with eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, callos (tripe), wine, dessert, a shot of pacharán (sloe berry liqueur) and, as an afterthought, a cup of coffee.  The streets of the old town are filled with tables of friends and families enjoying their almuerzo.  One of the most popular ones is served under the bleachers at the bullring.

El Soldado de Tudelilla, San Agustin, 33  26001 Logroño.  Tel. 941 20 96 24

Want to learn about Rioja? You’ve come to the right place!

TomHi!  My name is Tom Perry.  I’ve worked in the Spanish wine business for 35 years, 25 of which have been in Rioja as the export director for Bodegas & Bebidas and El Coto de Rioja, the managing director of Bodegas & Bebidas USA and for the last 14 years as managing director of the Rioja Wine Exporters Association. The association’s most important job was coordinating international PR for Rioja wines until 2006 when the Rioja Regulatory Council assumed responsibility.

In October 2008 I was offered early retirement and decided to go into business for myself as a strategic and tactical marketing consultant, lecturer in wine education programs in Spain and speaker on the drinks seminar circuit around the world.

Since life isn’t only about work, I’ve decided to have some fun writing  this blog to share my experiences in the Spanish wine trade, interview winemakers and other movers and shakers in Rioja, talk about the region, wines and restaurants I’ve enjoyed and show you places and things you might like to see when you visit Rioja.  And I say ‘when’, not ‘if’!

Please join the discussion!