The Yin and the Yang of Rioja

yin-yangMaría 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.


María José López de Heredia

María José López de Heredia


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’.


María José and Benjamin

María José and Benjamin


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.


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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.


Part of the lineup

Part of the lineup

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.


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 White asparagus mousse with hollandaise sauce.

 Wine:  Predicador white.


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 Tuna tenderloin topped with anchovies, roasted red peppers and fried slices of potato.


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A tempura-fried Gernika pepper with a piquillo pepper sauce.


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 Hake on a bed of crushed crabmeat topped with a hake cheek.

 Wine:  Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2011


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 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!


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 Brownie (well, sort of)


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 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.

Small vineyards, big wines

The neoterroirist movement is gaining traction in Rioja. One of the families leading the charge is the Egurens.


You might ask yourself, “Neoterroirists? Hasn’t Rioja always been a terroir-based wine?” Yes and no.  If we look at the last quarter of the 19th century, the founders of what is known today as modern Rioja (that is, wines made from destemmed grapes and aged in oak – Luciano de Murrieta, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Rafael López de Heredia and others) believed in owning vineyards and creating brands based on wines produced there.  But they, and wineries founded later also believed in blending grapes and wine from different parts of our region because the low alcohol tempranillo-based wines from Rioja Alta and Alavesa needed the meatier garnacha-based wines from hot Rioja Baja to flesh out their wines and because the end of the harvest in Alta and Alavesa often brought cold and rain.

The neoterroirists reject the Rioja-wide blending habits of the large wineries, assuming the risks of putting all their grapes in one basket, attempting to define the personality of wines produced in small vineyards.  The latest slogan used by the Rioja Regulatory Council,  ‘Rioja:  the land of a thousand wines’ recognizes this fact.

Like a few other families in Rioja, the Egurens started out as farmers who decided to vinify their grapes, age and bottle their wines rather than sell grapes to other wineries.   The family have been farmers since 1870 with the fifth generation currently managing the company. They own 100 hectares in Rioja and 92 hectares in the DO Toro. Their Rioja business is based in San Vicente de la Sonsierra across the Ebro river from Briones in La Rioja and Páganos, near Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa.

Three generations of the Eguren family (Credit:  Eguren brochure)

Three generations of the Eguren family (Credit: Eguren brochure)

San Vicente de la Sonsierra is the largest village in the Sonsierra region, located at the foot of the Sierra Cantabria mountain range. San Vicente belongs administratively to La Rioja but viticulturally, the Sonsierra lies between Briñas to the west near the Conchas of Haro to just east of San Vicente and includes vineyards in La Rioja and Álava. Some wine writers call the Sonsierra ‘la milla de oro’ or ‘the Golden Mile’.

The family philosophy is to blend wines from their own vineyards for the Sierra Cantabria range and to produce single vineyard wines for the Viñedos de Páganos range.  Marcos Eguren, the head viticulturist and winemaker for the family explained that their project is “to make wines that evoke the character of the vineyard, versatile and with a strong personality”.

The family’s properties are:

In Rioja:

  • El Puntido (25 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos at 600 meters above sea level on calcareous clay soil)
  • La Nieta (1,75 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos on silty clay soil, with 30% of the vines planted on a bedrock base)
  • La Veguilla (16,5 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on pure clay and calcareous clay soil with pebbles)
  • Finca El Bosque (1,48 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1973 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on clay soil with pebbles)
  • La Canoca (18 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1985 on calcareous clay soil)
  • La Llana (10 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1980 on alluvial soil)
  • Valgrande and Jarrarte (4 hectares of tempranillo and garnacha, planted in 1957 and 1959 on calcareous clay soil).

In Toro:

  • 90 hectares of tinta de Toro (tempranillo) on sandy soil.  All of the vineyrds were planted at least 70 years ago, and some are prephylloxeric.

All of the family’s wines are vinified from grapes from their own vineyards.

We tasted five Riojas and three Toros.

1)   Organza white 2010 (Rioja)

Organza is made from a field blend of viura, malvasía and white garnacha coming from the family’s vineyards, but from which ones wasn’t specified. Fermented in new French oak from the Vosges, remaining on the lees for six months and later matured in  barrel for a further nine months.

Organza was the last wine in the tasting, which I think is a shame because it really didn’t open up after pouring.  When I used to take journalists to their San Vicente winery, Marcos Eguren always recommended tasting Organza both at the beginning and the end of the tasting.

I found it to have a straw yellow color, a chamomile and aniseed nose opening up to peaches and apricots, with great acidity and structure. It’s consistently one of the best white Riojas I’ve ever tasted.

2)   Murmurón 2012 (Rioja)

Murmurón is arguably Rioja’s best cosechero red, with no hint of the bubble gum and sulfur dioxide aromas that characterize most of Rioja’s cosecheros.  It showed a violet-bright cherry color, a fresh, grapey nose reminiscent of strawberries and raspberries, well balanced with ripe tannins and very easy to drink.  It was served slightly chilled, as these wines always are in bars here.


3)   Sierra Cantabria Selección Privada red 2009 (Rioja)

This wine comes from the Valgrande and Jarrarte vineyards.  It was vinified with whole berry fermentation and with crushed grapes and aged for 18 months in new French and American oak.  Medium cherry.  Spicy nose – to me, nutmeg with dark fruit and cocoa coming out after a few minutes.  It took a long time to open up, with jammy fruit coming through when I retasted all the wines at the end of the tasting.  Well balanced with ripe tannins.

Colección Privada

4)   El Puntido 2008 (Rioja)

El Puntido is a single vineyard wine coming from the eponymous vineyard.  16 months ageing in new French oak, with bottling in May, 2010. Fairly intense, brilliant cherry, cherry and slightly acidic, cranberry-like fruit.  Not too much oak coming through in spite of the time spent in new wood.  Great acidity and a long finish.  My favorite wine in the tasting.

El Puntido

5)   La Nieta 2009 (Rioja)

Also a single vineyard wine.  Intense cherry, slightly less brilliant than El Puntido.  Black cherries on the nose but otherwise closed.  A mouthful.  Many of the tasters gushed about La Nieta being the best wine in the tasting but I thought it was closed.  It probably would have showed better if the tasting had been an hour longer.  A shame.

La Nieta

6)   Almirez 2011 (Toro)

To me, the Eguren story in Toro is fascinating.  They created two dynamite brands there, Numanthia and Termanthia, the undisputed darlings of  international wine gurus, led by Robert Parker.  This naturally attracted the attention of the luxury brand conglomerate LMVH, who bought the Toro winery, the brands and the vineyards.  The Egurens must have kept something up their sleeves, however, because they immediately began to develop new brands, a winery and 90 hectares of old vines.  I’m not sure, but I suspect they owned them before the LMVH deal because otherwise the vineyards would have cost a fortune.  In any case, the family is once again at the top of the heap in Toro.

Marcos Eguren explained that one of the problems winemakers face in Toro is achieving phenolic (anthocyanins and tannins) ripeness, optimum alcoholic strength (avoiding massive 15% wines) and aromatic ripeness at the same time.  The solution:  looking for vineyards at higher elevations, something they have succeeded at. Fruit extraction is less intense than in Rioja to obtain ripe juice while eliminating the ‘green’ flavors from unripe seeds.  The Eguren story in Toro could be summed up as ‘taming the beast’.

Almirez is 100% tinta de Toro, aged for 14 months in oak – 30% new French and 70% one year-old French oak. It shows a very intense cherry color, dark fruit (hard to define because the wines were closed), with elegant tannins and good balance between spicy oak and rich fruit.


7)   Victorino 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro. 18 months in new French oak, bottled in June, 2012.

Very intense cherry.  Again a very closed nose at first, opening up to reveal black cherries and spicy aromas.  It was more open on the palate than on the nose, with ripe tannins, vibrant acidity and great structure. After 15 minutes in the glass it was still closed.


8)   Alabaster 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro from prephylloxeric vines.  18 months in new French oak.  Bottled in July, 2012.

Intense black cherry color.  Closed nose.  I was only able to discern the spicy oak.  A huge mouthful, however, revealing black fruit and ripe tannins. Smooth and well-balanced.


I learned a lot from this tasting, especially about Toro:  the value of north-facing vineyards in the region;  high altitude vineyards to allow ripe tannins, moderate alcohol, and vibrant acidity; and sandy soil as the home of prephylloxeric vineyards (Jumilla is another place where this occurs). It reaffirmed my faith in Marcos Eguren’s prodigious talent as a winemaker and the unquestionable advantage of owning old vines.  My only comments were that in future tastings, all the wines should be poured at the beginning to allow them to open up and be fully appreciated.  Just opening the bottles isn’t enough. If consumed with a meal, these wines should be decanted at least 30 minutes before service. And finally, do the Toro wines need 18 months in new oak?  If I can put my finger on one ongoing criticism of Rioja and mine especially in Toro is that oak aging is often overdone.  Maybe a touch less would be a good thing.

(Bottle shots courtesy of the Eguren family website