A few weeks ago while rummaging through our impossibly disorganized wine cellar I discovered two bottles of Viña Tondonia gran reserva 1976 – a red and a white.
(Photo: Tom Perry)
Seeing ‘1976’ reminded me that it was the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and was the first vintage after dictator Francisco Franco’s death.
Other important events in 1976 were:
- Apple Computer Company was founded
- The Vietnamese National Assembly announced the unification of North and South Vietnam with the capital in Hanoi (later Ho Chi Minh City)
- The Viking I landed on Mars
- Adolfo Suárez was elected president of the Spanish government, Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the United States and Fidel Castro was named president of Cuba.
I think you’ll agree that a lot of water has passed under the bridge.
I thought that 45 years was probably at the edge of the wines’ drinking windows so I invited several friends and fellow wine lovers to taste them. Under normal circumstances we would have followed our time-honored tradition of gathering ten or so people around a table. 2021, however, is not normal and only five of us were able to safely gather in the small back room of a neighborhood bar.
The tasters were
- Casimiro Somalo, the retired wine writer for our local newspaper La Rioja;
- Jorge Elías, a graphic designer who works with López de Heredia (producer of Viña Tondonia) and his wife Alicia;
- Tom Perry and wife María Antonia.
In addition to the 2 bottles of 1976, Jorge Elías brought a bottle of Tondonia red reserva 2008.
The two bottles of 1976 didn’t have capsules. Instead, the necks had been covered with sealing wax. “RLH” had been pressed into the hot wax when it was applied. I carefully removed the wax and tried to extract the corks with a special tool for old wines – two flat blades that fit between the cork and the inside of the neck of the bottle. Both corks had shrunk a little however and they fell into the wine, so I quickly decanted them an hour before the tasting.
I found some notes from the Marqués de Riscal Tradition Wine Club written by Manuel Ruiz Hernández, the longtime lab technician at the Haro Oenological Station, about the weather conditions in 1976:
- “The growing season was 180 days long;
- The previous winter had been cold and dry. From December to February rainfall was only 90 liters per square meter compared to an average of 130 liters;
- March and April were very cold, and April wet. Consequently, budbreak was delayed.
- The summer was hot and rainy, with exceptionally high rainfall in August.
- In general, ripening was difficult and irregular.”
The Rioja Regulatory Council rated the vintage as “Good” (three out of five stars).
It sounded like it had been a difficult vintage, and that fact, along with the corks inside the bottles, made us apprehensive about the outcome of the tasting.
Fortunately, the wines did not disappoint.
White gran reserva 1976:
- Deep gold; brilliant.
- Notes of white flowers, especially chamomile as well as honey, sensations that improved with more time in the glass; no hint of acetification,
- Vibrant acidity, delicate honey and buttery notes on the palate, long-lasting in the mouth that improved over time.
The grape varieties were mainly viura with malvasía de Rioja.
The wine was aged for almost ten years in barriques and racked by hand 18 times. It was bottled between January and February 1986.
Red gran reserva 1976:
- Light brick with a slight brown rim;
- Delicate stewed red fruit, elegant with notes of cedar chest and cinnamon;
- Good acidity, elegant, just perceptible tannin, slightly bitter, pruney.
Grape varieties: Mostly tempranillo with garnacha, mazuelo and graciano.
The wine spent nine years in barriques and racked twice a year.
What impressed us most about these two wines was their backbone of acidity that we agreed was the main reason for their longevity.
Red reserva 2008
- Color between picota cherry and medium brick.
- At first very closed on the nose (we only had two decanters so this wine was decanted after we finished the 1976 white). It later opened up to reveal elegant red stewed fruit notes and elegant tannins.
- Well-balanced on the palate, a good dollop of acidity, elegant delicate red fruit and a long mouthfeel.
We didn’t think that this wine had reached its peak yet, but was perfectly drinkable now.
The three wines had in common a vibrant acidity and a delicate, elegant character that today’s wine drinker might call understated, but they were unmistakably from López de Heredia and very good.
This launched a discussion about classic versus modern Riojas. Casimiro Somalo defined the Tondonias as ‘avant-garde classics’. They were ahead of their time when hardly any other fine wines existed in Rioja, and today they’re classics because they recall the style of wine that gave Rioja an international reputation in the 1960s.
They have two distinguishing characteristics:
- They’re undoubtedly Rioja because of their elegance, stewed red fruit notes and soft tannins.
- They’re undoubtedly from López de Heredia for their delicate character and acidity that has allowed them to age gracefully, in the case of the 1976s, for 45 years.
We recalled that classic Riojas didn’t tire your palate; when you finished a bottle at a meal with friends you usually opened another one.
Somalo said that you could even enjoy these wines after coffee, a snifter of good brandy, a glass of bourbon or some chocolate.
His final judgment was, “ When a wine can stand up to coffee or chocolate, that’s magnificent .”