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11.30.2010

1957 R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco, Rioja, Spain

tondonia_label.jpgThere are few wineries in Spain whose names conjure the heritage and prestige evoked by R. Lopez de Heredia. Don Rafael Lopez de Heredia was born in Santiago, Chile in 1857. At the age of 12 he was sent by his family to Spain to study with the Jesuits, and nearly became a doctor before discovering the world of business, leaving his brother Fernando to realize the family dream of having a doctor for a son.

When he was 19 years old, Don Rafael arrived at the railway station in Haro, Spain suffused with the aromas of wine. The railway station in this small town served as the distribution point for much French wine imported into the country, and was indeed surrounded by wine warehouses filled with the latest vintages from Bordeaux. These heavy oak casks would be sold to the local Spaniards, whose own vineyards had been decimated by powdery mildew in the previous decade, or exported to Cuba, among other places.

Within a year or two of his arrival in Haro, even with no previous family experience to guide him, Don Rafael had determined to begin a career in the wine industry. In 1877 he formed the Bodegas Lopez de Heredia y Compania, which would spend the next 12 years in turmoil as various investors and partners entered and backed out of the enterprise. In these early years the company was more of a negociant, purchasing wine and bottling it under various names such as Landeta, el Globo, and others.

In 1913, Don Rafael purchased a vineyard named Tondonia from a group of clergy that had decided to get out of the winegrowing business. This purchase would prove to be perhaps the single best business decision Heredia ever made, just as this vineyard would prove to be one of Spain's finest sources of Tempranillo.

Before it became known for Tempranillo, however, the vineyard served as Heredia's proving ground as a winegrower and winemaker. Situated in an alluvial depression between hills, carved into a bowl by the Ebro river, the vineyard was initially carved up into several two-acre plots and planted with everything under the sun: Graciano, Grenache, Carignan, Tempranillo, Aramon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and more. After a few years of working with all these grapes, it was clear that the site was clearly best for Tempranillo, and that is what the Tondonia vineyard has grown for more than 100 years.

All but one tiny corner, that is.

Widely recognized as one of Spain's "Grand Cru" vineyards for its ageless red Riojas, the Tondonia vineyard also has a few acres of white grapes tucked into a corner, from which R. Lopez de Heredia has made a Rioja Blanco for more than 50 years. Planted with Viura and Malvasia, this small section of the vineyard is widely regarded as some of the most definitive terroir for white Rioja, and the wines made from it, the finest expression of their type.

R. Lopez de Heredia is now run by the fifth generation of Don Raphael's descendants, but little has changed in the wine cellars since Don Raphael was in charge (though an ultra-modern building has been constructed over the top of them). Heredia was one of the earliest pioneers in Spain to adopt what were then the "modern" technologies of French winemaking, including most notably, the use of French oak barrels for aging wine, and the French system of racking wine off its sediment. The winery continues to use French oak barrels, and continues to recondition its own barrels with hand adzes, just as it has done for more than a century. Heredia also continues to use the painstakingly slow process of hand racking the wines using bronze spigots and oak funnels and buckets, a technique which has been abandoned by all but the most fastidious French winemakers.

Speed, it would seem, is not a virtue for the Heredia family, while patience they may have been exalted to its highest form. Wines from the Tondonia vineyard are regularly aged for at least sixty months in cask before bottling, and then several more years in the bottle under a thick shag carpet carpet of some of the most spectacular mold and cobwebs you could ever imagine in a wine cellar. Such extended aging in neutral oak casks, in addition to eliminating the need for filtration, imparts a special character to these wines, and keeping the bottles amongst the mold apparently tends to prevent insect damage to the corks and preserve humidity.

I fell in love with the Tondonia Blanco wines the first time I tasted them, and some of the greatest white wines I've ever had have been well aged Tondonia Blancos. This wine is the oldest and finest that I've tasted, and how fitting that it was made 100 years after the birth of its founder.

They say that after many years of aging there are no great wines, only great bottles -- meaning, of course, that the older wine gets, the less consistency there is from bottle to bottle, for any number of reasons, not the least of which are how it has been stored and how much it has moved around.

This was undoubtably a fantastic bottle, of which I sadly was unable to get a good photo, as it was gloriously encrusted with dirt and mold.

Tasting Notes:
Medium amber gold in color, this wine's smell is enough to make you swoon with delight. A rich combination of sweet roasted nuts, pine sap, and clover honey wafts from the glass and starts your mouth watering almost immediately. In the mouth the wine has an incredibly glassy, seamless texture, that has both a heft to it, but also this quality of levitation, as if it is floating across your palate rather than sitting on it. Flavors of wet stones, dried lemon rind, and english toffee swirl with a brightness that is astonishing given the age of the wine, driven by an acidity that is still very much alive. As the wine lingers in the finish for minutes, flavors of cafe au lait and cream sherry take on a lightly honeyed sweetness and drift airily on seemingly forever. The wine holds me in a tense vise grip between wanting to gulp it greedily and to simply let it sit in my mouth and trickle ever so slowly down my throat.

Food Pairing:
This is a beautifully food friendly wine, that might go with a lot of things. I had it with baked Turbot.

Overall Score: a perfect 10

How Much?: this bottle would probably sell for about $400, while more recent vintages are about $40 a bottle.

You can find many vintages of this wine (though sadly not the '57) available for purchase on the Internet.

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