1988 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva Blanca, Rioja Alta, Spain

There 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 basked in 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.

R. Lopez de Heredia is now run by the fifth generation of Don Raphael’s descendents, but little has changed in the wine cellars since Don Raphael was in charge. 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 ageing 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 Bordeaux winemakers.

Speed, it would seem, is not a virtue for the Heredia family, while patience 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 ageing 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.

All great wines should have a story, and many great wines also have great stories. This is certainly one of the world’s greatest white wines, and one of the most memorable I have had the pleasure of consuming.

Tasting Notes:
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine has a tremendously aromatic nose of paraffin, wet stones, and pine sap. In the mouth it is crystalline in its acidity but with phenomenal balance, tipping between a crackling minerality and an herbal, candied lemon peel sprinkled on old parchment and fresh hazelnuts. There is a depth and complexity to these flavors that is a little difficult to fathom, and much more difficult to describe. The closest I can get is the feeling of being really hot and sweaty on a muggy day, and then stepping into an ancient stone room deep underground, feeling the cool air envelop you as you smell stone and dust all around you. Take that for what it is worth — a metaphor, nothing more. The finish lingers long and electric with a resonance of grapefruit and rainwater. Gorgeous and utterly distinctive.

Food Pairing:
This is a beautifully food friendly wine, that might go with a lot of things, especially delicately flavored seafood. I might try it, just for fun, with this grilled squid and plum salad with Asian spices.

Overall Score: 9.5/10

How Much?: $40

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.