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Socialising with royalty

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It's not often I get to fraternise with royalty - Spanish winemaking royalty, that is. In this case, the courtship with R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia took a few years, but it was certainly worth the wait.

The futuristic waiting room at the Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia.

López de Heredia's story begins towards the end of the nineteenth century, when French negociants (wine merchants) visited the Rioja region to find alternative sources of quality grapes to transform into wine, since the phylloxera epidemic had decimated their vineyards. Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic student in the art of wine making, followed closely in their footsteps. 

He fell in love with the Rioja region and especially the area around Hāro, the region's mythical capital. He observed a special combination of soil and climate that would offer the perfect environment for producing wine. Around 1877, he began the design and construction of the complex that is today known as the Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, the oldest  winery in Hāro and one of the first three houses of wine in the Rioja region.

For me, it all started in a wine shop in Parnell about 7 years ago, when my colleague Miguel (himself a Spaniard) regaled me with stories about the quality of these legendary wines and urged me to reach out to them. I sent an email and received a formal business email requesting information about myself and my business. There were further questions about a potential conflict with the Carlos Serres brand from Rioja already in the Planet Wine portfolio. This was explained away with relative ease (‘style of wine’) and I was invited to visit Hāro and the winery on my next European trip.

In 2015, on my annual European excursion, I flew from Barcelona to Logroño. This Rioja town is a must on any food-lover’s itinerary, with kilometres of small restaurants lining long, narrow, cobble-stone lanes, each specialising in its own style of food.  I had been joined in Barcelona by long-time American friend Teresa, who had flown in from Orlando.

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia vineyard

We hired a car and made our way to Hāro. This village is a sleepy hollow, with a railway station, some wineries and not much else. The Lopéz de Heredia winery is imposing, in an old, well-maintained warehouse kind of way. We headed into the futuristic tasting room, which was designed by architect Zaha Hadid in the shape of a decanter. The modern look contrasts dramatically with the external brick buildings and also the wooden store/stand which had been designed for and used at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910.

We proudly glided past the throngs of tourists and were led into the inner sanctum where María Vicente welcomed us. In keeping with the formal email exchange, María re-told the history of the winery, the family and the style of wines which are world-famous, age-worthy and collectable.

On display were many bottles of aged Tondonia bottles and the evolution of branding over the years. But the real reveal came when we were led into the tunnels, which harboured innumerable barrels and bottles. For anyone used to stainless steel ‘heaven’ in a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc winery, this would seem to be anathema. At Viña Tondonia, just like at the rum distillery Hampden Estate in Jamaica, it is the microclimate that has an undeniable effect on the flavours of these wines.

In the words of the winery:

“Special mention ought to be made of the white wines. If there is one bodega experienced in producing age-worthy white wines, it has to be López de Heredia. To talk in our bodega of white wines being exclusively young and uncomplicated would be asking for trouble. We have never been averse to ageing white wines in oak for as long as reds, and the result is much more surprising than might be expected. When this type of wine has spent a long time in contact with oak, the oaky tastes and aromas are overly noticeable and even unbalanced. Nevertheless, when left for a few more years in bottles, the rough edges of oak become sufficiently polished and balanced to create a seductive bouquet of spice, bitter almonds, vanilla and walnut, trademarks of the majestic and opulent Viña Tondonia whites.”

Everything at Viña Tondonia is done by hand and in-house - from picking grapes to making barrels. This winery has one foot firmly rooted in the aged soils of Rioja Alta and the other dancing with potential suitors around the world. Suitors who are looking for the exceptional. In the wines of Viña Tondonia, this is what they have found. Each wine is named after the vineyard the grapes are sourced from - Tondonia, Cubillo, Gravonia and Bosconia.

I could regale you with many more paragraphs about this unique winery, but …. In late September we will be receiving our next shipment of wines from our (now less formal) friends in Rioja. We have very limited allocations of the 2010 Rosé Gran Reserva, the Tondonia Reserva Blanco 2008 and the Viña Gravonia Blanco Crianza 2011. The other wines are available in greater volume.

My final words: TRY these wines!

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