Despite her petite stature, María José López de Heredia is a force of nature. She is the fourth generation to run her family’s R. López de Heredia winery in Rioja, Spain, and, like a Russian nesting doll, she seems to carry her whole family within her. When she talks she speaks not just for herself but for her father, her grandfather and her great-grandfather, who founded the winery in 1877.
“I do speak to them everyday,” López de Heredia casually mentioned as we toured the property in February. Her ancestors are no longer with us in body, but she keeps them alive in spirit so vividly that it's impossible not to feel their presence.
The R. López de Heredia bodega, in the town of Haro, is not the oldest winery in Rioja—Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta both date to the 1850s—but it is the most tradition-bound and least changed.
The bodega's 143-year history sets the course for both its day-to-day operations and its future, never wavering in the winds of change. Visiting the property is like stepping into the past, yet the winery has never been more relevant. Many of Heredia's wines are held for up to a decade or longer before release; among the label's more than 40 classic and outstanding ratings over the years, the Rioja White Viña Gravonia Crianza 2008 (93 points, $36) was among Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2018.
Our first stop was the 240-acre Viña Tondonia, the family's flagship vineyard in the Rioja Alta subregion. López de Heredia's great-grandfather Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta established the vineyard on a peninsula of alluvial and limestone soils on the Ebro river in 1913; it is the source of the winery's most prized wines. The vineyard is a patchwork of old vines, mostly Tempranillo. Testifying to the family’s patience, some parcels lie fallow for up to 14 years before replanting.
While tradition is rule here, López de Heredia is preparing for climate change. “We are replanting with more Graciano,” she explained. The late-ripening grape is an increasingly essential tool for winemakers in Rioja, who are experiencing rising temperatures during the growing season. Graciano’s ability to retain acidity has made it useful for blending and adding freshness to the wines.
There is more to these wines' terroir than the vineyard, however. In Rioja, and especially at bodegas like R. López de Heredia, another terroir exists, and it is found in the winery, where the wine matures for many years before bottling.
The winemaking practices here have remained largely unchanged since the 19th century. The fermentations and malolactic conversions take place in large wooden vats—more than 70 of them, all original to the winery—made from a medley of oak sources including France, Spain, the U.S. and the former Yugoslavia. No stainless steel tanks here.
And then there is the maze of underground corridors housing the 225-liter American oak barrels—more than 13,000 of them, none new—in which the wines rest for years, undergoing slow oxidation and periodic rackings, typically once or twice a year. Mold, a friend to the winery, is everywhere.
“I can tell looking at the color of the mold what the weather will be like 10 days from now,” López de Heredia claimed as we meandered through a barrel room. Cobwebs occupy every corner of the ceiling. “Looks like that one will fall down any day now,” López de Heredia distressingly remarked of an especially thick, spooky web directly above us.
Following years of barrel aging, the wines are bottled unfiltered and additionally aged for anywhere from six months to several more years. The prolonged aging process, both in barrel and bottle, is key to R. López de Heredia's signature style. The reds, whites and rosados showcase a traditional character: Firm acidities and low alcohols support dried fruit flavors along with hints of tertiary notes such as tobacco and nuts, a strong mineral appeal and elegant texture. The unique environmental microbiome of the winery's century-old cellar—old barrels, ambient yeasts, mold, cobwebs and all—results in wines that would be impossible to replicate outside the walls of this Rioja standard-bearer.
As we left the cellar to grab some jamon at a nearby restaurant, López de Heredia plucked, seemingly at random, a few bottles to take with us. They turned out to be 1964 Viña Tondonia Blanco and 1976 Viña Tondonia Rosado. The white was stunning—mature but still lively—with briny almond, chamomile, dried pear and cream notes; the nutty, caramelly rosado's dried blood orange flavors paired beautifully with the smoky cured ham.
López de Heredia confided that she and her sister, Mercedes, have received offers to buy the winery over the years, but they've never seriously entertained them. “People want to buy López de Heredia because it’s old,” she reflected. “But the day after they took over, it would fall apart.” If nothing else, it certainly wouldn't be the same.