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Lopez de Heredia and the 2004 Vina Cubillo Crianza

March 15, 2010

I once had the remarkable experience of attending a tasting of 13 wines from Lopez de Heredia. The tasting was directed by Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia. The wines were from vintages as late as 2002 and as early as 1970. Every single one was complex and captivating. The oldest, a red 1970 Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva, was among the most fresh and alive of the bunch and a white 1981 Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva was a paragon of its kind.

This winery follows the beat of its own heart. They make Gran Reservas in years others consider average  (1981) and decline to make a Gran Reserva in years considered to be great by many (1982. Blast, it’s my birth year).  They also  release their wines later than anybody else in a region that is not know for rushing its eminently ageable product into the market (in general 2004 Rioja hitting the market today is in the form of Reserva not Crianza).  Perhaps most notable is their edifying style of white which is released very late; their current releases for white are a 2000 Crianza, 1991 Reserva and 1987 Gran Reserva.  One might think their current reds would be even older, but no, their two red Gran Reservas are from 1991 and their two Reservas are from 2000 and 2001. Their rose is also aged a very long time by any standards, 1998 is out now. A major tenet of the philosophy of LdH is to make wines that last. Releasing them at an age when consumers might appreciate their ability to last makes perfect sense. I might also add that though these wines are mature on release I would not hesitate to keep many of them in a good cellar for years.

A word about the use of oak at LdH. Their wines spend a greater period of time in oak barrels than just about any other wine you could expect to find and yet they do not bear the hallmarks of much, and often deservedly, maligned oaky wines. The red 1981 Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva spent 8 years in barrels and the only notes I could link to oak barrels were subtle hints of licorice and spice. Most of the oak barrels used are not new and the winery keeps a staff of coopers trained in reconditioning old barrels so that they will not be required to use many new barrels. Maria Jose explained that there are not as many coopers skilled in reconditioning old barrels as there are in constructing new ones. The use of very old barrels is an integral part of their wine-making philosophy and would definitely account for the subtlety of flavor imparted by extremely long periods in oak. Not only is this interesting to think of in terms of wine-making but also in terms of forestry and sustainability.

According to Maria Jose vintage is not that important for LdH. European Union laws allow up to 15% of other vintages to be blended into vintage labeled wines. Excluding their Gran Reservas, most of LdH’s wines are multi-vintage blends. This is probably a very good idea and I wonder if it is more widely practiced than talked about.

The white wines of LdH are unlike any wines I’ve ever tasted. The closest I’ve had would be those of  Gauby, Matassa, Gravner or the Scholium Project but those were mostly young wines and none of them showed the elegance of LdH. The whites see skin contact for up to 3 or 4 days. This practice is nearly universally eschewed in contemporary white wine making and is usually considered either avant-garde or absolute madness. LdH has been making whites with skin contact for as long as they’ve been in operation and their confidence in a style that was, until recently, incessantly waning is truly admirable. Viura is the mainstay of their white wines with Malvasia backing things up. There is a some tannin in these wines and for this reason they shouldn’t be chilled. They should be served cool, at the temperature that would be appropriate for a lighter red.

I never understood why some wine writers compare Tempranillo to Pinot Noir or Rioja to Burgundy until I tasted a pair of red Reservas from Lopez de Heredia. The wines had those curious aromas I associated with older Burgundies and when tasted I couldn’t decide if they were full or light. They were also very dry but not lacking for fruit in the finish. I didn’t have much experience with wine when I first tasted them but I knew they were different in a very good way.  La Rioja Alta is the only other Rioja producer I know whose wines suggest Burgundy but I’ve found that La Rioja Alta is consistently cleaner (and thus sometimes less complex and more predictable) in it’s flavor profile. I do have less experience with La Rioja Alta than with Lopez de Heredia but both are among my favorite wines of all time because I love their eminently drinkable and delicate styles that defy present trends in Rioja to make big wines (though I must say that after tasting a 1978 Ygay and a 1999 Artadi Vinas de Gain there are other styles of Rioja that are very much to my liking).

The 2004 Cubillo Crianza was great as per usual for Lopez de Heredia. A more concentrated wine than I  expected with a deeper color than normal for a LdH. Crianza. According to their website the 2004 harvest ended in the Cubillo vineyard on November 5th. The grapes that went into this wine had a very long hang time and this might account for the concentration. Lots of dark plum and a hint of fresh dirty chanterelles.  Medium level of fine tannin and medium minus acid; a well balanced wine to drink now or throw (err…carefully place) downstairs for a couple years. Might be fun at that point to insert it in a blind tasting of older Burgundies.

By the way Lopez de Heredia’s website is very well done and there are a whole bunch of great pairing suggestions, something I left out of this post.

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