Of all the bodegas established in the late 1800s in Rioja, López de Heredia is both the most iconic and the most unchanging. It occupies the same historic cellars, still relies entirely on its own vineyards, and unlike most of their competitors, which are now owned by outside investors, López de Heredia is owned—and every detail of its operation is handled—by the family who founded it.

And perhaps most significantly, they still make their wines much as they did a century ago, aging their greatest wines in wood for six to eight years. They are the epitome of traditional Rioja.

Maria José López de Heredia is one of three members of her generation now in charge of the company. But for many Americans, she is the face of López de Heredia, frequently travelling to the U.S., infectiously communicating her family’s great passion for its wines and its winemaking traditions.

We met Maria José on the first of her trips to the United States in 1999 and had the pleasure of interviewing her at the bodega in March 2012.

MB: Maria José, have your Bosconia and Tondonia wines always been one hundred percent from those vineyards?

MJ: One hundred percent, yes.

MB: Where are the vineyards? What’s different about the terroir that produces the two different styles of wine?

MJ: The terroir, they are all in Rioja Alta surrounded by Haro. The distance from Viña Tondonia to Viña Bosconia in a straight line is no more than three kilometers. But the orientation and the height, the soil is very different.

Within Viña Tondonia itself you can find places with much more limestone, because normally they use the whiter soils for the whiter grapes because also part of the history of the Rioja is that much more white grapes were cultivated than red grapes. It’s a type of soil that retains the temperature, drains very well. Now we are suffering an incredible drought, but the vines are older and the roots can resist dryness.

Viña Bosconia was chosen due to the much harder type of soil, much more clay, much more difficult for the root to survive, it’s also near the Haro River, with a North/South orientation, more limited sun. The difference in maturation between Viña Tondonia and Viña Bosconia can be three weeks, in a very short distance, and also it can rain in one vineyard and not rain in the other.

At that time they also used to buy grapes from outside to correct the wines or to balance the very bad years, because at that time mildew, oidium used to devastate us. Nowadays we can harvest 600,000 kilos to 800,000, depending on the year. But some years—like in 1947—they harvested 200,000. That was traumatic! So, in those years they would buy from other suppliers and they blended grapes that were not really from the single vineyard, not always. But never for the Gran Reserva vintage, never for the selected wines. Selected wines always came from these vineyards.

MB: Explain to us the decision-making when you decide, “This wine will be a Crianza, this wine will be a Reserva.” How did they do that in the past? Did they do it at harvest? Did they follow the barrels of wine to see how they developed?

MJ: Before 1925, the Regulator Council did not exist. Rioja was not Rioja DO, so I mean, people were making Rioja according to what the French had taught them, and at the beginning they were shipping in bulk [in barrel]. In fact, the first wineries that disappeared from La Rioja were the ones who did not open markets other than France. When the French began to recuperate [their vineyards from Phylloxera] they cut the buying of all the volumes of Rioja. And many of the wineries who relied on France for all of their sales disappeared. In this neighborhood [of Haro] there were other wineries that would’ve been older than us if they had survived.

So right after that is when they started to bottle the wines. Before that, people used to drink in bulk; bottling wasn’t important. But in France they were investigating whether wine could age in the bottle, as they didn’t know what bottle-aging could do for the wine. Now I’ve heard that Riscal has one of the biggest collections worldwide of old wines in bottle. And what I have always heard from my father is that the second-largest collection was in Bodegas CVNE, and that we have the third in number of vintages—not really in number of bottles, because we didn’t have big production—but we had many, many different vintages.

My great-grandfather started to bottle and store the wines in bottles, under advice from the investigators but also because he had a big family—thirteen children. This is what many wineries have called “Reserva de Familia” or “Family Reserve.” They started to reserve certain wines to age longer for special celebrations, to keep for when a child is born, and obviously they had to reserve the wines that had more capacity for aging, which they didn’t know which ones did. But obviously it was the high-quality wines, the ones that had a better balance of color, a better balance of acidity, and a better balance of alcohol content.

Rioja Alta [where our vineyards are located] gave very low alcohol content. We have beautiful 1964’s which are 11.5%, and you can still drink them fantastically well—but it was only the better quality wines they kept. So these were the Reserve wines and all the others were the Crianza wines. Crianza meant, historically, that the wine had been aged in the barrel. And “crianza” is a beautiful word for us—as people who live to age wine. “Crianza” is a word that we use for animals and for children—it’s like nurturing, educating, giving life, teaching, an evolution, you know. And all the wines were called Crianzas, so it was not a decision of: “What am I going to call this wine?” All of them were Crianzas, and then only a few ones—very selected amounts from very good years—were the Reservas.

That was the classification. My great-grandfather didn’t save any bottles until 1885. So, the decision of when to make a Gran Reserva was, at the beginning, for a special occasion. He decided [which wines] to save after the harvest was done—he took the decision from the very beginning. They needed to check the quality from the very beginning, so they decided in the vineyard, according to the weather, how the year had gone. So, they already knew which wines had more capacity for lasting longer.

But the idea was not lasting forever, either. The idea was lasting for a reasonable time, to just do a celebration, you know. So that whenever the occasion arrived, you could use this wine. And these are still the wines we store in a private cellar that was built by my grandfather with wines that he inherited from his father. They kept them in wood cases, all the bottles.

MB: Was it the practice of your family to try to maintain a consistent quality and style of all of the Crianza wines so that—at the beginning—they weren’t identified with a particular vintage?

MJ: I think yes and no. Consistency is something that is very important to us. Not changing is something very important to us. Believing in what we do is something very important to us. But what you have to believe in is mostly what you grow in the land. So, the rule at that time in the cellar was not touching the wine at all, I mean not trying to arrange the wine. I mean, respect what the land gives you. In fact, when they interviewed my father, who is now 83 years old, and they called him a winemaker, he always got very annoyed. “I am not a winemaker, I’m a vine-maker!”

His father didn’t allow him to study winemaking, because they used to think that you would try to arrange bad wine. The practice of our family was believing in the land. If you ask me what an aged wine is, it’s a philosophy. But it is more of philosophy of winemaking nowadays; it’s much more of a decision nowadays than in that time. In that time, they taught him how to make wine and there was a way of making wine, but obviously they lived, like nowadays, off a market. So they tried to make wines that they knew the market liked and in a certain style.

We have all the records—every single hand-written letter since 1870 from my great-grandfather. And what we know is that he was very clear on whom he wanted to sell the wines to. He wanted to sell the wines to people who owned cars, who wore a tie, who spoke languages, and who were related to royal houses or were diplomatic. I mean, he wanted to make the best wine in Spain. For that, he had to make a high-quality wine, and he had to be taught by the best investigators, and by the best châteaux, and by the people in France who he knew knew.

And at that time making wines to last was a philosophy. It was the only way possible, because there was no technology that allowed you to release the wines young and to drink them young. So it was the only way of winemaking. The history of wine goes back to the Egyptians, and to the Romans, and they were already very knowledgeable in how to age wine. But the aging of the wine is more a matter of survival than a philosophical matter. People have learned how to age wine as they have had to preserve it. Sometimes you want to preserve the wines for a special occasion.  

In 2011 we decided to harvest a Gran Reserva that won’t be released until twenty years’ time, not because we are expecting to celebrate something in twenty years’ time, but because experience has taught us that this gives a certain style of wine, with third-generation flavors. There is a demand, there are people who like it, we like it, and we do it like that.

We know my great-grandfather made, from the very first moment, a very consistent quality—his style—but he also adapted to the market. He used to make wines according to the taste of a specific customer in London, and he used to make wines for American tastes. Consistency can only be proved after many years, not after just one year. Now for us, we have decided on our style because we believe in it, and for us, as a family, it’s a way of living. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way or that it’s the best. There are people who appreciate this style of wine; there are many people who don’t.

Old wines disappeared in Rioja, because some consumers weren’t liking them. And still nowadays there are many people who don’t like aged wines. There are many people who don’t even know what aged wines are, they’ve never tasted them; they don’t know how to distinguish an aged wine, a really good aged wine, from a wine that hasn’t aged well. But Rioja, historically, knew how to age wines because they taught us to make wines with a vocation to age, whether they were called Crianzas or Reservas.

MB: You age your wines in barrel far longer than they ever did in Bordeaux. Is this something that the Bordelais taught you?

MJ: We have records from the first people who came to Rioja from Bordeaux to give advice to the winemakers, that they taught us how to age the wine in barrel. Before that, all the records that existed were talking about Rioja wines being tough, rude, inelegant. They used to press with stems, as there were no destemmers. The French introduced the technology of the destemmers. In fact, my great-grandfather bought his first destemmer machine in 1896 because the electricity hadn’t arrived before that. Before that they entered the grapes with no electricity.

He bought the de-stemmer machine from a company in Bordeaux, and he sold another destemmer machine in that same year to Bodegas CVNE. And they were making wines with more finesse. Then they taught him how to age the wines, and for many years we are aware and we have documentation of Bordeaux wineries aging wines.

In fact, all the know-how that we have about winemaking, the rackings, came from Bordeaux. Emile Peynaud came here many years ago when my father was relatively young and he gave a big lecture about tartaric acidity stabilization. Basilio from Bodegas CVNE was the number one pupil here of Emile Peynaud. And Emile Peynaud gave these lectures and the whole of Rioja was there, and then they took him to visit our house. At the end of the visit he told my father, “Pedro, have you been in my lecture?” and he said, “Of course, everybody was there!” He said, “Well listen, forget everything I said. If you are doing it this way, don’t change.”

MB: Do you think the practice of aging wines in barrel for a long time came about for economic reasons?

MJ: It was a reality in La Rioja. At the time, depending on the moment, all the techniques that have helped us to learn how to age wine came out of the necessity of having to store the wines, that’s for sure, for sure.

MB: So you think that the practice of aging the Reservas for so many years in barrel – which was common for all the houses in the past – that it started out by economic necessity, that they couldn’t sell the wine quickly enough? And then it became and established practice?

MJ: Yes, yes, yes, that’s for sure. At the beginning, in certain moments they had to store it and they were forced to store it, and they were forced to know how to store it and to allow the wine [to age] – it was more than philosophy.

After the war—I mean, the Spanish Civil War—they had to store a lot of wine. They knew how to do it. But we don’t have many wines from after the war because they needed the money, so they sold all the wines very fast for the cash. But this also affected the philosophy of winemaking, that’s for sure, yes.

MB: When they first started to bottle the wine, was the bottled wine automatically Reserva? And was Crianza the wine they continued to ship in barrel?

MJ: No, no, no. The barrels disappeared quite soon. The market was not that aware of the classification Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. Spanish people didn’t buy based on the classification of Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva. So there were Gran Reserva wines that were released as Crianzas. Before that, my great-grandfather had another classification: “Vino Superior,” “Vino Fino,” and “Vino Especial.” And there used to be another one, “Vino de Pasto.” So there were other classifications before the Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva classification was established.

And another thing, going back to your last question, it wasn’t only that they had to age wines for many years, it’s also that each market is different. My great-grandfather sold about fifty percent abroad, fifty percent in Spain. In France, if you drink wines with sediment, the market was used to it. In Spain, you couldn’t drink a wine with sediment. So that’s why they had to store the wines in a barrel.

The back label of La Rioja Alta was beautiful because it used to say, “You will find sediment in your wine. This is because the wine has not been filtered,” and, you know and, “This sediment won’t damage your health.” It was a beautiful explanation because there was a time in which, since the technology was advancing, the consumer wasn’t used to finding sediments and everyone disliked having sediments, and they got annoyed. The market wouldn’t accept it, and it happened after with the cork. Consumers were used to seeing a very pretty, clean cork … so, it’s not only philosophy but also pressure from the market. It’s a normal evolution, not always a philosophy.

MB: Do you know why American oak was used traditionally. How did that happen?

MJ: My father imported and we still import American oak. My great-grandfather imported the oak through a man from Irún. At the beginning, the oak was not a winemaking decision. And there were coopers here, in this space. In every winery there were plenty of coopers, and they used to use not only oak; they also used to bring in chestnut, cherry trees – any type of wood that could be molded and bent to make barrels different sizes for shipping.

At that time they didn’t know, either, that the wines could age well in the barrel, and the micro-oxygenation, the polymerization. They were just storing the wine. And soon the American oak was the one which survived.

They used to talk about oriental and occidental oak. The French oak is more similar to the Russian and Spanish than to American. Spanish oak was almost unavailable, although we have old vats that were made of oak from Navarra, from the mountain close to the Basque country, and from Cantabria, from Santander and that whole area. But then they brought oak from Yugoslavia. It was very soft but it was not always available.

American oak was always the easiest to find, but not always the cheapest. We have records showing that we could have bought French oak for much cheaper than American oak, but still they bought American oak. Sometimes they bought French oak for the big vats. But it was not winemaking … They were using the barrel as a place where the wines aged, but not for giving them any personality. Wine should remind of the terroir and the fruit, but this is something that I’ve heard from my grandfather from the very beginning. And we also have records from my great-grandfather that they used the oak barrels to  evaporate alcohol. They considered highly alcoholic wines very tasteless, very inelegant. It was really, really the worst that could happen to a wine. So if they had an excess of alcohol, they had more patience in giving the wine more time in barrel to lower the alcohol content. They were looking for alcohol evaporation, not purely for aging. And that’s why my great-grandfather used to age the white wines longer than the red wines. Many people find this extraordinary, but he did that.

MB: It seems that, for at least the last ten or fifteen years, the oldest vintage you have for sale is 1942.

MJ: Yes.

MB: Until maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, did you have even older vintages for sale?

MJ: 1934, and 1920’s. We can still drink some of these bottles, but we cannot guarantee them. In fact, 1942, ’57 white, are too delicate, already, to travel. I would say nowadays 1947 would still good and 1954, too.

MB: Let’s talk about aging the wines.

MJ: Many people ask us, “Why do they age so well?” Because the cellars were built underground and there’s very little evaporation of alcohol, and the micro-oxygenation also in aged barrels is more gentle, so you can age for a longer time, fighting against the oxidation which is the normal way of how a wine ages. Obviously, if the quality of the grapes is good, it can face the oxidation better.

[But] many people ask us, “Do you think that wines from nowadays are going to last twenty years?” And I think so. I don’t believe nature cannot give us as much quality now as it gave us years ago. The whole world is under panic that, “Ah! We are losing…” It’s not true! We have been growing the land the same way for many years and my father, even when he didn’t have a single penny, worked very hard on that. He believed that you couldn’t make great wine with bad grapes, and he believed this in the most difficult moments of the market.

MB: And you continue to leave the wine in barrel for how many years?

MJ: For Bosconia Reservas five years, for the Tondonia Reservas six years, white and red; and for the Gran Reservas, depending on every lot, eight, nine, or ten years.

MB: Wow.

MJ: Normally we don’t, we don’t age longer than ten. We could because Navarra is the only DO in Spain which forbids aging more than ten years. I don’t know who decided that marvelous rule, but I’m very pleased not to be in Navarra at the moment.  But many of our wines not only have been aged ten years in the barrel, but maybe have stayed one year, or a year and a half in a big vat, so by the time we bottle, they can be eleven or twelve years old. So by the time we release them, if they are eighteen years old, it’s nothing for the cork. A cork can last … a good cork, and the cork has to have no smoothness or paraffin. It has to be one hundred percent natural cork, because that way the adherence is better … these corks can last perfectly thirty, thirty-five years. And this was the, the target. The idea of a wine is not lasting forever. The idea of a wine is allowing someone who is a wine collector – who buys a lot of bottles and doesn’t drink regularly – to store them for a few years in good conditions and enjoy them for a few years. The point of a wine is not for it to be drunk after a hundred years. After many years, for us it has historic value, winemaking value. And for me it’s exciting because they are the wines that were made by my father, by my grandfather … but it doesn’t give me more pleasure. I mean the pleasure, the enjoyment of a wine when it is aged is the gentleness, the elegance, the smoothness, that maybe you cannot appreciate in other wines that are young, which are extraordinarily high-quality, but they give you other sensations. It’s a matter of a different experience, not better or worse.

MB: Thank you, thank you, this has been great.

MJ: I could tell you a million more stories! (laughs) Yes, many…

MB: For next time. Thank you again.

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Wine barrels in a cellar

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