Old School Rioja: ’54 and ’68 Lopez de Heredia

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Events, Wine Reviews | Posted on 11-29-2010

A corner of the Lopez de Heredia cellar

I had the good fortune to attend a charity wine-tasting event in New York the other evening. It was a standard NYC charity affair — lots of well-to-do, well-dressed folks who knew little (to nothing) about the charity and were instead focused on tracking down a job or a spouse. You know, those endless pursuits that make the city that never sleeps so inexorably restless.

I was there for the wine. Two wines to be precise: the 1968 and 1954 Lopez de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Vina Tondonias.

Most could not resist the siren calls of the well-known Italian and California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends. There was a constant clamor to secure a spot in front of the tables pouring wines like Sassicaia, Silver Oak and Quintessa. The proprietors were busy — no time for talk or debate or a discussion of the merits of the wine. Instead, the theme of the evening seemed to be “Pour, baby, pour.”

These were great wines, made from grapes grown in meticulously groomed vineyards by winemakers who are no doubt incredibly passionate about their craft. But the wines being poured were from 2007. I don’t mean to take anything away from 2007. After all, it was a phenomenal vintage in Napa and a strong showing in Tuscany, following the much-hyped 2006 vintage. But drinking 2007 Bordeaux blends just after they’ve been bottled is not for me. If I want to have the enamel stripped from my teeth I can do it more cost-effectively by scheduling a dentist appointment.

Lopez de Heredia was founded around 1877 when Don Rafael Lopez de Heredia began construction of the building that is today known as the Lopez winery. The winery has been in family hands since and is today run by great-granddaughter Maria. The Lopez process of making wine is the same today as it was 130 years ago. The grapes are harvested by hand every October. Red grapes are destemmed and fermented with skins in large 240 hectolitre oak vats; wine is aged in American oak and then aged in bottle for varying amounts of time. Time is important to Lopez — unlike many modern commercial wineries. Even their most commercial wine must age in the bottle for a minimum of six months. The 1981 Gran Reserva was just released in 2006 — and it tasted like a baby in 2010. For those that are mathematically impaired, that is a whopping 25 years post-harvest!

The Lopez Gran Reservas, and the Tondonia in particular, are the estate’s finest wines. The Tondonia vineyard was founded between 1913 and 1914 by Don Rafael. It’s a beautiful 100-hectare vineyard located on the right bank of the Ebro river in Rioja planted mostly to the Tempranillo varietal. The Gran Reserva distinction is only granted to the highest-quality wine and is reserved for unique vintages that produce a truly exceptional crop.

The Gran Reserva wines spend an incredible eight years in the barrel before being bottled. Each year, a committee of three family members tastes the wine and tracks its progress. When the wine turns eight and is about to be bottled, the committee finally decides whether the wine is worthy of the “Gran Reserva” distinction. If so, then the wine spends at least another eight years aging in bottle before being released to the public. Since 1890, only 22 vintages of Lopez have made it to Gran Reserva status, including the 1954 and 1968.

Both the 1954 and the 1968 are still alive and kicking. That’s not a trivial statement, as these wines are 56 and 42 years old, respectively!

They drink like aged Grand Cru Burgundy; light on their feet, elegant, spherical in mouth feel and an oh-so-long finish. Both are now a brownish amber in color, but there is surprisingly little bricking for wines this old. Both wines still exhibit lovely aromatics, although the 1968 is more robust. The ’68 belies its old-age and gives off tastes of tobacco and dried cherries and cloves. The ’54 is smokier – tobacco and cigar smoke flavors are notable.

The tannins have faded but both wines (although the 1968 in more abundance) have a complex minerality and an acidic spine that makes them delicious (and makes you crave food).

Both wines are special, but for me, the 1968 was the wine of the night, with a little more fruit and a longer finish than the 1954. But perhaps what makes these wines truly special is that they still have more years of life in them. Here’s to another bottle of the 1968 in several years!

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