Classic Spanish Rioja - R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia and Viña Gravonia

There are classic wines and wineries to be sure, but when you've been in the business for more than 100 years you become synonymous with the the wine of the region. Enter R. López de Heredia. Founded in 1877, the winery is still owned and run by family (now in it's fourth generation) and Viña Tondonia is one of the iconic wines of Rioja.

I have to admit, for a long time I was unenthusiastic about Rioja. It's easy to get caught up in the hype over Bordeaux and Burgundy and lose sight of the greatness of other classic regions. Rioja was always a safe bet for me, a tasty drink, but not something I was excited about. And then I started really drinking Rioja. I dug into the style and grapes and winemaking practices and found a real beauty in the region and the wines that was lost on me before.

Which leads me to the Viña Tondonia and Viña Gravonia. A good friend of mine is a Spanish wine freak and in the past few weeks I've had the distinct pleasure of drinking the 2002 Viña Tondonia Reserva several times as well as two different vintages of the Viña Gravonia. So first, a little about the winery, then I'll get to the wines.

 R. López de Heredia is all about the tradition and quality of their wines, wanting a consistent representation of their terroir. They source grapes from only their own vineyards and even goes so far as to have a working cooperage to craft their own barrels. And since they believe their wines need ample time in the bottle before they are ready to drink, they release wines often a decade after they are made. The 2002 Viña Tondonia I've been enjoying these past few weeks is the current release.  The 2004 Viña Gravonia white was last year's release. Yes, R. López de Heredia is consistently aging their whites as well. Few, if any, wineries can make such claims.

I will start with the white Rioja, the 2004 Viña Gravonia. This is a crianza wine, 100% Viura (grape) aged in oak then stored in the bottle until it's ready. The color was a gorgeous gold and the nose had this amazing combination of nuttiness with salinity. Faintly salted toffee? Hard to describe, yet delicious and unlike most whites. It was completely dry, with nice acidity and a richness of flavor and complexity that almost drinks like a red. It was obviously an aged wine, yet still maintained a lovely  freshness. I drank it alone, but I imagine it would pair amazingly well with any number of seafood dishes, as well as grilled pork or chicken. It was delightful and costing less than $30 a bottle, quite a good value.

On to the 2002 Viña Tondonia Reserva. From the minute you pour it in the glass, the color gives away the age of the wine, the center is ruby red but as it moves to the edge turns more amber. The nose is extremely hard to describe, because it is classic Rioja. Yes, there's some funk, an earthiness comes through along with vanilla and dill pickle barrel on the nose (from the use of American oak) that fades as it opens and leads to dried fruit, dried berries    Somehow, this wine typifies the style that I find it difficult to describe. There's a good amount of tannin, but it's very well integrated and soft. This is another perfect food wine, ready to go with your big meats and sausages, heavy dishes and the like. And again, I have to mention that this bottle is usually less than $40 retail, for 13 yrs of age, that's quite a value.

Both wines were beautiful, complex, and well made. They do not have the hedonistic deliciousness of many new world wines. They don't bang you over the head with fruit, instead, they kind of whisper in your ear. Someone new to wine might try it and say, "hey, what's the fuss about?" I know I could happily glug a few glasses with a meal and think nothing more than "tasty." But not taking the time, just a little, to listen to what it has to say is really a shame.  What is most interesting to me about these wines is the care. There is a consistency across the bottles that speaks to the fact that R. López de Heredia is making wine not for scores, or to win some award, but to capture their vineyards and their history in the bottle. That's pretty special.

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