Thursday, November 29, 2007

Deetrane Deep Down in the Cellars of López de Heredia

When my pal Deetrane read the post from the other day about tasting the 1976 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia, he was flooded with good memories. Deetrane and his wife P-trane went to Spain for their honeymoon and visited several wineries. He says that the single best experience they had was their unplanned visit to López de Heredia. So sit back and enjoy as guest-poster Deetrane takes us on a trip down the twisted pathways of his memory lane:

P-trane and I are on the first winery tours of our honeymoon, after several days and nights wending our way from bistro to parador to cava bar across Catalonia and Aragon, before settling into a lovely old convent-cum-hotel in the medieval center of Haro, Rioja’s wine capital.

First up – Bodegas Muga, of course – the only Rioja wine we knew by name up to that point, and one of the largest “premium” Rioja exporters. A quality winery by any standard, and a very detailed, interesting, competent, FREE English-language tour (an intensive primer, in fact, in all things Rioja). But despite it being our first winery visit, we still sensed we were at the Rioja equivalent of the Epcot Center. Authentic no doubt, yet just a little too polished, and few dozen too many Euro-coaches in the parking lot.

Great prices in the shop though. €2.50 for Crianza, €5.50 for Reserva, €8.50 for Prada Eneo (Gran Reserva), €12.00 for Torre Muga! We bought three bottles.

Right next door, the venerable La Rioja Alta. Three Euro-coaches in the parking lot, versus Muga’s fifty. A very good sign. No English signage, much less an English-language tour. An even better sign. As the Spanish-speaking tour guide describes the traditional steps such as fining with egg-whites, we nod sagely (if uncomprehendingly) having just seen all the same stuff at Muga five minutes earlier. But a real, working cooperage, as opposed to Muga’s costumed-mannequin diorama (think Museum of Natural History, or better yet, that crazy robotic contraption in the basement of the Mormon Tabernacle). Even better prices in the shop, with wines from across the parent company’s brands.

A year or so later we opened the 1994 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 890 we purchased there for under €10.00. A revelation – the first time I had tasted a perfectly integrated, balanced, aged red wine of any kind. It was the most memorable, sumptuous and absorbing wine I had tasted in my life, notwithstanding what came next.

Three tour buses were still too many for what P-trane and I were I the mood for. We started to stroll through the streets of the old, mostly low-slung, very urban warehouse style winery district of Haro. We became fascinated by the numerous small patches of old, gnarly Tempranillo vines, planted right between the endless brick, stucco and concrete winery buildings.

We’d gone not more than 20 yards from La Rioja Alta when we heard loud banging shop noises coming from behind set of huge oak doors across the street. We ambled towards the noise into a courtyard, saw that the doors were ajar, and walked in on two coopers in overalls. They were busily banging wrought iron rings, American and French oak planks into barrels and toasting them over open flames that were shooting up from perfectly round, manhole-like openings in the floor. The coopers were friendly, and waved us closer.

Within minutes, a door opened and a short, very mod, thirty-something woman with chic rectangular glasses and a spiky short haircut came in with two fair-skinned, forty-something men (there she is in the picture, courtesy of Alice Feiring). Without prompting, she flashed us a sympathetic glance and said, in perfect English, “I’m Maria de López de Heredia. These guys are economists from the University of Barcelona – friends of my father’s. Let me just ask them if they mind you coming with us.”

We held our breath. No, they wouldn’t mind, came back the answer!

Oh boy!

The next minute we were descending through a metal casement door heading directly underneath the sprawling winery complex, down down down over tiny uneven steps, lower and lower in the bowels of López de Heredia. The walls literally turned black and fuzzy with penicillin mold. Maria gesticulated and pointed and jabbered in Spanish, pausing to translate what seemed like every 14th word.

Who needed translation?

It was…. Insane. With no natural light, a faint bulb here and there was all there was to illuminate row upon row of barrels, a seemingly boundless catacomb of vaulted corridors. On the floor were smooth metal rails, just slightly protruding above slippery cobblestones. After a while we could see faint sparkling lights in the distance. We came upon several cellar workers who were bottling a 1995 Gran Reserva. It was now May of 2003, mind you. This wine was being bottled after some two years in large wooden casks and another five years in barrel. The workers wore hardhats with sputtering sodium lamps, like spelunkers, and thick, black rubber gloves and aprons and reminded me of the Mario Brothers and undertakers at the same time.

One of them was arranging empty green bottles on a small wheeled metal tray sitting on the rails built into the floor. The other was filling the bottles one at time with a little swiveling spigot. As each tray of 12 bottles filled up, they would roll it a few feet to the third guy, who would pick the bottle up and position it in a corking device and pull down on a lever. Each time, he would be liberally squirted with wine – hence the heavy rubber gear. Each guy had a glass of wine standing around the work area, the flicker of the headlamps just enough to see that the Gran Reserva was a crystal clear ruby color. It was 10:15 a.m.

A few minutes latter, we saw bright movie-set lighting further down one of the corridors, this one racked with endless rows of bottled wine. A photo shoot was in progress, and the crew was standing amidst hundreds of bottles on the floor in between the racks, like giants in a sea of penguins.

“Oh, that’s So-and-So,” Maria casually tossed out, “He’s, like, the most famous television director in Spain, but we’re old friends so he’s doing my new brochure pictures today.”

We come to a gigantic, rolling oak door, at least 12 feet high. After several tense (for us) minutes futzing with keys and jostling the padlock, Maria hauls aside this hulking door an we are met with an amazing site. In the center of what can only be described as a dungeon room is a massive round table made from the lid of a giant oak fermenting tank. Standing upright in the middle of that, sort of as a centerpiece, is an old, dried out vine trunk. About six feet above that, a dangling brass chandelier. Over decades, a thick, black rope of pure penicillin mold has climbed down from the ceiling, wrapped itself around the chandelier, and continued on its way to envelope the centerpiece. (Photos courtesy of Crush). All around us are huge concrete bins, with the remaining stocks of winery owned vintages, going all the way back to the beginning (1877). The oldest vintages are mostly piles of mold, dust, broken glass and empty bottles, but Maria assures us there’s still probably some good stuff in there – but no one has the guts to go in and find out!

López de Heredia makes wines from several vineyards, although their most heralded wines come from two vineyards - Tondonia and Bosconia. Bosconia makes only red Rioja, and is pure Tempranillo. The Burgundy-shaped bottle hints at the style of the wine. Tondonia makes white and red, and is a blended wine. The Bordeaux-shaped bottle hints at the style.

Maria turns on the lights and we see platters of Serrano ham, and fresh bread, and… wine glasses! Woo hoo! We tasted flight after flight, starting with some very old Tondonia’s This is WHITE wine, mind you. The oldest we tasted may have been a 1955, followed by a 1961, a 1968, and a 1970. Then we tasted a bunch of old Bosconia, the oldest being a 1954 or so. P-trane and I had never tasted wine this mature or this traditionally made. I can’t really describe it, but needless to say it was around this time that I started drinking a lot more wine, generally!

The economists turn to leave, and Maria tells us to stay put while she escorts them out. P and I are now ALONE in the López de Heredia library. Do I go in search of an intact bottle of 1895 gran reserva? Hmmm, the 1914 stack is looking like a better bet. She’s back, with the television director and his crew in tow. Partay! After doing both white and red flights a second time, with the film director and co., Maria announces that its time to head into town for Tapas. “Do you want to come?” Do we want to come? DO WE WANT TO COME???!???!!!??

We leave our car in the Muga parking lot and hop into Maria’s beat up rat-trap Volkswagen and head to one of her regular bistro’s in the center of Haro near the Plaza Mayor.

Maria orders basically the entire menu over the next three hours, as well as three or four bottles of López de Heredia from the surprisingly ample list at this very casual joint. At this point, bottles of 1988 and 1991 are comparatively blasé.

By about three o’clock, everyone is pissed drunk, Maria has now been translating, drinking and gesticulating for five hours, and it is time to, gulp, drive back to the winery and get our car. We all kissed on both cheeks and said our goodbyes, thanking Maria and television director and the Good Lord for this incredible day. Every year, when we get our Christmas card from Maria, we think about the next time we’ll taste a 1955 Vina Bosconia.

I encourage everyone to visit them. When we were there, there was no organized visiting or tasting at the winery. Maria, who is apparently now the CEO (she had been the head of Marketing) commissioned an ultra-modern tasting building by architect Zaha Hadid, described on Wikipedia as a “notable Iraqi-British
deconstructivist architect.” Yowza.


RougeAndBlanc said...

Thanks Neil.
Wonderful post! Please thank Deetrane for sharing his memories.

Mark V Marino said...

Great Story! Incredible hospitality a lesson for others and the essence of the purpose of wine and wine making!

David McDuff said...

Great write-up, Deetrane. Sounds like a fantastic experience. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, folks. I've been meaning to write about this ever since our honeymoon, and Neil's post finally gave me the perfect opening...

And Wine Limo, you nailed it. Maria de L de H really does personify the spirit you are talking about.

Eddie Howard said...

Wonderful post. Even though I had a nice trip to Spain last April, this post made me ready to plan another trip ASAP. Thanks, Deetrane.

Brooklynguy said...

that tasting room is an amazing bit of design. it is such a contrast to the other buildings nearby, yet somehow it seems to work, in the photo anyway.

i love how you get a x-mas card from the CEO of LdH Deetrane. You should contact her and give her the URL for this post you did.

duane said...


What a wine lover's dream! Congrats to Deetrane on having the courage to say hello and put out the vibe that got them in the door. Winemakers love to share!

Brooklynguy said...

hi duane - thanks for your comments. interesting site - i will poke around a bit more. take it easy-

Anonymous said...

deetrane, you've got to start your own blog man. you've really got a knack for telling the story.

neil, you do to of course, that's why i subscribe!

thanks for the read.

Deetrane said...

Hey, thanks! Start my own? Not when I can make Neil do all the grunt work and I only have to write a story once every few months!

Brooklynguy said...

hey pk - thanks for the compliment. and deetrane, you just got your guest quotient upped to twice a month.

Anonymous said...

Now that I have tasted my first few Lopez de Heredia wines, now that I GET IT, I bothered to read this post. What kind of moron am I? It's perfect, the kind of experience that shouts "kismet!" It's months after the fact--thank Deetrane for me, please.