Take two extremes of Rioja and it would be fair to say that they're represented by López de Heredia Viña Tondonia in the traditional corner and Roda in the modern. This fact was underlined by a visit to both wineries in Haro in la Rioja Alta during last week's Los Grandes de la Rioja tastings put on by the Rioja region.
Not yet 20 years old, Roda is slick and smart, the entire winery purpose built to capture the essence of freshness and minerality of old vine tempranillo and garnacha.
Viña Tondonia, founded in 1913-14 by Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta, is a vineyard of over 100 hectares situated on the right bank of the river Ebro. R. López de Heredia also own "Viña Cubillo", "Viña Bosconia" and "Viña Zaconia".
Neither slick not smart but imbued with atmosphere by a family-run operation that believes strongly that its wines show best after vinification in big oak casks (it has its own cooperage) and ageing for lengthy periods of time. But you have to see the winery to really understand how its theatrically dark and cobwebbed cellars contribute so strongly not just to the atmosphere but to the ageing of the wines.
After walking round the cellar with sister and brother Mercedes and Julio Cesar López de Heredia, we were treated to a tasting of the following wines:
1981 Tondonia Blanco Reserva
This blend of viura and malvasia has between seven and 10 years barrel ageing normally. The 1981, yellow gold in colour, has a quite extraordinarily evolved bouquet with a sherryish element of orange marmalade maderisation and rich smoky sweet caramel toffee aromas. It reminds you a bit of an aged tokaji szamorodni, with an off-dry impression of sweet toffeed maderised fruit, yet extremely fresh and appetisingly dry on the finish. But not everyone's cup of tea, admittedly but delicious, I thought. 92
1981 Tondonia Gran Reserva
From the same vintage, the red is a youthful aged garnet colour, with remarkably clean, fresh red fruits on the nose with a savoury element, lovely delicate ripe fresh cherryish fruit, lightly spicy oak perfectly integrated, emphasising the fruit purity, almost pinot noir like in its fresh berry fruit and delicacy, washed down with a savoury slice of jamón. 92
1961 Tondonia Gran Reserva
Garnet in colour, with fresh leathery aromas and hint of balsam, this is a wine of wonderful allure, with lovely delicate, sweetly ripe cherry and mulberry fruit with leathery background and balsamic notes, perfect oak integration and remarkable freshness for its age, in fact not showing age, but rather, life and vibrancy of fruit, evolving like a delicately mature red burgundy. Simply fabulous. 95
Mercedes then showed some of the young wine not yet in bottle as an interesting contrast: a 2009 Tempranillo with lovely fresh succulent fruit , and an excellent 2009 Graciano, deep colour, wow nose, very intense and spicy, touch of pepper, lovely dark fruits concentration and damsony acidity freshness and firm backbone. Seems almost a shame to have to wait.
At Roda in Haro the previous evening, Agustin Santolaya treated us to a vertical tasting of all the Roda 1s, their top wine that is, from its inception until the 2005 vintage.
Owned by Mario Rotllant and Carmen Daurella (hence Ro-Da), Roda uses tempranillo and garnacha grapes from 20-odd blocks of old vines, taking the best 17 each year from vineyards in the Haro area of la Rioja Alta, and ageing the wine after vinification only using French oak. Apparently they like to do the vertical tasting on a regular basis and some 3000 people have participated in different parts of the world.
This was the result.
1992 Roda 1
An Atlantic vintage, a very rainy year and less sun, including rain at harvest time.
Beautifully evolved on nose with leathery, gamey undertones and deliciously evolved sweet and sour mulberryish fruit with good savoury fresh acidity, and a texture that’s soft and supple. Surprisingly good. Classic. Drink now. 88
1993 was an even worse vintage so no Roda 1 was produced, only Roda II.
1994 Roda 1
A very dry year with healthy grapes, severe drought relieved by 35.6mm of rain on September 23rd .Good youthful colour, fresh enticing aromatic quality, red fruits and sweet-savoury cedary fragrance, spicy, very good ripe sweet red fruits succulence, some tannins and firm savoury acidity still there on the finish, bringing a youthful yet elegant feel and very good overall balance. Ready for drinking now. 92
1995 Roda 1
A year of quality with high yields and perfect distribution of rainfall with outstanding harvest weather and a dry October although there was some difficulty with fermentation due to the high temperatures outside. Very different aromas here with more evident modern coffee bean oak on the nose, as if trying a little bit hard, but lovely opulence of dark berry, super succulence of texture with good fresh savoury acidity. Still lively and bright and very much ready for drinking now. 92
1996 Roda 1
Irregular budburst but good conditions of rain and temperature and healthy grapes, so hard to explain other than the oak régime why the animal funk on the nose and so bretty in every respect. A seriously undrinkable wine. Apparently, Roda was being aged in a third new oak, a third one year and a third two year old, but after this the régime changed to 50% new and 50% one year old French oak and less time in oak. Agustin Santolaya admits it’s bretty, so if you have any lurking in the cellar, I’d ask for your money back. 72
1997 Roda 1
Very cold and rainy, this was an irregular year which demanded a thorough selection, although September and October were good. Coffee bean oak on the nose, quite harsh acidity running through this wine, light on fruit, with slight funky character, a loss of sweet fruit and polish of the mid 1990s, quite elegant and almost bordelais in style however. Drink now. 87
1998 Roda 1
More influenced by the Mediterranean than the Atlantic, this was very good vintage following a dry and hot summer which caused drought. September was rainy and October dry. Attractive red fruits fragrance and sweetness of strawberry jam fruit on the palate, well-integrated oak, juicy succulent texture and fresh savoury acidity, still quite firm and grippy with plenty of life left, and good acidity, albeit perhaps a tad warm and four-square on the finish. Drink now. 89
1999 Roda 1
The year of the short growing cycle including 36 days of below 0 ºC temperatures during winter. Severe frost on April 16th, reaching –4,5ºC devastated the region. Very low yields, exorbitant grape prices of the grapes, but the grapes from frozen vines had better quality because their yields were lower. The nose is subdued, the fruit is attractive, albeit with some hard acidity behind it, keeping it fresh and savoury, and bringing a pleasantly juicy mulberry fruit quality. Drink now and for 3 years. 88
2000 Roda 1
Very rainy winter, normal weather in spring and very dry summer with 14 days over 30 ºC. Mediterranean influence with old vines better off than young vines, which suffered stress. A major change took place in 2000 when underfloor heating made the induction of the malo in barrel much easier. A warm feel to the aromas and fruit with some sweet red fruits on the mid-palate, a touch of sweet chocolate, nicely integrated oak, good concentration, which is a tad chunky and dry on the finish, but overall a nicely balanced red fruits feel to it. Just coming into its own now, but has 3 – 5 years ahead of it. 89
2001 Roda 1
An outstanding vintage of perfect ripeness with a dry and warm spring, although imperfect flowering, land loose bunches as a consequence. Youthful ruby hue, still vigorous, lovely fragrant red fruits quality, seductively concentrated bright cherry and strawberry fruit with delicious purity and concentration, a touch of sweet chocolate, yet real elegance and freshness with oak integration bringing spicy top notes. Very complex with firm structure and fine lovely balance. Drink now and 5 – 8 years. 94
2002 Roda 1
An Atlantic vintage, very cold. An unusual growing cycle, very heterogeneous, with low yields caused by small budburst. Rainy August and rainy at harvest time. Good youthful colour, powerful, vivid, youthful aromas with polished vanilla and cedary character, very nice succulent cherry fruit quality, good concentration, good spicy oak integration, elegantly crafted and understated, restrained, a touch of chocolate, quite firm tannins on the finish and the high, fresh acidity of a cooler year; a real success for a lesser vintage. Drink now and 3 – 5 years. 90
2003 Roda 1
A historically hot summer causing high water demand in the vines with 40ºC even during harvest time. Rains during the first half of September although harvest time was better at the end. Old bush trained vines performed well. Quite rich, savoury mulberryish notes with notes of evolution, rather baked and jammy with slightly forced acidity, very dry, hot year tannins, pulling up short on the finish, going nowhere fast. 86
2004 Roda 1
A ‘miracle’ vintage with storms in August, some hail during August and September storms and heat causing botrytis (Sept 1st-10th), but from September 11th to the end of the harvest time a dry and sunny weather with north winds drying the rot out. Youthful colour, good depth of red fruits fragrance, powerful, rich and concentrated dark red and black fruits, touch of chocolate, nicely integrated oak, still firm, grippy, vigorous and youthful, not yet fully knit together but the fruit, structure and freshness are all there, just needing time to come together. Drink from 2011 for 10 years. 93+
2005 Roda 1
An outstanding vintage until October 12th when the rains came down after a dry and warm summer. Perfect ripening process and good September with moderate temperatures and cold nights. Closed with toasty oak notes, richly concentrated mulberry and cherry fruits and powerful, firm grip to the tannic structure, which with the level of acidity, makes this quite demanding at the moment but like the 2004, the building blocks of fruit, oak, freshness and tannin are there, perhaps a tad more elegant in tannins than the 2004. 93
Given the youthfulness of the 2004 and 2005, both excellent vintages, the question was asked whether most of the young wines would be drunk too soon. They revealed at that point that for precisely that reason, they were keeping 30,000 bottles of the 2004 and 2005 for selling later as museum releases. Hurrah!
A vote was then taken with all 44 people tasting giving their top three wines, with the following result:
1. 2001 with 36 votes
2. 2004 with 21 votes
3=. 2005 and 1995 with 20 votes
5. 1994 with 16 votes
6. 1997 with 7 votes
7. 2002 with 5 votes
8. 1998 with 4 votes
9. 2000 with 2 votes
10. 1999 with 2 votes