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The miraculous cellars of Viña Tondonia

Erik Spaans

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It's crazy how things can run in the world. A small incident somewhere on earth could have a major effect on the other side of the planet. That is, in these fast times not too surprising, but has never really been different. Similarly with the glorious wine in northern Spain and especially in Rioja Alta.

It all started in France, where in the late nineteenth century, a tiny insect with the nice Latin name phylloxera destroyed almost the entire viticulture by eating the roots of the vines. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, from the Loire to the Provence. Everywhere was chaos and nobody knew how to proceed. But it has been France in his innocence, which had helped the phylloxera to set foot on European ground via the quays of Bordeaux.

The imported vines from the other side of the ocean had always been full of those insects, but they were already deceased by the long voyage as the ship entered a French port. But as often shown: putative progress sometimes brings destruction. And also in this case. Fast steamships halved the travel time, the phylloxera could survive and started directly after disembarking eating the other vines. When it dawned up to the French that there was nothing more to do, all the vines, whose roots were affected, were massively excavated and burned. After the vineyards were disinfected they were replanted with vines, which were resistant to the insect. That is to say, they were classic species, grafted onto resistant American root stocks. And this still happens to this very day, along with experiments with hybrid vines, from where all sorts of 'wrong' DNA has been removed in the laboratories.

But as grafting takes a lot of time and a new vineyard just gives a small harvest after approximately eight years, they couldn’t produce a drop of wine in the next few years. And as usual, ones death is anothers benefit and the Spanish viniculture could profit by this ‘welcome natural disaster’. French winemakers left for the north of Spain to share their knowledge with the Rioja bodegas in order to imitate an as French as a possible product. This would then be transported to Bordeaux and from there bottled and sold. A nice French label on it, everyone happy.

And at that moment began the success story of Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta , a distinguished Spaniard with a mouse gray beard. Always dressed in a stylish long black coat and an even more stylish bowler hat, he turned his hobby into a real profession and started in Haro, strategically located near the Ebro, his ultimate challenge: producing the best wines of the Rioja Alta. The result was more than satisfactory and some later the export to France began. The fermentation and other cellar techniques improved by the day, a large number of wineries did as he did and the total wine industry throughout the region steamed at full speed up to the modern branche of industry of today. As a small shadow period the legendary Franco era, in which Spain was brought in isolation for a while and no bottle of wine left the country. But the production never stopped and that is one of the causes of the massive stocks in the numerous underground cellars, which in the dark and covered in cobwebs , are impatiently waiting for the squeaky scratching of the corkscrew.

Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta. With a great sense of public relations he designed a for that time a futuristic building with lots of decoration and curls and he constructed underground cellars with an area of ​​six thousand square meters, where the temperature remained at a constant level. He also invested in his own cooperage, because he had the firm conviction that each link in the process could be the weakest. And then it would be better if you also could have a hand in that part of the process.

Haro became, thanks to the efforts of this passionate gentleman, a city with international allure, where many people went for and where casinos celebrated their high days. Everyone earned too much, everyone ate , drank and gambled and as the ultimate example of modernism Haro was the first city in Spain who could afford electric streetlights. In the mean time the casinos disapeared, the streetlights remained and everyone is just working hard to the only real product where the Rioja can be very proud and that is: wine .

Viña Tondonia, founded in 1877 as a sole proprietorship become a family business, continued by Don Rafael's great grandchildren with the same passion of his life's work. And like most family businesses, they usually do better than ‘normal’ companies. Similarly the family López de Heredia. Since the recently deceased father Pedro are currently his son Julio César with his two sisters Mercedes and María José, who run the wine business, which is the oldest private companies having the Denominatón of Origen Calificada Rioja qualification. This is because they work, with here and there a contemporary adaptation, exactly as if the old Don dictated over hundred years ago. From the start until the sale.

Thus, the grape bunches are picked manually, there are no harvest machines involved. The pressing is through woven mats, esterillas, the fermentation is made in oak vats of American, Spanish, French and Yugoslavian oak and is being watched minute by minute and the aging is in American oak barrels, made in their own cooperage.

The Denominación of Origen demands a legal bottle maturation, which lasts at the López family al least six months. Without exception. But for the great wines , the Gran Reserva 's, at least six years! The clarification is done with egg white, there is an unfiltered bottling, the bottles are plugged up with long corks, sealed with wax and stored in the spectacular underground cellars where the best and cheapest natural flycatcher in the world can do its job in silence and in the dark: the spider’s web. These webs ensure that the corks can never be affected by insects.

After six, seven or even more years one by one the bottles are removed from their hiding place and cleaned, the wax inspected for cracks, a label with date and number glued on the bottle and this all slides in a brass crochet, where nobody can come inside, without cutting it in pieces. This because it sometimes happened in the early days, that the entire content was replaced by a merchant…..

In the end every bottle is wrapped in a nice printed sheet of paper before it may go on its journey.

Completely in the hip Rioja tradition, inwhich modern architects such as Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava were attracted to design extravagant bodegas, the frivolous Tondonia building has been piloted into the twenty-first century with a futuristic construction. The characteristic red tower is no longer the main visible highlight of the company, but even more the famous Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid’s steel shaped architecture, chained to the existing buildings and making the ancient past fit perfectly with the modern present. You can not make it better. And certainly not more beautiful. This futuristic indoor-outdoor wine shop with the pet name ‘La Frasca’, has in the back the mundane Art Nouveau exhibition stand of over a hundred years ago and is the ideal place to taste one of the most fantastic Rioja wines and a begin to a descent to the cellars, where occurs a mysterious and aromatic underground spectacle.


Erik Spaans wine-foodpictures.com okt 9, '13, 1:50 PM


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