DATELINE: Rioja, Spain
My delve into the history and culture of Spain continued with our trip to Rioja Alta, one of Spain’s great wine making region. It was a personal joy to see the land, because Rioja Alta is the home of my fictional Ortega family whose story intertwines with the Hoffmans throughout Beyond Ultra and the rest of the Valhalla Trilogy.
Rioja is a dynamic mixture of old and new. In antiquity, the region has been occupied by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors, before the Reconquista finally expelled the Moors in 1492, the year Columbus landed in the New World. Each of these cultures, except the Moors, cultivated grapes and made wine in the territory now known as Rioja.
I have several research goals on this trip and they require me to look back in the viticultural history of Rioja. I want to place the Ortega family, especially Anita, in the reality of Spanish winemaking through the twentieth century. For a model of a multi-generation winemaking family in Rioja, I could hardly do better than the Lopez de Heredia family of Haro. Their legendary bodegas and vineyards, such as Viña Tondonia, are known by wine aficionados as exemplary representations of traditional Rioja wine and viticultural processes.
It is here that I was honored to meet Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia, the famous female leader of this enterprise. Maria Jose represents the fourth generation of this famous family and she helped answer my questions about how the fictional Anita Ortega can rise to fame. She is energetic and animated, as you can see in this photo.
Maria Jose invited Marcia and me to join a small exclusive group in the food and wine trade who were visiting Viña Tondonia. She personally lead the tour and we spent what turned out to be a full day with this charismatic woman.
The tour would be a worthy subject in its own right, but a few snippets may suffice to describe our experience. The cellars at Viña Tondonia are impressive and are loaded with older vintages, such as this 1904 tempranillo.
Most of these wines are still not only drinkable, but provide a unique tasting experience. Unlike the fruity flavors of many modern wines, Viña Tondonia and the wines of Maria’s other bodegas offer more subtle and nuanced flavors, especially as they age. These include vanilla, soft tannins, a variety of floral notes, as well as occasional tobacco and leather elements. There are other Rioja producers who make wine in this traditional style, but Maria Jose is considered the leading spokesperson maintaining the tradition.
As the tour progresses, Maria Jose provides me with invaluable background not only on her wine and winemaking, but on the cultural and social history of Rioja. Maria Jose answered my many questions and also provided copies of some rare and valuable books for my research.
Of course, the acid test of a good wine is how well it tastes and pairs with food. In the afternoon, Maria Jose took us to lunch at an exclusive restaurant in a nearby village.
It would take too long to describe the details of the seven course lunch at La Vieja Bodega restaurant, which included seven of Maria Jose’s wines from excellent vintages.
In that time, we gained a further understanding of the progression and development of the winemaking community in Rioja that will be of immense value in completing the Valhalla Trilogy.