Eating mold in Rioja

One of the finest wines I’ve ever tasted hails from Spain’s Rioja region. The winery hasn’t changed its methods since starting in 1877. Same presses. Same massive oak fermentation vats. Same cellars. It also differs significantly from its ‘traditional’ winery neighbors: holding its wines long after all others release their vintages, and employs drastically different climate control methods. No fruit- or oak-bombs here. Earthy, with a plethora of secondary and tertiary notes ranging from blood to game to orange peel. Different. Not for everyone.

After enjoying various older vintages with like-minded wine geeks, I have an opportunity to taste some of the winery’s exceedingly rare wines–both produced under Franco’s regime during World War Two. It’s a super-spendy reserve wine tasting of ‘Great Producers’, and I have no idea these wines are being poured, alongside top old vintages from the finest producers in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Ribera del Duero, Tuscany, Piedmont, Mosel. Super heavy hitters. I’m blown away by how fresh and alive they are–especially given the lofty company they’re in.

1942 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Rioja

1942 Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva Rioja

Those wines trounce most of the other 40 we taste. And the experience profoundly changes my perception of what wine can be. How can a winery produce such exquisite and long-lived wines? What’s going on there?

When a friend opens a stunning 1978 Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva, then shares a story about meeting winemaking sisters, touring moldy cellars, and ancient vintages tasted, I’m ready to book a flight. “You tasted a what? A 1959?” I’m enamoured. I must go to this place.

Opening the ’78 Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva
Next stop, awesome
The winery tower, called ‘Txori Toki’ (“bird house” in Basque)

I arrive in Haro, a tiny town in the heart of La Rioja–home of Lopez de Heredia. My entire month-long Spain trip revolves around visiting this winery. I have a 2P.M. appointment to tour and taste current vintages–youngest of which are over 10 years old. I’m unable to sleep the night before going to my wine superhero’s headquarters. Perhaps I can also squeeze in a tour of their famous Tondonia vineyards, nearby? Maybe I’ll see their lauded cellars?

Old and new

We converge in a modern entry, shaped like a giant decanter’s cross-section. It’s surrounded by larger, original structures with decorative trim. I’m early. Our guide arrives promptly and meets the handful of tourists, getting a sense of what kind of wine nerds we are. Most have no idea what winery they’re in–their hotel told them to go. I cringe. When asked, I share my experience of the twin 1942s. The room is silent. Our guide smiles widely: “You’ve tasted more rare vintages than I have.”

LdH winery: welcome to the 19th century
New equipment since 1944: hose, valve, and bucket

We’re led through the archaic winery, marveling at how nothing has changed in 140 years. Primitive equipment and original bottles. Descending levels, humidity rises and air cools dramatically. A giant iron door is opened. We enter the cellar, and a vast maze of cobwebs. Walls covered thick with mold appear to weep. It’s explained how the mold is not only healthy for the cellar, but necessary to regulate temp and humidity. Spiders eat bugs that get into corks. Huh. Makes sense. Nature doing its own thing. Completely opposite most its neighbors’ cellars, which are sterile and clean.

THAT is old: 1934, 1920, 1909
Stacked and packed
Cobwebs and mold are healthy

It’s further explained that the mold is the same as penicillin and is edible. Our fearless guide digs a chunk off and pops it in her mouth. Really? Wow. I ask how it tastes. She invites us all to taste it: “It’s actually healthy for you.” Everyone sheepishly laughs. I volunteer. Hell, yeah. I am going to eat mold from the cellar of my favorite winery–even if it gags me. Tastes like raw white mushrooms. Honest.

Taste great, less filling: inch-thick mold in cellar
Viña Tondonia cellar: a special place

Continuing through the labyrinth of interconnected cellars, we wind deeper into the bowels of the beast. At last we arrive at The Motherload: a massive, crusted pile of 1958 LdH Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco. I’m giddy. Can we open one? “Only on special occasions” our guide laments.

The stash: 1958 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco
That’s deep: underground tunnels filled with casks
Lining up staves in LdH’s cooperage

Working our way back up to the tasting room, we briefly visit the cooperage, where American oak becomes Lopez barrels. Then onto ornately carved wood cabinets display LdH wines, and we’re greeted by two platters of jamón Iberico and Manchego cheese. Glasses clink with current vintages.

On pour: crianzas, reservas, gran reservas
All purchases must be tested for quality control

All are delicious. And affordable. But I’m traveling light; no space for wine. Well, maybe just a few bottles. Guests makes their buying decisions, and we all depart after sharing additional travel plans. I am left with a sense of awe. LdH is the sole holdout in a modernized wine world. Spectacular. Never change. I look forward to tasting the mold again.

Lopez de Heredia is located in Haro, Rioja Alta, in the northern center of Spain. Plan your time accordingly–distances are vast. Do research. Make an appointment to visit. You’ll be richly rewarded by 140 years of tradition, encapsulated in wine.
Haro is the capital of La Rioja, has hotels and B&Bs, and is central for exploring Rioja wine country. Eating along the “horseshoe” in town is a great way to explore tapas, and local Rioja cuisine. Of course LdH is served at the legendary Restaurante Terete in town center, and was opened the same year as Lopez de Heredia (1877). And like Lopez, they’ve not changed since, serving wood-fired roasted leg of lamb. It’s superlative–as is their house brand Gran Reserva Rioja–made by Alberto Gutiérrez Andrés. Though the service is as old-fashioned as the food, it’s an experience. But that’s another story.




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