Lopez de Heredia Vina Gravonia–A Unique Oyster Wine

Dec 16, 2010


Ask any sommelier to recommend a wine with your oysters and he’s probably going to give you a fruity West Coast Sauvignon Blanc or a steely Sancerre or Muscadet. The conventional wisdom says that an oyster wine should have a knife-edged acidity to cut through the lingering sea mist of the oyster. And the conventional wisdom says that stainless steel fermentation tanks are essential, to capture the fresh fruitiness; stay away from oak.

As is so often the case (almost always, I’m starting to think), the conventional wisdom is wrong. Sharp wines often simply taste sour and a little off after an oyster (or caviar, for that matter). More and more, I think that the key to a great oyster wine is body. You need a white wine with enough heft that it won’t get pushed around by the intense salt and savor of the oyster.

This does not mean that your typical big Chardonnay will work. Yes, it has body, but the Nilla Wafer flavor in most modern wines is disastrous with almost any foodstuff (except, possibly, Nilla Wafers). Young oak barrels are responsible for that flavor. So, yes, oak can be a problem.

BUT. Let the wine sit in oak barrels for, say, a few years instead of a few months, and something magical happens. The vanilla cookie scent recedes, replaced with much more intriguing and grown-up aromas. This is how it’s done at Spain’s R. Lopez de Heredia, the most prestigious winery in Rioja, and they are alone in still doing it this way. It’s good for the wines, but it really sucks for the cash flow, which is why the rest of the wine world has adopted the mantra of “Sell it young and fruity,” and has even managed to convince most wine drinkers that wine tastes better this way. What a marketing coup!

Lopez de Heredia breaks all the rules. Not just the long aging, but the vines themselves. While the rest of the world switched over to dwarf vines on low trellises, to improve yield, Lopez stuck with their ancient, tree-like vines.

This used to make them hopelessly old-fashioned—rather than breaking any new rules, they were simply hewing to the rules they had followed since the founding of the company in Rioja 133 years ago—but lately it is starting to make them look like free-thinking rebels. It turns out that high yield dilutes flavor and character, and that old vines with deep roots produce more interesting, minerally wine.

More important, After years in oak barrels, Lopez’s white wines develop walnut and honey notes, along with a touch of the fino sherry flavor known as “rancio.” Bone dry yet rich, they are unlike any other white wines in the world. The 2000 Vina Gravonia, their youngest release, makes a hell of an oyster wine. If you can imagine a bone-dry Ricola cough drop, that’s the flavor profile: herbal and honeyed. I drank a bottle with a batch of Totten Inlet Virginicas, and the wine’s stony resolve stood up beautifully to the briny, slight durian flavor of the Tottens. Try it for yourself, and discover how wonderfully diverse the world of oyster wines can be.

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11 Responses to Lopez de Heredia Vina Gravonia–A Unique Oyster Wine

  1. Frank Sinkwich says:

    I just read your article. I can’t tell you how right you are! Coincidentally, I had this exact same pairing last night at my local oyster haunt!
    Long live Viura!!!!

  2. rowan says:

    Frank, I’m quite pleased to get your confirmation, and slightly bummed that I’m not the pioneering trailblazer I thought I was! What about others out there? Anyone else tried old, white Rioja with oysters? How about some other daring oyster wine suggestions?

  3. Jeremy Quinn says:

    Great to see Heredia’s white written about – I need to try it with Totten Inlets! Per some other oyster suggestions: I organized a terrific Oyster & Wine pairing event at Webster’s Wine Bar, Chicago, on the 15th of this month, and discovered a surprisingly GREAT pair for the otherwise stand-alone Belons that Barb Scully wild harvests: Jo Landron’s ‘Atmospheres’ sparkling Muscadet! You’re right, it’s the BODY of the latter that bridged the gap. Also, Yiannis Tselepos’ sparkling Moschofilero, (‘Amalia’) from the Peloponnese, in Greece, was a fine match with both Hama Hamas and Olde Salts… (More should be said for Greek whites, I think, in terms of oysters.) Asturian cider from Poma Aurea (imported by DeMaison Selections) and Casal Garcia Vinho Verde, however, were the two best pairings across the board. (BTW, thanks, Rowan, for your new book – it’s terrific!)

  4. rowan says:

    Wow, anything that works with Barb’s Belons is a revelation! And Jeremy, you definitely get the eclectic award for your Asturian cider recommendation. You’ve left me far behind…(but I look forward to catching up!).
    I’ll be leading an oyster-wine pairing evening at Shaw’s Crab House in late January–maybe see you there.

  5. Jeremy Quinn says:

    Very cool – hope to see you at Shaw’s!

  6. Rowan, I enjoyed reading your book on oysters. Down here in Louisiana, we drink more beer with oysters, but your wine suggestion makes sense to me that a plush wine with more body works better with the oceanic tang of oysters. I am a huge Lopez de Heredia fan, and thought that another plush yet crisp wine, Albarino from Galicia (or Portugal where it’s de-classified as Vinho Verde often), would be great matches and I wouldn’t kick a great Godello away, either. The intense scent of many Albarino wines may go better with certain oysters than others, but I believe that would be fun to investigate.

    One last thought, what about the Ribolla Gialla grape from the northern reaches of the Adriatic, from Friuli, Slovenia and Croatia? Another sleeping beauty in the white wine world with a great blend of heft and acidity.

    Chef Chris of The Green Goddess in New Orleans

  7. rowan says:

    Chris–I’m a huge fan of Albarino with oysters, and Vinho Verde is my standard summer don’t-try-too-hard-it’s-all-good quaffer. Ribolla Gialla? I know nothing, but it’s on my list now. I’ll be down in New Orleans in March for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival to talk about my forthcoming book, Shadows on the Gulf. I’ll look forward to swinging by the Green Goddess for some bivalves, New Orleans-style.

  8. Lot of avant-garde winemakers in the Adriatic use Ribolla Gialla to make super natural wines in ancient styles, some even use amphora buried in the ground to age the wines. Unfortunately, those versions are all pretty expensive, strange, and bewitching wines which could distract from the purity of fine oysters… until one wraps a head around these bottled creatures.

    Fantinel makes a great basic Ribolla Gialla, and so does Movia, who also make the sorcerer’s kind too. Pecorino, Trebbiano, and Verdicchio are three other Adriatic whites worth investigating, in the course of discovering the world’s great oyster wines! And there’s Soave for the old school fans of Adriatic wines…

    BTW, yea to Greek wines, esp. Moschofilero! Haven’t had the sparkling, but the regular one we get from Skouras is lean and crisp, with just enough deceptive oomph to give it a counterpoint to dem ersters, Cap…

  9. Ha, I’ll give the Heredia pairing a try. I’ve tried oysters with a couple of orange wines, and they’re drinking with the oysters, by not something I need to do again. Maybe I’ll a Movia Ribolla (non-Lunar) soon.

  10. rowan says:

    Makes me think of the Mas de Tourelles wines in southern France, which are fermented in partially buried amphorae–and are probably exactly what the ancient Romans drank with oysters.

  11. Jeremy Quinn says:

    A note to Chris DeBarr – very glad to see your comments! I love New Orleans (I was married there) but have yet to meet a chef or sommelier from that city who shares my passion for off-the-wall and/or ‘natural’ wines (especially paired with oysters). Check out my bar’s website at http://www.websterwinebar.com – I hope to see you in NOLA soon!!

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