Exploring Tradition at Rioja’s Majestic Vina Tondonia

The sisters, Mercedes and Maria-José Lopez de Heredia, are the fourth generation to run the family winery, founded in 1877

Award-winning photographer, Jon Wyand visits the iconic vineyard and winery of Vina Tondonia with hands-on winemaker, Maria -Jose Lopez as his able guide

I had really been looking forward to my first trip to Rioja. Planning via the telephone had gone well. I had a particularly friendly and helpful response when I requested to meet Maria-José Lopez from Vina Tondonia. half an hour before dawn at the winery. My plan was to walk through their Tondonia vineyards in a loop of the river Ebro at first light.

I had arrived in Haro, the mythical capital of the Rioja Alta region, from Galicia the previous day on a glorious May evening. This morning, as we walked along a sunken road, the vines were dramatically silhouetted above us by the dawn sky and I had great hopes for my visit to this iconic vineyard.

My companion, Maria -Jose Lopez, in jeans and a tough pair of walking boots, was a petite bundle of energy who set a rapid pace. Obviously very hands-on and passionate, her tour was, thankfully, not to be a PR tour with a much recited commentary that I sometimes suffer, amounting to simply a list of numbers — hectares, hectolitres, vine ages, as if I were to sit an exam at the end of the tour!

I often have to remind my guide that I am just a photographer looking for beauty, not a writer needing all the facts and figures. But Maria-José understood. An elevation in the vineyards gave us beautiful views of the neighbouring town of Briñas with gently undulating rows of vines in their late spring green, stretching for a very long way. In excellent English, Maria-Jose gave me the history of her family’s involvement in the estate, but I have to confess my attention was constantly broken by the magical light and surroundings.

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It was soon over and we left the light behind us as we returned to the winery which had its own magic. A sense of timelessness followed me as I wandered around the huge wooden vats with their long ladders that almost seemed to disappear into the darkness above. Then walking through the oak forest of barrels with their white four digit numbers that loomed above me, row upon row.

People often ask if I don’t get bored just photographing the wine world. Of course there are low points where the people, the place and the weather make my job difficult, but at Vina Tondonia I found a wonderland location. It was not the work of a Disney set designer or a cutting edge architect. It was a place built by time, tradition and practicality, and maintained with a family’s passion.

I was not to meet Maria-José’s sister, Mercedes, until my autumn return visit for the harvest and an encounter with the large red wooden containers used for transporting the grapes from the vineyard and the ancient black metal apparatus that emptied them. Mercedes is taller and has less of her sister’s ‘tom-boy’ style but is equally at home with the hard work that continues to make Vina Tondonia so unique.