What’s the deal? (Rioja, Spain – Day Three)

Despite the fact that the Rioja region only runs for about 130 km, it is an unbelievably diverse region geologically and climatically, not to mention the fat that it actually crosses three political regions of La Rioja, Basque and Navarra. The region follows the Ebra River and which sits between the Cantabrian Mountains to the northeast and another range to the South-West, and has a wide valley ideal for the cultivation of a range of agricultural products. The climate is quite interesting, as it is a combination of Atlantic, Mediterranean and Continental. They are protected from rain coming from the north so it is very dry, and as they have cool air sucked up the valley from the Mediterranean so it is relatively cool at night. The micro-climate depends on a number of factors, including elevation, aspect and soil, the latter of which varying significantly from alluvial, to calcareous, to clay, limestone and chalk. The fact that most wine in Rioja is blended from a great range of these individual terroirs means that you are losing a lot of the nuances, but luckily there are estates like the three I visited today who are focusing on village and single vineyard wines in the future.

Rioja Alavesa as depicted by an artist that lived at Remelluri

Telmo Rodriguez is a name so closely associated with Spanish wine today it is hard to think of one without the other. As a buyer stocking a small range of Spanish wines, I was astonished to discover so many of the products I sold were made by Telmo across most of the major regions in Spain. The reason I didn’t know this immediately is because he has a different brand for each estate in each region, none of them clearly labelled with his name. Before I left Australia I remembered reading something about Telmo “returning to Remelluri”, a wine I was also familiar with, but I didn’t look into the details. So when I had the chance to visit the famous estate in Rioja Alavesa, I was thrilled and pinching myself when I arrived and found out that I would get the chance to meet Telmo himself. I was welcomed initially by Amaya Goni who showed me the wine museum they have, and the chapel on the estate where an artist who lived there for a period painted some different representations of ancient legends but set in Rioja and using the family as models. Telmo arrived not long after I did from Madrid, where he now lives with his family.

Telmo Rodriguez inspecting one of his vineyards

The Remulluri estate is tucked away under the very old monastery and even older Roman temple, both located in the Sierra Cantabria, and has a very long history. So long in fact they aren’t even sure when the name Remelluri was first used in relation of the place. They know it’s old because they found the same type of necropolises and wine presses as the ones I saw the previous day. One thing they know is that the land was confiscated from the church in the mid-19th Century, and the family that eventually  acquired it in 1967 are the same family that owns it today. That family is the Rodriguez family, and it is where Telmo cut his teeth as the winemaker after graduating from Bordeaux. After finding great success with his own projects, he returned in 2010 to return the estate to the top of Rioja and introducing some of his philosophies.

Me showing appreciation for one of Telmo’s new additions to Remelluri

In the vineyards Telmo outlined that one of the first things he introduced upon his return was complete organic certification process, with a heavy leaning towards biodynamics. As a lover of healthy soils and old vines, the conversion process in the Remelluri vineyards was irresistible. He has also been moving away from trellising, and favouring head training and bush vines. Another thing Telmo seems to be a fan of is off-road driving, as I had one of the most extreme vineyard tours of my life. The Remelluri vineyards get quite high in altitude, over 500 metres, in which Telmo has been planting more white varieties. He has also been preparing and regenerating soils by planting cereals before vines, and encouraging native plant biodiversity. Over a delicious home-cooked meal with Telmo and his siblings, Telmo showed me a few of the wines, one of which is a new addition designed to increase the quality of the top wines. It will be interesting to see how the wines will evolve under his stewardship, as they are already sensational traditional styles, showing structure and elegance. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

I’d like to see you toss this pigskin around

My second appointment of the day was arranged at quite short notice with great thanks to Yolanda from ARAEX. It was to one of the many cooperative wineries in the Rioja region, but rather than selling wine in bulk to wineries, they bottle and market their own wines. Bodegas y Vinedos Labastida has been around since 1964, and was formed by growers hoping to use their collective volume to receive better prices for their wines. There are now 152 grower members, with a total of 540 hectares of vineyards around the Labastida which represents 50% of the vineyards of Labastida. They have found great success with their precise range in over 20 countries around the world.

The new Bodegas y Vinedos Labastida winery

The technical director Cesar Castro was more than happy to show me around some of the vineyards where they have some very old vines (the average age is 25 years), and I made another interesting discovery. I had been told by previous hosts about how wine was made in Rioja thousands of years ago, by crushing the grapes in a press carved into rock. Grapes would be carried up to the rock, and the crushed juice would be collected at the bottom of the rock for transportation to a cellar and fermentation. Cesar also took me up to the church in Labastida, where the mythical Don Manuel Quintano y Quintano introduced premium wine production to Rioja in the late 18th Century. After returning from Bordeaux learning how their wines could live longer and survive their transportation to England, he supposedly was the first to put Rioja wines in barrels. Cesar led me through their new large and well designed winery, and we tasted a range of wines that are all excellent examples of the region, but don’t offer anything truly exceptional. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Standing in a medieval wine-press amongst the Labastida vineyards

In the afternoon I adjourned south to Lanciego, where Telmo Rodriguez and his business partner Pablo Eguzkiza have recently completed their very well hidden winery for the Rioja arm of their Compania de Vinos project. On the website, they tell the story of the origin of the company this way.

In 1994, Pablo Eguzkiza and Telmo Rodríguez, along with a third oenologist, created a Garnacha from old bush vineyards in Navarra. The wine was called Alma (soul). This is how the business started, originally under the name of Compañía de Vinos de La Granja. The name was a declaration of intent: it made it clear that the company would be producing more wines in the future and contained an homage to La Granja, the famous glass works, a centre of outstanding Spanish craftwork that has all but disappeared.

Telmo on the roof of the new Compania de Vinos winery

As mentioned before Telmo had gained experience not only at his family’s estate, but working for many wineries including such iconic producers as JL Chave in the Rhone Valley. Telmo and Pablo share several passions that from the key components of the winery. One of the most important is that they use indigenous Spanish varieties, and wherever possible varieties native to the region. When they began in the early ’90s this was definitely against the mould of the industry both in Spain and around Europe (excluding France), so in a way they were way ahead of their time. They explored most of the regions around Spain, and spent many years getting to know the terroir of each region, seeking out old vines to recover, and unique and interesting sites for viticulture. They began with almost nothing, and it was their determination and passion that propelled them into the stratospheres of Spanish wine. The main reason Telmo isn’t as talked about as some other winemakers, is that he doesn’t consider himself to be a winemaker, more a caretaker of vineyards and an expresser of terroir, and not a rock star. The other reason is that he and Pablo are determined to produce high-quality authentic Spanish wines that everyone can drink every day, and they are priced as such. Considering the time and financial costs involved with their wines, consumers should consider themselves lucky they can afford these wines.

Pablo Eguzkiza shows me one of the old vine parcels

Pablo took me around some of the vineyards, making a point to show me the differences in soil compositions in such a small area. He also was sure to highlight the difference between their organic/biodynamic approach to viticulture, and that of their neighbours who were given support by the local government to install trellises, as they believed this was the way to grow premium grapes (imagine that). They are working hard at introducing biodiversity in the vineyards, and are also doing a lot more field blending plots using a range of different varieties, particularly white. In several parts of the vineyards new shoots were pushing up out of the ground from vines newly grafted onto already planted rootstock. The winery is purely functional, incorporating cement vats (and a few eggs), stainless steel tanks, barrel ageing and bottling too. The big difference is the sustainable nature of the winery, the fact that it is built into the hill, and that it took some time to perfect the energies of the facility. Telmo and Pablo took me through a range of wines from the Rioja, Toro, Malaga, Rueda, and Cebreros estates, and their quality and personality is hard to deny.  They are constantly looking to learn more about their estates and practices to improve quality and improve the profile of Spanish wine all over the world. Not an easy task on both counts. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Amongst the barrels with Telmo and Pablo

Click here to see more photos from Day Three in Rioja, Spain.

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