Leading the Way Forward – Telmo Rodriguez
Spain in the Rise of the Terroir Age
The Wines of Remelluri and Telmo Rodriguez
Of all the visits we had scheduled in Rioja, Remelluri was the one I was looking forward to most in hopes of discussing the state of wine in Spain, particularly in Rioja, with Telmo Rodriguez. Telmo shares the responsibility of Remelluri with his sister Amaia, but it is his leadership that is moving Remelluri to the forefront of Rioja wine. Remelluri is making some of the best wines not only in Rioja but in all of Spain. In fact, I would go as far to say that the Remelluri Blanco may just be the best white wine made in all of Spain today. Of all the wines I tried so far in my lifetime it certainly is.
On a beautiful, sunny fall afternoon the sun was still high but starting to arch west as we made our way up the winding road to Granja de Nuestra Señora de Remelluri. Set on the middle and upper hills of the Cantabrian mountains in Labastida, Remelluri straddles the border between Rioja Alavesa and La Rioja Alta. At 500-800 meters in elevation, Remelluri is the highest elevation working estate in Rioja.
Anticipation grew as we drove by markers of the estate’s wild and historic character. An ancient site, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors occupied it in the first and early second centuries. In the middle ages and medieval times, religious orders of monks arrived, taking advantage of the Remelluri’s natural topographical advantages and remarkable agricultural abilities. Remnants of the past remain scattered on the property with an acropolis carved into granite rock. Carved into the same rock is evidence of wine production in the form of a crushing station and pools to collect the grape juice.
As we made our way through the courtyard to check in, we noticed it was full of vineyard laborers that had just finished with harvest. In the reception area, I noticed very old bottles of wine on display in the reception area. These old bottles were from the days when wine was not made in the style of the Bordelaise that is now what Rioja is known most for. Telmo sought these wines out to drink them in order to get a sense of what wine was like in Rioja before the Bordeaux influence took hold late in the 1800s. He was and still is, looking to find out what a true traditional Rioja wine is like.
A few minutes later Telmo walked in looking for me and reached out his hand to introduce himself. Brimming with a bouncing energy and confidence, you immediately get the sense that Telmo is also an intelligent man who has seen and done a lot in the wine world. He knows what he wants and has the experience to back it up. Having left home early in his career, Telmo and his business partner from day one, Pablo Eguzkiza, set out to make the best wines in some of the most unheralded (globally) places in Spain. Starting in Navarra, then moving west to Rueda and Valdeorras to name just a few places they have left an indelible mark. Before all of that however, Telmo went to school at the University of Bordeaux and did apprenticeships at famed second growth Cos d’Estournel in Saint-Estephe, Bordeaux and then in the Northern Rhone with Chave in Hermitage. He came back to Spain to Remelluri afterwards, but eventually made the aforementioned break as he and his father did not agree with the direction Remelluri was taking. Telmo was finally free to put his ideas and beliefs to work.
Telmo led us to the family home on the property which is a warmly styled mix of rustic Spanish and French countryside. We made our way to the yard where his brother and nephew just finished having lunch. We joined them for some espresso and to introduce ourselves. We discussed New York, our families, and our backgrounds. To my surprise, Telmo is half Parisian from his mother’s side.
Remelluri grenache blanc bunch. These grapes likely went into the Remelluri Blanco.
His family purchased Remelluri in 1967 which at the time was only the core site and only 20 hectares.Over time, the family started to acquire the adjacent properties to piece together the original Remelluri site.Now at 154 hectares, Remelluri has 105 of them under vine and farmed 100% organic.They are not certified biodynamic but do follow many of the principles of biodynamics.Massal selection rather than clone selection is used for the propagation of new vines.
What is Traditional Rioja Wine?
After the small talk, we got right to the heart of the matter that I wanted to discuss with Telmo.I asked him what is going on with breaking away from the traditional regulations that govern wine production in Rioja?Did he plan to join Artadi or is he working out a different solution to continue to push the envelope of making wine in Rioja?He replied back no, but said he understands the decision.More on that in a bit.He then asked me “What do you think is a traditional Rioja wine?”I said Lopez de Heredia, who to me is the archetype of traditional old-school Rioja wine.Ask any Sommelier in the US what their favorite Rioja is and it is likely a Tondonia based Rioja from Lopez de Heredia.It was a trick question really as he believes that as good as some producers are at making wine in that style, that it is just one style of Rioja and not the true identity of what a traditional Rioja wine is or should be.Telmo argues, and this is my interpretation of his thoughts on the matter, that wine has been made in a similar style for a long time in Rioja, but it is made in a way that is not reflective of the vineyard sites so how can that necessarily truly be Rioja.If we do not fully express the land through its terroir, we mask the actual true character of the vineyard site with interventionist changes to the wine’s character.Not to mention, the many factory-sized Bodega that churn out cheap, boring wines that lack any real character besides the imprint of man’s manipulation.The majority of these producers are not making wine for pleasure, they are making it for profit.Telmo readily admits that his wines are not cheap, but they are also not overly expensive.They are priced higher because of the additional care that is taken in the vineyard to be reflective of the terroir.
When I asked about breaking away from Rioja like his friend and close business associate Juan Carlos who’s Artadi Bodega recently announced they are breaking away from the Rioja regulations (Consejo Regulador), Telmo said that he does not have the energy for that kind of fight any longer.Telmo has worked hard to reinvigorate vineyards in places like Rueda and Valdeorras, he expanded into Ribera del Duero, the Toro, and of course came back home to la Rioja and has pushed hard for changes throughout his career.These days he said he would rather use the energy that would be used to fight the Consejo Regulador to instead focus it on making better wine and sharpening his focus on Remelluri and his own wine company that encompasses Rioja and all of the other regions under his Companio label.
So, it seems to me that Telmo’s strategy is to work within the system at the edge of evolution to work changes and new ideas into the minds of the regulators by proving to them through the quality of his wines what can be done in Rioja if they think more about site and quality instead of higher production levels and profits.There are several prominent styles of wines in Rioja, but you can’t tell what producer style is based on the label.Unless you are familiar with the producer you would never know what the wine is like because legally nothing on the label can indicate quality or terroir in Rioja.
Telmo has forged ahead and started to use site designations on some of his wines as the labels carry the names of the villages they come from in Rioja.Lindes de Remelluri has a “San Vicente” and a “Labastida” bottling with the village name on the label.This is groundbreaking and an important step of understanding what a true, classic wine from Rioja is since there are over 200 villages.No village is identical and all are capable of producing different wines based on the differences in terroir.Where he was not allowed to use the village name with the Lanzaga Rioja wines, it is important to note the similarity to Lanciego, the village where the vineyards are based.Just imagine if wines from Meursault were only allowed to be called Bourgogne Blanc.Wines from Paulliac only called Medoc would be misleading.This is the state of naming a site on the wines of Rioja, it has been deemed illegal by the Consejo and does not exist.Well, that is until Telmo was given the ability to use the village names on the Lindes wines from Remelluri.
The fight is not over and is only beginning for producers like Artadi.Many of the other prominent Rioja producers may agree in principal with Artadi, but few have spoken out about actually leaving and are taking steps similar to Telmo to work within the rules or at their edge to promote change from within.Change is not only needed but is required for further advancing the definition of higher quality Rioja wine, not just what is deemed as a classic style.Of the few pioneering producers that have adopted this mindset, the proof is in the bottle as the wines speak for themselves as these are some of the most exciting wines I have ever tasted from Spain.
Vinedos de Labastida 2011 – Lindes de Remelluri
Fresh, terroir-driven, spicy, medium plus body, tobacco, firm and ripe tannins this has more structure of the two Lindes wines. 15 hectares at 550-600m elevation and 60,000 bottles produced. Lindes means boundary and these are the two villages that the Remelluro property are divided by.
Vinedos de San Vicente 2011 – Lindes de Remelluri
Earthy nose, with plum and berry fruit and subtle spice. Elegant on the palate with polished tannin, soft and juicy red perfumed fruit, this is the most generous of the Lindes wines.Includes a majority of the lower altitude vineyard sites.
Remelluri Reserva 2010
Rosemary, lavender, with red and blue fruits.Silky and elegant with power and grace.Cherry pit and earth add dimension to the palate which is savory, long and clean with fresh and persistent layers of herbs on top of silky fruit.Fantastic for such a large production of 300,000 bottles produced.3-4k kilos per hectare.
Remelluri Gran Reserva 2009
Exceptional, fantastically made, powerful, elegant, fresh, sure to age gracefully. The oak is perfectly integrated, with firm tannin and a tightly wound structure framing the long, youthful and powerful multi-dimensional finish.20-25,000 bottles in production.
From Valedeorras in northern Spain.Made from the Mencia grape from mostly ancient vines as old as 120 years old. Microscopic production of only 2,000 bottles. A Rhone look-a-like from the get-go, the nose rose from the glass with persistent notes of meat, cracked pepper, forest floor, tar and some crushed violets.the palate is firm and deep, with good acidity and streaks of rock-like minerality. 12-14 months in 2,000-liter foudre.
The Premier Cru designation of the Companio Elciego village. Aged 13-14 months half in some new oak barrique and some seasoned, the other half in foudre.Tobacco, raspberry and blackberry, powerful fresh and elegant, this shows more exuberant and fresh with racy acidity.Minerality and depth combine for a mid-term drinking Reserva styled Rioja. Grenache 8% Tempranillo 92%.
Altos Lanzaga 2011
The Grand Cru of the 3 wines from the village of Elciego under the Companio label. Earth and mineral, layers of complexity with red fruit purity and spice on the palate.No traces of oak, it is perfectly integrated.Firmly tannic and fresh acid structures are at the core of its energy and should peel back slowly and elegantly as the years go by.A powerful but also elegant expression of Tempranillo. 3,000 bottles made from 2 distinct vineyards.
Las Beatas 2012
From 90-year-old vines just outside of Haro, Telmo said this took 20 years to refine the 1.9-hectare vineyard practices before bottling a release.There are some young vines that don’t go into the blend for this wine.2010 was the inaugural vintage with 2011 the most recent.
Completely transparent to site with a firm core surrounded by an elegant and deeply complex flavor peripheral.For me, this is a completely transcendent Rioja wine.The wine ages in oak barrique but you don’t taste it, you feel it along with the terroir that weaves into the fine knit texture and when you taste its complexity. Virtually weightless this sails on to a finish which echoes finely with purity, length, and persistence.Only 1,400 bottles and a gorgeous wine.If you love Spanish wine you owe it to yourself to try this.