Telmo Rodriguez was in full cry when I met him in New York City recently. Although the 50-year-old “driving winemaker” studied enology in Bordeaux, worked a vintage at J.L. Chave in the Rhone, and for 25 years has made his own wines across Spain, what was on his mind when we spoke was Rioja:
“What do we know about Rioja? Just a few brands? Nobody wants to talk about site, or villages. Rioja is the next thing to discover. We don’t know Rioja. If you think you know Champagne and you only drink Moet et Chandon or Veuve Clicquot, you don’t know Champagne! You need to know the specific vineyards.”
Andre Tamers, who imports Rodriguez’ Remelluri wine, agrees: “This is the way that Spain has to move forward: away from brands and toward the land.”
Starting with the 2010 vintage, Rodriguez returned to make the wines at Remelluri, the 375-acre estate (with 250 acres planted to vines) that his father, Jaime, purchased in 1967. Although Telmo had been making the white, a field blend of nine varieties, he took over the estate’s tempranillo-based red too.
He told me the Rioja system of crianza, reserva and gran reserva was outdated and one that “dilutes the character of Rioja.” The system denotes how long the wine has been aged as opposed to identifying vineyards where the wines come from. Rodriguez says that when his father came to the region the growers were required to have 500 barrels to bottle their own wine. “In Burgundy, nobody has that! Small growers couldn’t exist!” he exclaimed, noting how capital-intensive this is. “The appellation was protecting the big producers and pushing the growers to sell their wines to the big companies. So we don’t know the taste and profile of the different villages. People still ask you if the oak is American or French and how much time it was in oak.” He noted that the origin of the winery is given only by where their cellar is located, adding “But the grapes could come from 100 kilometers away!” He adds that Haro, the town where many cellars are located, is of no viticultural interest, calling it “a railroad stop.”
“Success has pushed producers to make more and more and more,” he said. “In Rioja, you don’t have any limits, you produce as much as you sell. If you are successful, you open door of the cellar, and let in 100,000 kilos of grapes or even buy wine. That’s why we have industrial Rioja. We should discus much more what is industrial and what is artisanal, not oak or aging.”
Since the winemaking happens at Remelluri at the estate in Rioja Alavesa, as opposed to in Haro, Remelluri was widely considered a chateau in the region. But during that time, they were buying grapes, a situation that Rodriguez describes as “shit!” adding, “Let’s be honest and try to make the real Remelluri. I think it is a pity not to show the real Remelluri. It has never had a fertilizer. When my parents bought it, the mules were working the vineyard.” He intends to reduce the total production of Remelluri by a third to 25,000 cases, mostly by bottling suppliers’ wines separately and identifying each of the towns where they come from.
Rodriguez said that when he presented the idea of a terroir-based bottling to the 17 or so growers who had provided grapes to Remelluri, they were overjoyed. Starting with the 2010 vintage, the wines called Las Lindes de Remelluri (roughly, “the borders of Remelluri”), will be labeled with the two villages on the label, one from Labastida and one from San Vicente. Both the towns are in the northern limits of the region, but happen to fall one in Rioja Alavesa (Basque Country) and one in Rioja Alta (La Rioja). Rodriguez says that the wine from Labastida is more delicate while the one from San Vicente is more rustic. The Las Lindes wines will sell for about a third less than the Remelluri and some in his family think he is “crazy” for backing this wine out of Remelluri and selling it for less. But he wants Remelluri to be “very real and very pure” to highlight the estate’s character.
Rodriguez recently presented the Las Lindes project for such site-specific labeling to the Rioja authorities, and after some delay, they have allowed it starting with the 2010 vintage.
Rodriguez is pleased. “You have to give the possibility to a small percentage to talk about place; it’s not to denigrate the rest. It’s the chance to do something real, something honest.”
Related: “Talking dirty: Rioja soil map“