Telmo Rodrìguez Remelluri. photo: Carlos Spottorno

Rediscovering the vineyard wines of Rioja

On the surface Rioja seems steeped in tradition, but the arrival of a vine pandemic at the end of the 19th Century had a huge impact on Rioja and its wines. Jamie Goode spoke to Telmo Rodrìguez, a game-changer on the Spanish wine scene, who has been instrumental in rediscovering the links between quality and place in Rioja.

Rioja is the best known of Spain’s varied wine regions, but the way the region and the wines look today has largely been due to a crisis at the end of the 19th century. France’s largest wine region was hit hard and early on by phylloxera, a root-munching aphid imported from America, which rapidly worked its way through much of the old world’s vineyards.

The period from the late 1860s until the beginning of the 1900s (phylloxera arrived in Rioja in 1901) was one of expansion and affluence for the region. Technicians from Bordeaux brought their know-how and large wineries, such as Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE), Marqués de Murrieta and La Rioja Alta were established to feed the demand that was previously satisfied by Bordeaux.

Remelluri vineyard in Labastida, La Rioja Alavesa

This changed the region significantly. ‘Rioja decided to grow in a commercial direction,’ says Telmo Rodrìguez, who became famous for his travelling winemaking, sourcing top vineyards from around Spain, and who then returned to Rioja to revitalize family winery Remelluri.

Rioja today doesn’t correspond with Rioja of the past. It doesn’t correspond with the history of Rioja, going back to the vineyards and the villages, Burgundy style.

The Bordeaux model

The incoming Bordelaise, who’d already had some influence in the region earlier in the century, brought with them a shift in focus. Large wineries, sourcing from many growers scattered throughout the region to produce large blends, which were then matured for a long time in small oak barrels, became the norm. But it’s a move away from the traditional focus of the region.

‘Rioja is absolutely a grower/village model,’ says Rodrìguez. ‘The blend of different regions is yesterday. That is a 100-year-old model, but the region has been making wine for a lot longer.’ He thinks that back in the 17th century, he’s sure the wines would have been interesting. ‘The best vineyards were abandoned in Rioja 150 years ago. The wineries weren’t interested in good grapes. Rioja became a cheap wine, and by doing what we are doing now, we are breaking this market.’

Telmo’s journey

Rodrìguez’ parents bought Remelluri 53 years ago. His mother was an artist, and his father he describes as a ‘cultivated man’, and so he grew up in this winery whose history goes back several hundred years. He began working at Remelluri after his studies in Bordeaux, in the early 1990s. He wasn’t allowed to change anything with the reds, so he began working with a white blend, and before long the Remelluri started getting attention. ‘The white became a reference, like a cult wine,’ he says. But he left in 1998. ‘I realised that with my dad it wasn’t going to go well,’ he says. He turned to his own project, which he’d begun in 1994, looking to make wines from grapes sourced from interesting vineyards around the country.

He started in the northwest of the country, and then went from Rioja to Galicia. Now he owns some 80 hectares of vines, covering Gredos, Valdeorras, Ribera del Duero and Rioja, among others. ‘My dream is to be a small producer,’ he says.

Granja de Remelluri, centre of the estate.

He returned to Remelluri in 2010 and asked his sister to run the company with him. ‘My brothers asked me to come back,’ he says. ‘I only agreed if I could do what I wanted.’ The property has 92 hectares of vines, so it is quite big. His father had been buying grapes and wines, even, but Rodrìguez wanted to stick just to the estate holdings. So production was cut from 500 000 bottles to 270 000. He still receives grapes from the growers who were already working with Remelluri, but makes a separate wine from them – Lindes de Remelluri, ‘lindes’ means border in Spainsh. Of the vineyard management, he says that at Remelluri, the vineyards have never seen a single gram of herbicide in 800 years.

A new project

Now he’s set his sights on rediscovering the great vineyard-focused Rioja of the past with Bodega Lanzaga, which is based on 17 hectares of estate vineyards, consisting of small, exceptional parcels acquired over time.

With this project he’s aiming to go back to the great Rioja wines of the past, based on vineyards, before the big factory wineries took over in the region.

Rather than classify by ageing, he’s thinking more of village/premier cru/grand cru distinctions.

Having worked in Lanciego for 20 years Telmo has singled out what he considers the best sites and is making a selection of single vineyard wines. Including El Velado, a beautiful vineyard planted with 80-year-old Garnacha and Tempranillo, that was one of the first sites that caught his eye when he started working in Lanciego.

Las Beatas - a tiny 1.9 hectare plot – slowly assembled by acquiring smaller neighbouring parcels on the abandoned old terraces.

A wider movement

Rodrìguez isn’t the only one in the region who is thinking this way. There are many small vineyard-based projects emerging. Even large companies, such as Ramon Bilbao, are getting in on the act, with the Lalomba project. Rosana Lisa, winemaker and technical director, says that it is the quality of the vineyards they own that has led them to press ahead with Lalomba.

Ramon Bilbao has 205 hectares of vineyards here, and have used modern precision viticulture approaches to decide which to use this project. They are focusing on three terroirs, including Valhonta. The 2.8 hectares of vines are grown at 650 metres above sea level, which is close to the limit of growing grapes. Planted in 2000 with bush vines, Lisa describes this site as ‘super balanced.’ The Atlantic influence from the Basque country makes this nice and cool, and the main problem is spring frosts.

And then there’s the rise of smaller, quality and terroir focused producers. Artuke is a great example: in 1991 Roberto de Miguel decided to make use of his grapes to bottle his own wines, and named the project after his sons Arturo and Kike, who make the wines now. They are making terroir-focused vines from 22 hectares of vines spread over different plots, as well as some larger production ‘village’ wines, including a smashable carbonic maceration wine. Abel Mendoza has been making his own wines from vineyards around his winery in San Vicente de la Sonsierra. He’s got 17 hectares of vines, farmed organically, and has a strong emphasis on whites. Also based here is José Gil, who started making his own wines in 2013. It’s a tiny project, and again has a focus on the vineyard.

With recent changes to the DO rules in Rioja, allowing wines to be classified by location as well as oak ageing, it looks like more producers are set to follow Telmo’s lead towards rediscovering the ‘true’ historic taste of Rioja.

Find Remelluri and Bodega Lanzaga on The Sourcing Table

Photos thanks to Telmo Rodrìguez.