Grower Rioja with Andre Tamers
Telmo Rodriguez of Remelluri discusses the importance of returning to traditional bush vines and field blends.
In June, Georgia Blume went with Andre Tamers to visit his wineries in Northern Spain. What follows are her recollections and reflections. Thanks Georgia!
In June, I was fortunate to be invited by Andre Tamers to visit his wineries in Northern Spain. If you don’t know Andre, he is the founder of De Maison Selections, arguably the most interesting and revolutionary Spanish importer in the country right now. Andre Tamers and Tom Edward ironically both started in the wine world “repping” the street for Monsieur Touton, and Tom was the first distributor to bring Andre’s wines in 15 years ago.
There are a lot of myths to be dispelled about Rioja. When most wine people talk about the area (including me prior to this trip), they mention the three subregions of Alta, Alavesa and Baja and only discuss vinification, throwing around terms like “Crianza” or “Reserva” and “Traditional” or “Modern” to describe the style and quality. But like Premier Cru in Burgundy or Kabinett in Germany, this is misleading and only reveals a very small slice of the picture.
Andre has spent the last 15 years visiting Rioja in an attempt to better understand its true terroir. He now represents five wineries in five villages ( CLICK HERE FOR MAP).
All are small, long standing, family-owned wineries growing their own grapes, bottling their own wine, and going against the more popular model of blending. Much like with our sherries, or our grower port producer, Casa de Santa Eufemia, the focus here is on the grower, not the merchant house.
Gonzalo Asuncion of Bodegas Ostatu shows us the only known soil map of Rioja. The scattering of Rioja’s three primary soils- ferrous clay, clacareous clay and alluival- are a critical component to the dinstinct terroirs of each village.
Our first day in Rioja we spent 7 and a half hours with the owner and winemaker of Remelluri, Telmo Rodriguez. At his family’s estate, Telmo strives to make an authentic Rioja expressive of his vineyard site. Remelluri is located at Rioja’s northwestern edge, in the town of Labastida, and has the highest altitude vineyards in all of Rioja! This land has supported grape vines for over a thousand years, and Telmo emphasizes the importance of listening to the land. “Our ancestors were very observant, we must not ignore their actions.” Converting the estate back to bush vines as opposed to the French style of trellising, Rodriguez is on the search for the indigenous varietals of Rioja, and he has already planted dozens of different grapes rather than stick to the “easy to grow” Tempranillo that became so popular in the seventies. Out of respect for his land, Telmo has used this diversity to return to planting field blends, farming without the use of chemicals.
In Rioja, a winery must use all 225L barriques to have its wines classified as Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. Telmo has opted out of this system by adding foudres and 500L casks to the vinification process in order to make a higher quality, more balanced wine. “Too much small new oak and you overpower the terroir, but too much large old oak and you kill off the delicate aromas of the wine. Balance is the key.” The style of Labastida is one of both structure and elegance, resulting from a unique mix of good sun exposure, high altitudes and calcareous clay soils. Indeed the elevation, soil type and position relative to the river have much more to do with a winery’s style than the politically divided subzones.
Florus of Luberri shows Andre the bush training method he invented at 14 years old to reduce yields.
Bodegas Ostatu, located in the village of Sameniego in the heart of Alavesa, has also abandoned the DOCa rules to include more traditional elements. They are employing larger oak barrels on their former Crianza and using carbonic maceration. Believe it or not, in most of Rioja Alavesa, this was the traditional way of making wine. Why? For one, back in the day when technology and money were scarce carbonic maceration was the easiest, most hands off/natural way to make wine (and it still is). In addition, Rioja Alavesa sits on the north side of the Ebro River with southern exposure and less acidic, alluvial soils. This terroir lends itself to a younger, fruit driven style that fits right in with the local Basque drinking culture.
Luberri, in the village of El Ciego, is one of the most famous Rioja wineries for this practice. We have just brought in Luberri’s Orlegi, a partial carbonic maceration wine that reflects this classical style and is great chilled in the summer. Luberri’s wines all highlight a softer, more aromatic character expressive of the vineyard conditions.
Over in Rioja Alta we visited a special winery Conde de Hervias in the town of Torremontalvo. In this small town of just 12 people, Count Inigo owns Torremontalvo’s only vines, which he used to sell to the likes of Campo Viejo and Muga for their Reserva bottlings until Andre got a hold of him. Count Inigo has the oldest vines in all of Rioja! His family planted them in 1884 on sandy riverside soils which kept the vines phylloxera free. After phylloxera hit Rioja, much of the region was replanted with cuttings from Inigo’s older vines, including his own younger sites that go into making the Mencos line. The wines of this town hold more structure, depth and high toned acidity to be expected from this north facing area.