A Special Place…Really
A visit to Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri, by Chris Wilford
While reflecting on my visit to the Remelluri estate located in the town of Labastida in the north of Spain’s famed Rioja region the words “a special place” kept popping into my head. I must admit that I find the phrase a bit cliché. That said, I just couldn’t shake it. Like a sip of a wine you didn’t think you would like but couldn’t stop thinking about, it simply lingered in my mind.
I have had the great pleasure of visiting dozens of vineyards and wineries all over the world Some have been run down, some opulent. Many rustic homes with dark musty cellars and others featuring gorgeous Chateaus with ordered rows of perfect vines, a gilded testament to the vinous arts. Occasionally a merely tacky monument to what someone imagined to be classy that ends up reflecting a need to display one’s ability to spend money. But Remelluri is different from all of these. It is quite simply a breathtaking place. It is correct, beautiful without being fancy and serene in its simplicity. Nothing seems out of place or context with all the buildings in harmony with the natural beauty of their surroundings.
Many of the structures date back to the 14th century, some having been rebuilt in the 18th. The newest buildings constructed over the past 30 years have been careful to fit in with those that came before.
The vineyards, which cross from La Rioja Alta into Alavesa, lay over the course of three contiguous valleys – Valderemelluri, La Granja and Villaescusa. All three lie on the southern facing slopes of the Sierra de Toloño Mountains. The peak of which is home to an ancient sanctuary that was once a destination for the forests many hermits or as our host put it, the hippies of the day. The Franciscan Monks that inhabited a Monastery, also at the top of the mountain, planted vines across the valley in the 14th century. It was from these vineyards that the same Franciscan monks originally took clippings to be planted in California. The mountain provides protection from severe weather as well as being a source of water. As these are the northern most valleys in Rioja as well as being one of the highest elevations in all of Spain, the caps were white with snow during our visit.
Over hundreds of years these vineyards were split up and sold off only to be re assembled in 1967 by San Sebastian businessman Jaime Rodriguez Salis. Along with the vineyards Mr. Rodriguez found ancient tombs on the grounds and has since rebuilt an accompanying 11th century chapel, restoring the building and commissioning the artist Vincent Ameztoy to produce original works for its walls representing traditional religious themes yet incorporating modern touches such as various members of the Rodriguez family as well as blue jeans and lorry trucks. The artist was invited to come and live at the winery while doing the work and produced one painting a year until sadly he passed away while finishing the final piece, “Paradise” in 2001.
All this respect of the place and the land is reflected in the wines produced here. Of the 158ha in the estate, 115 are under vine, the oldest being 90+ years old. Grapes planted include Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Garnacha Blanca, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Moscatel, and Petit Courbut among others. The highest of the vineyards are planted to the white varieties that make up the exceptional Rioja Blanco. In addition during the course of replanting, many of the older varieties found on the estate were re-grafted onto vines planted around the ancient chapel.
The vineyards, limestone terraces and clay soil, have been farmed organically for many years (the largest organic vineyard in Spain) but have taken a further course in recent years towards Biodynamics. Jaime’s daughter Amaia got the inspiration while working at Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy. In addition they have worked to replant trees in the vineyards that had been removed over the years to keep birds away. Bees have also been called into action and groups of new hives can be seen in the vineyards.
All this brings me now to the man at the heart of this winery, Telmo Rodriguez. Telmo and his Father Jaime had parted ways a number of years ago and Telmo formed his own winery which grew to great notoriety the world over (including Basa, Gago and Matallana among others). Recently though, Telmo has returned to the helm of Remelluri and we are all the better for it. He is a man of great conviction and vision. While not overly concerned with individual details he is firmly focused on the sum of all parts. When asked about blends or barrel regimes he is dismissive. What matters in the end is simply what is in the glass. In the winery you come across many different types of oak barrels from 125-500lt of varying age and country of origin, foudres of varying sizes and even the modern cement eggs. When asked about them he replies, “I am a winemaker but I hate more and more winemaking. I don’t want to see the oak, the egg…I just want to see the wine”.
This has extended even to the extent of labeling and the long held belief in the Reserva / Gran Reserva systems. While the two reds produced, Remelluri and the La Granja Remelluri certainly meet the requirements for each respectively, he has removed the Reserva label from the first and one can only assume the Gran Reserva label of the latter is sure to follow. As he puts it, it is not about Reserva, it is simply Remelluri. That being said, little technical information regarding the winemaking process is offered and the tour through the winery is quite short compared to the time spent walking and driving through the vast vineyard sites. The views of which and the surrounding scenery are just stunning. Grass grows freely between the densely planted vines and though recent regulations are looking to enforce trellising Telmo is actively fighting this by sticking to Bush Training. He has also recently brought in a former vineyard manager from the famed Bordeaux 2nd growth Chateau Cos d’Estournel. While claiming that he is working to protect traditional vineyards, tradition becomes an interesting topic with Telmo. “What is traditional? Is it merely old? Is Riscal Traditional?” That said it is clear that Telmo is a man who walks backwards into the future.
Back at Telmo’s house we sit down to lunch. The house, dating back to the 14th century is fittingly simple, rustic and reserved given Telmo’s celebrity status in Spain’s wine world. He tells us that some in the community asked him why he did not rent an opulent flat in nearby Haro (the heartfelt capitol of Rioja). But this never made sense to him. He felt he needed to be close to the vines, close to the winery. Be a part of it. Lunch is served including fresh vegetables grown in the garden on the estate and Hake grilled over the open fireplace adjacent the 800 year old dining table. With this we are served the 2009 Blanco from magnum. This outstanding white, made from a field blend of nine white varieties is quickly becoming the cult white of Rioja. The young gun to Lopez’ Grand dame. Oily, silky, dense, slightly spicy and very long. This was followed by a new wine, Lindes, which features grapes grown by the farmers bordering the Remelluri’s vineyards. Bright and juicy red fruit, fresh and vibrant. Telmo is particularly proud to be able to offer an opportunity for these growers to showcase their hard work and give them a reason to produce grapes of the highest quality. We finished with a pairing of the 2005 Remelluri and the 2005 La Granja, a vineyard selection of which only 11K bottles were produced (the first bottling of this since the 1999 vintage). Elegance is the term that continues to come to mind with these wines. Not surprising given Telmo’s love of the wines of Burgundy’s famed Musigny vineyards as well as the Rhone valley wines of August Clape in Cornas and Telmo’s friend Jean-Louis Chave. We discussed the fact that we are often surprised by winemakers who have no interest in or understanding of wines from outside of their communities. “They are lost” he says.
There is a sense of qualitative continuity in these wines. While certainly distinct in character from other regions and countries the overall impression is that these are simply among some of the greatest wines in the world. Yes they are Rioja, yes they are Remelluri but at the end of the day they are just special wines, from a special place.