An Identity Crisis, Rioja with Andre Tamers
“Our idea of wine in Spain is just Rioja,” began Andre Tamers of De Maison Selections to a group who’d gathered at Toro‘s Backbar Room to taste with Tamers. “Dusty, earthy, classic, old school Rioja…I’m gonna take that and throw it all out the window. Spain has incredible history and terroir. There’s a lot of misconceptions. Caitlin [Doonan, Beverage Director at Toro] and I have talked a lot about Rioja as a place of microclimates and terroir.” And so it began, with a rant and a brief history of how the region’s independent producers were rolled over by industrialization, followed by a tasting that demonstrated Tamer’s efforts to resurrect the families who make wines of true Rioja terroir.
Named for the Rio Oja, a tributary that flows into the Rio Ebro, Rioja was once home to house wines that 200 years ago, were fortified for travel. Once phylloxera hit Bordeaux, the Bordelais came to the farmers of Rioja in need of wine that was made like Bordeaux. With the money that flooded Rioja, industrialization came to the valley floor. Wines that once demonstrated the terroir a family’s 5-acre plot, now needed consistency to suit the needs of a market-driven company with 500 acres. “Fast forward 200 years and you have large concerns in Rioja,” said Andre. “You’re left with stratification as in Jerez.”
With laws that went into effect in the 1970’s requiring a minimum of 500 barrels in-house, the “little guys” were prevented from selling wine, just like in Jerez. With growers that cared only about volume, and with large Rioja houses blending juice from across all three sub-zones, the essence of terroir became long gone. “The system is a sham,” said Andre. “It’s hogwash. If you have money, you can hold inventory.” By requiring wineries to age their wines for specific amounts of time, the consejo regulador by default mandated the need for barrels, volume, a vast cellar for aging and time.
“If we look at a map,” said Andre, drawing his finger along the Rio Ebro, “there’s Rioja Alta, Baja and Alavesa, and they’re all fighting because the river is the border between Basque and Spain. It creates a political boundary. The best sites are on the left bank of the river in Basque Country, which is why no one wants to talk about it.”
Comprised of mostly clay calcareous soils, Rioja Alavesa is home to Remelluri, Luberri and Ostatu. Rioja Baja is the sandiest of the three sub-zones with mostly alluvial soils; and Rioja Alta consists of clay calcareous soils that run along the river, but are highly acidic, and of alluvial/ferrous soils further south. “The truth is,” said Andre, “all of these big industrial wineries have vineyards in all of the wrong places, making Gran Reserva with no structure.”
A tasting devised to demonstrate the “crisis of identity, what does Rioja taste like?”, Andre selected eight wines to compare and contrast the various terriors expressed in the wines of his Rioja producers, beginning with Remelluri Blanco, made by Telmo Rodriguez who’s responsible for “the modernization of Spain”.
In the 1960’s Jaime Rodriguez purchased a farmhouse in Labastida that he’d came across while on a family vacation. He restructured the vineyard, implemented organic farming and “made a wine that changes the landscape of wine – a modern wine,” said Andre. “And all of a sudden we’re talking about fruit and not leather.” One day, his son Telmo expresses interest in a side project, asking his father if he could make a white wine. Telmo plants 9-10 varietals on calcareous clay because “he wants the grapes to disappear. He wants to talk about the site.” And gives us Remelluri Blanco 2011–barrel fermented with indigenous yeast and aged for 18 months in oak, cement and glass containers. With great expressions of minerality, viscosity, green herbs, light stone fruit and citrus, Remelluri Blanco finishes with white pepper spice that lingers.
Eventually, Telmo left Remelluri for ten years to perfect his craft as a winemaker while gaining international recognition. When he came home, he reduced the family’s production by 30%, and insisted on bottling only estate fruit. In 2009, he decided to separate the parcels, but rather than abandon the families that had supplied Remelluri with sourced fruit, Telmo decided to bottle two wines under the Lindes de Remelluri label, meaning “the borders of Remelluri”, reflecting the terroir of two villages: Labastida and San Vicente. Located in Rioja Alta on the Left Bank, at a higher elevation (than San Vicente) and of a cooler climate, Lindes de Remelluri Labastida 2010 yields a bright wine of high-toned fruit, spice and juicy acidity. San Vicente, on the other hand, is closer to the river in Rioja Alta (also on the Left Bank), and therefore of a warmer climate. Showing darker red fruits in the glass, the Lindes de Remelluri San Vicente 2010 is earthier, and more grounded with less acidity and spicy aromas of dark minerality.
From estate vineyards in Labastida that are planted at 650m to clay calcareous soil, Remelluri Reserva 2009 is aged for 14 months in new and old French and American oak. There’s a wildness to the wine, with its aromas of dark fruits, forest floor and spice. The acidity is bright, the tannins integrated and the wine so beautifully balanced and delicious.
For more on the wines of Remelluri, read here.