The Boundaries of Remelluri
Thanks Charles Hildreth for this reflection on Remelluri in Rioja.
La Rioja, the oldest DOCa in Spain, is a bit shy of 2,000 square miles. As of a 2015 report, it has 61,645ha (152,328 acres) planted to vines, 16,413 vineyards, and over 600 wineries. The three principal regions are Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja with each area producing its own unique expression of Rioja wine. La Rioja Alavesa and La Rioja Alta, located closer to mountains, are at slightly higher elevations and have a cooler climate. La Rioja Baja to the southeast is drier and warmer.
As a comparison, there are less than 30,000ha of vines planted to about 100 different AOCs in Burgundy, France. And yet that region is famous for its intricate system of village and vineyard designation. As we discovered, it takes a visit to Remelluri, near Ribas del Tereso in Labastida, to help intrepid oenophiles understand why the Rioja Denomination of Origin is misguided and sorely behind the times.
Granja Remelluri was established by monks living on Mt. Toloño. They cultivated both grain and vines alike. Winemaking there is documented as far back as 1593. But the historical significance of this land dates back to the tenth century, and the peasant hut settlements, founded there by Count Erramel of Alava. Remelluri, which is the Basque-language equivalent of Villarramel or Villarramiel, still conserves a necropolis that belonged to the early medieval community established there, as well as a cave that is perhaps the oldest vestige of viticultural activity in the area.
In 1968, the Guipúzcoa native Jaime Rodríguez Salís, obtained the site, and set about rejuvenating Granja Remelluri, abandoned for centuries. He rebuilt the structures that had belonged to the monks of the order of St. Jerome, and replanted vines. Atop the rubble of the old monastic buildings, he constructed what is now the winery of the Granja de Nuestra Señora de Remelluri.
Vines are broken up amongst numerous plots of calcareous clay, limestone, sandstone and loam, stretching from the road, far up the hill past the altitude limit of the olive trees scattered across the landscape. Not only olives, but almonds, wild fennel, rosemary, sage, and lavender are abundant. Around 200 vineyard plots lie at the highest elevation in the region, south-facing and protected from the winds that can jeopardize harvests.
Since 2010, Telmo Rodriguez and his sister, Amaia, have been the caretakers of this land. They have also seen to it that the extra grapes from nearby partnered farmers, previously used for over 30 years in the “Granja de Remelluri,” are now bottled separately as “Las Lindes de Remelluri” (translation: The Boundaries of Remelluri). This effort is separated into two bottlings: “Labastida,” and “San Vicente,” thereby showcasing the uniqueness of the two areas themselves. The differences due in large part to the origin of the breeze for each vineyard. Atlantic to the former, exhibiting a crunchy minerality. Mediterranean to latter, offering a warm, black fruit profile. The wines are significantly different, but legally speaking, it’s all Rioja.
When it comes to the Reserva and rare Gran Reserva, all primary wines are fermented by plot designation. No small task as there are so many, scattered over three valleys surrounding the winery: Remelluri, Valderemmelluri, and Villanuesca. Tempranillo rules here, but is accompanied by Garnacha, Graciano, and some Viura and Malvasia find their way into the blend as well. Vines are planted to clay calcareous soils, with terraced sandstone and loam, and are bush trained, as is traditional in Rioja. The work is also done biodynamically, and natural yeasts are employed to avoid any distraction to biological system of this place.
What could very well someday become widely known as one of the greatest white wines in the world, The Remelluri Blanco is arguably Telmo’s pinnacle achievement in demonstrating the efficacy of site. Amaia explains its origin: “Telmo brought cuttings from winemaker friends around France for fun.” Those cuttings intermingle with the viura, and today, the family doesn’t know precisely what else is going into the wine. Nor is that of primary importance; the grapes are a mere medium for the terroir. Harvest for the blanco stretches over two months, due to the altitude variation of the different plots (450m-800m). It boils down to around nine different varietals, hand picked, fermented with native yeasts in cement, steel, as well as old cask and foudre. Generally around half of it is rejected before spending 18 months in a variety of French barrels. The result is a miniscule amount of wine that defies comparison to any classic. None of the varietals are very clearly present on the nose or palate. The sum is greater than the whole of the parts. One would be hard-pressed to compartmentalize this wine with any degree of honesty.
The family manages weeding by hand. They do not transform the landscape to suit their needs. They maintain the natural spring in the area. They allow biodiversity amongst the vines. And they shepherd their wines from the point of conception all the way to the end. On a recent visit, our group upon leaving their barrelhouse was herded into a front room. When the door could be shut behind us, we were hustled quickly out the front door, only ajar. “We can’t let any hot air in,” Amaia insisted. Remelluri is not only their livelihood; it is an institution to be revered every step of the way.
To date, the Spanish DO eschews the prominence of location, microclimate, and terroir. However, the majority of today’s cosecheros are vinifying from only their family’s generational vines, unlike many of the biggest, defining names of “classic” Rioja, who buy fruit from all over. Sense of place is a crucial factor for their success, but the rules are standing in their way. Most of these cosecheros have two options: continue selling their fruit to Wal-Mart wineries, or, pray for an angel investor to help them buy enough barrels to compete in a game that values old juice over the quality thereof.
In a 2012 interview with Wine Spectator, Telmo describes the 19th century Bordelais as “imperialistic colonizers who exploited the region for their own needs, and their aristocratic Spanish partners were the leading edge of agroindustrial mass production. In building what became known as traditional Rioja, they uprooted a vital indigenous wine culture.” His thoughts and feelings are echoed by ever more farmers and winemakers each year. Some who have made a serious impact and name for themselves, have gone so far as threatening to leave the region if no reform can be realized. If an organized approach toward reassessing Rioja’s quality from (quite literally) the ground up becomes a serious conversation soon, the DOCa might be on the right track by the time it reaches its centenary. Sadly, motivating such a complex undertaking may require no less than a severe tumble in market demand for wines of the region.
Telmo Rodriguez and company are fortunate. Much like what we now know as IGT in Italy, their land has the distinction and pedigree to potentially rise above any legal designations as far as the marketplace is concerned. Their wines are unmistakably Remelluri, and that is the most significant indicator on their labels.