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The vine-saving terroir-hunter – Telmo Rodríguez - Bortársaság magazine

The vine-saving terroir-hunter – Telmo Rodríguez

The Rodríguez family, who come from the Basque country, purchased the Remelluri estate, Rioja’s most ancient winery, in 1967. The main building was built by the monks of the Order of St Jerome in the 14th century, while the first written proof about winemaking comes from 1596.

Following his studies in Bordeaux, Telmo Rodríguez returned to the family estate but a few years later he turned his back on the comfortable career choice, in order to work in a completely different approach. The new concept was the exploration of the past and the saving of old vineyard ‘fossils’. That’s how he became a ‘travelling winemaker’ who is an ‘archaeologist’ and ‘village researcher’, travelling up and down Spain in order to find exceptional-quality but run-down plots and discover forgotten winemaking traditions. The Compania de Vinos is Telmo Rodríguez’s first wine, the ‘Apple’ was made in 1994 from the ancient, bush-vine trained Grenache of a Navarra vineyard, which they sold for 8 euros. “I wanted to make a democratic and original wine,” he said, and he’s remained faithful to this recipe ever since. 

The balance of the 25-year-long terroir hunt is 355 parcels, 43 traditional varieties on a total of 80 hectares. Owing to the honourable aim, the assured quality and the unique character of the wine, as well as the appeal of his personality, he has become a kind of oenological Indiana Jones. Along with Alvaro Palacios, he’s the most photogenic face and the leading figure in Spanish winemaking.

Besides being a travelling winemaker, Telmo Rodríguez leads two wineries in Rioja: one is Bodega Lanzaga, which he formed according to his principles when still at the beginning of his career; and Remelluri to which he returned in 2009. “I’m a happy man now,” says Telmo Rodríguez. “I own the oldest winery of Rioja, a beautiful estate with astonishing possibilities, a spot, a place to which people have been attached to throughout history. And also, I have Lanzaga. With Lanzaga, I’m trying to revive the model that withered away in the 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were nicely and richly furnished houses with excellent libraries in each Rioja village. Every village had its own style, which was wiped out by the industrialised Rioja – the merchants who didn’t come here to make serious wines or build up estates, but to supply France with wine and construct huge cellars, to buy grapes and wines, obliterated them. That’s how the Champagne model broke into Rioja.”

Bodega Lanzana cultivates 19 hectares of organic vineyards. The aim is to revive the Rioja that was sunk by phylloxera, mechanisation and chemicals; to resuscitate the plot structure of 150 years ago when 50 different varieties grew in one single vineyard. Here, each new plantation is strictly bush-vine trained and mixed: alongside the different varieties of Tempranillo and Garnacha, they’ve planted such old varieties as Viura, Moscatel, Maturana, Blanca Roja and Gran Negro. According to Rodríguez, the mixed plantation is “the oldest expression of local culture”. The other communicational channel with the past is the yeast that survived in the 17th century cellar, which is in charge of turning the grape juice into wine.

The struggle of place and time – Rioja in the 21st century

Rioja, as the world came to know it over the last 150 years, is about time. First, it has longer-lived wine than any other dry wine, secondly, the lines between the quality categories are drawn by the length of the ageing. The scale spans from the Joven that doesn’t see any barrels, to the Gran Reserva that ages for a minimum of two years in barrels, then for another three years in the bottle. According to the tradition that was formed in the second half of the 19th century, large and sometimes even gigantic bodegas, made the wines from the grapes purchased from the small growers.

In Rioja, the tradition is the several-hundred thousand blends with a maintained style and quality, even alongside the vintage differences. According to the followers of the terroir-centred approach, the value doesn’t depend on how much time a wine spends in the barrel, but rather it’s the result of the meeting of the special place of growth and the grapes. The circle that was formed under the leadership of Telmo Rodríguez, in 2015, made it clear in the ‘Matador Manifesto’ that they could not imagine the future within the framework of the then current Denomination of Origin. Then, in 2016, one of the stars of the wine region, Artadi, followed up on the warning and quit, the authorities gave in and in June 2017, accepted the raison d’etre of vineyard-selected wines (Viñedos Singulares). 

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