What significance can a small producer based in rural Galicia have for us to highlight him in our Wineries to watch section? Despite the size of his business, Emilio Rojo embodies the figure of a winegrower and producer deeply committed to his vineyard and wine.
For many years, he managed to sell his Ribeiro —a blend of Treixadura and other local white grapes— at more than twice the price paid for other wines in the appellation. His search for complexity and terroir expression has earned him an increasing number of followers among other producers in the area.
He is an unconventional and rather eccentric character. With his big moustache and his head always covered by a cap, Emilio Rojo fails to go unnoticed. Some colleagues argue that he has built an image for himself and that he plays his role in a more or less extravagant way depending on who he is dealing with. Many like to tell the story of the crazy guy who tried to open a bank account for his dog. Beyond his quirkiness, what’s far more impressive is his devotion to his vines. So much so that his life revolves around his farming duties.
"In winter I'm dead,” says Emilio, drawing a parallel with his dormant vines. But his schedule during the growing season is far busier: “I get up at 4:30am in summer and work in the vineyard from 5 until 11. I return home for lunch, take a nap and again back to work from 6pm until the sun sets.”
Emilio Rojo, 62, was born in Orense, an inland rural area in northwestern Spain. His family comes from the Arnoia valley where tiny vine holdings can still be found. The son of a miller, he trained as an engineer and worked at Siemens for a time until he decided to make a living from wine. At the beginning he used grapes from this area but he has gradually focused his efforts in just one plot, located in the historical Avia valley that belonged to his wife’s family.
The vineyard is located at Ibedo, an ancient rural settlement that was abandoned 40 years ago. When I visited Emilio last November, he suggested we walked up the hill from Barzamedelle, a small neighborhood next to the town of Leiro, so we left behind the typical Galician stone-houses and followed a narrow path surrounded by lush vegetation, at times under a light drizzle, for about half an hour. We only bumped into a hunter and his dogs.
Emilio Rojo is a colleiteiro, a Galician term used to describe producers who only use their grapes to make wines and keep production under 60,000 bottles a year. This category, also found in other Galician appellations, was established by Ribeiro’s Consejo Regulador in 1987. It has particularly thrived in this region.
Emilio loves dwelling on the history and uniqueness of the area. He talks about the foros, a levy paid by farmers who rented vineyards and which greatly impoverished them. It remained in force until the 1920s. Around 30 growers made wine in the area where he grows his vines —that was until a cooperative was created in Leiro in the 1950s.
A winegrower’s status was established by the thickness of the stone walls used to build terraces (locally called socalcos). Emilio describes a wall flanked by an aisle as the epitome of wealth at the height of splendor for Ribeiro wines in the 15th-16th centuries. It is not surprising, therefore, that the region accounts for the highest density of pazos (manor houses) in Galicia. He is also convinced that the legendary wines of Ribadavia, which were widely exported to Europe during the 14th to 16th century, were not the sweet tostadillos made from dried grapes to increase concentration but fortified white wines with alcohol reaching 14-15%.
His own vineyard was formerly attached to the monastery of San Clodio, the driving force behind wine production since its foundation in the 12th century. As in the rest of Galicia, indigenous varieties almost disappeared after phylloxera, replaced by white Palomino and red Alicante Bouschet. Emilio Rojo replanted this vineyard between 1987 and 1988 with cuttings coming from local plant nurseries except for Loureira, which he brought from Terras Gauda winery in Rías Baixas.
Rojo is specially proud of his vineyard facing east, which means extra freshness and a slower ripening cycle in contrast with most vines found on the opposite bank of river Avia. Plantings are midway up the slope, as it was the case in traditional sites, fully protected from frosts as the cool air drops to the bottom of the valley. Soils, locally known as sábrego, are shallow granite, with sandy texture and varying quantities of gravel.
Emilio Rojo is a vigneron on top of his game. “I’m always here, at my headquarters”, he says. But to what extent can work get complicated when his plot of land barely reaches 1.2 hectares? To start with, vines are planted so closed to each other that all the work must be done by hand. Yields are significantly lower than the area’s average and the goal is to leave just five to six bunches per vine to maximize concentration. "To this I dedicate an entire month after San Antonio (a festivity that takes place June)," he explains.
The harvest takes as long as it’s needed and grapes are picked at different times, depending on ripeness levels. Vines set to be harvested are individually marked with lime. Late-ripener Loureira is usually picked in October.
His wine, called Emilio Rojo, is made mostly from Treixadura, an indigenous white grape which accounts for 65% of the blend. The rest are small amounts of Loureira, Albariño, Lado, Torrontés and Godello. Treixadura provides structure, with Loureira adding acidity. Albariño is pretty interesting in the area as it ripens nicely and is botrytis-resistant. More importantly, winemaking has recently changed and the wine has evolved from a complex young white to thoroughly being aged with its lees. Accordingly its release has been delayed several months. The current vintage on sale in Ribeiro is 2013, but Emilio Rojo is selling its 2012 wine. He’s not the only one though; there’s already a small bunch of producers keeping Ribeiros with their lees or in oak barrels in order to offer more complexity and cellaring potential.
The lucky ones who manage to buy Emilio Rojo 2012 (it was a good vintage both in terms of quality and quantity) will find a distinctive wine with great intensity on the nose (aromatic herbs, toasty notes from the lees, cox apples) and structure on the palate; vibrant acidity adds length on the finish and calls for some extra cellar time. Vila Viniteca is the main distributor in Spain where the wine retails at around €36 and it’s also available in the US (check retailers via Wine Searcher) where it is imported by De Maison Selections.
Those willing to find out more about Emilio Rojo’s eccentric side should watch an episode of the wine series En clau de vi, broadcast by Catalan TV3 where he is interview by sommelier Josep Roca and journalist Marcel Gorgori. Please note that Spanish, Catalan and even a bit of Galician are mixed in the dialogue.