Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri has witnessed two significant events in 2021. In February, Jaime Rodríguez Salís passed away peacefully and surrounded by his family, after devoting much of his life to this property, acquired in 1967 with his wife Amaia Hernandorena. In September, Yjar, a wine that had been secretly in the making for almost a decade, was released alongside major international labels at the Place de Bordeaux.
The driving force behind this launch and several other developments is Telmo Rodríguez, who returned to the idyllic family estate in Labastida (Rioja Alavesa) in 2009 after an 11-year absence. Backed by his sister Amaia, the very first and most obvious step was to separate grapes grown at Remelluri from those sourced from long-standing suppliers. The latter are now destined to Lindes de Remelluri, a village wine range that includes a red wine from San Vicente de la Sonsierra and another one from Labastida and will soon expand.
There are subtler moves, like the legend "viñedo ecológico" (organic vineyard) that is now visible on the sign at the estate's entrance, plus other symbolic gestures. This year Telmo has uprooted one of the vineyards planted by his father. It is a way of showing his determination to establish exceptional vineyards capable of producing great wines. Meanwhile, Mateo, the second of his three children (see photo above) aged 20, has shown a willingness to follow in his father's footsteps.
We meet both of them as they were tasting the 2021 vintage of Yjar and Granja Remelluri Gran Reserva. Despite not having fermented fully, the quality of the tannins came through distinctly and the freshness and herbal character in Yjar revealed a clear sense of place to the wine. The oak vats, three for each wine, are housed in the charmingly restored winery which serves as fermentation room for the estate’s top reds -Telmo has vivid childhood memories of fires being lit here so that fermentation could start.
Picking times at Remelluri may often extend into November, but 2021 was a relatively early, happy vintage in which grapes ripened beautifully. A great contrast to the troubled, previous two years which were marked by hail and frost respectively.
"Remelluri has not been ill-treated since the Middle Ages. When my parents bought it in the 1960s, it was farmed with animals, fertilised with manure, and grass grew freely among the vines. What’s so special about it is the proximity to the mountains, something that other properties lack," explains Rodríguez.
Its relative isolation with vineyards climbing uphill gives Remelluri an aura of spirituality. During the 14th and 15th centuries, a community of Hieronymite monks attached to the monastery of Toloño established a farm on this land; upon their departure, the shrine was looked after by hermits until late into the 19th century. As Rioja gains in refinement, Remelluri remains a peaceful, energetic place, somewhat endowed with a sense of timelessness, more so on a perfect autumn day like the one we enjoyed on the last week of October. The well-tended landscape and the historic buildings naturally reinforce this impression.
The estate consists of about 150 hectares (there were just 20 when the family acquired it in the 1960s), 94 of which are under vine. Vineyards stretch across three valleys: the central area known as Remelluri, plus Valderremelluri and Villaesclusa. Soils can vary within the clay-limestone profile of the Sonsierra. Elevation ranges from 600 to 800 metres above sea level.
The higher plots are planted to white varieties. This was Telmo's playground back in the days when he didn’t see eye to eye with his father. The white Remelluri, a secret blend of grapes with no Viura that is fermented and aged in recipients of different sizes and materials, shaped an idea that has accompanied this producer throughout his career: that place is always above grapes and winemaking styles.
The almost obsessive search of historic vineyards and great sites (crus) have guided the work of the Cía de Vinos that Telmo Rodríguez and Pablo Eguzkiza set up in the mid-1990s and which took them all over Spain, from Málaga to Galicia, through Gredos, Ribera del Duero, Toro and back to Rioja. Former classmates in Bordeaux, they make up one of the most successful and enduring duos of the Spanish wine scene. Telmo is a charming man who speaks several languages (including Basque), is a gifted story teller and has the ability to bring innovative ideas into a bottle of wine. Pablo is more technical, has a strong interest in soils and grape skins and never stops asking questions. "The most important thing is trying to understand what we do,” he says. “We sort grapes to do just that. We take them apart so that we can put them back together again".
Telmo and Pablo have studied the phenolic profiles of Remelluri grapes in depth. This is something that the partners have been working on for years in different places across Spain. They now know that what they get at Remelluri is very different from the rest of Rioja. Soil and run-off water maps (water plays an essential role in vine performance) have also been drawn, and flora will follow. "Exposure and moisture levels can result in different vegetation on the very same soil," Eguzkiza points out.
The next goal in this ongoing search for "clarity" is to remove anything that blurs the identity of the place. To do this, they can go as far as pinpointing "vines not be harvested" or uprooting plots. Telmo sums this up emphatically: "I’ve always known that Remelluri was an exceptional site because I seek out exceptional sites; that’s what I do. In recent years, a great deal of work has been done to remove anything that was not necessary. We have reduced our production from 600,000 to 190,000 bottles and Las Lindes is now restricted to the good grapes of our suppliers. I am now seeking the taste of Remelluri, as I did with the white wine. I want these vines, which have great potential but may have not been planted properly, to become exceptional vineyards."
The story of Yjar, Remelluri’s first grand cru, combines historic and land-related elements. To start with, it is a well-established vineyard (“there were vines on this site in 1400,” Telmo points out) that consistently offers very high quality year after year. The vineyard (3.8ha) lies close to the little chapel near the winery, on "a gentle slope resulting from erosion and, therefore, with its own water supply pattern", explains Eguzkiza. Materials from the Sierra de Toloño, with a high concentration of carbonates, accumulate at about 35 centimetres depth. As it is customary in the estate, it is a field-blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha, Gran Negro and Rojal.
The name Yjar doesn't avoid the "r" and "j" letters, something that would make it easier to pronounce internationally. What Telmo wanted was to establish a link with the Duke of Híjar, a historical character that he discovered as a result of a study commissioned to writer and researcher Salvador Velilla. The Duke was the governor of the Divisa de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Toloño, a brotherhood comprising the villages of Peñacerrada, Labastida, Salinillas de Buradón, Ocio, Berganzo and the county of Treviño. The Divisa took control of the monastery of Toloño and Erremulluri (as the farm was called at the time) shortly after the departure of the monks in the first quarter of the 15th century to the destruction of the monastery in 1835, during the first Carlist war.
The story goes on as the Duke of Híjar's representantive in the area was Manuel Quintano, the clergyman who attempted unsuccessfully to introduce Bordeaux winemaking practices in Labastida at the end of the 18th century when the village counted some 400 winegrowers. It is not by chance that a few years ago the Cía. de Vinos republished an updated edition of Ludger Mees's El Médoc Alavés, a book that delves into the second attempt to follow the Bordelaise style in Rioja Alavesa. A wine made in Labastida in 1874 by Francisco Paternina, the local producer who acted as interpreter for Jean Cadiche Pineau, the French oenologist hired by the Diputación de Álava to carry out the project, is preserved in Remelluri.
Once again, Telmo worked with Fernando Gutiérrez, his longtime designer, to create a sleek, understated label for Yjar. The design emphasizes the medieval typeface, which goes hand in hand with the wine's historical narrative. On the back label, the organic seal stands out, sophistication not being at odds with delivering relevant information to consumers.
In the bottle, we found unexpected freshness for the 2017 Yjar vintage: well-defined white pepper aromas, crisp red fruit and a floral hint. The palate was spicy, refined, almost ethereal, the texture set the wine apart.
The opportunity to release Yjar onto the Place de Bordeaux arose after seven years of secret planning. There were no previous records of Spanish wines being sold in this ancient marketplace set up by négociants to sell Bordeaux fine wines. The Place is now truly global and includes wines from other French regions as well as international brands, notably from California and, in recent times, a great deal from Italy.
Telmo acknowledges having used his contacts in Bordeaux to work out a thorough strategy. He relied on a courtier specialised in international wines and chose the négociants who would finally sell his wine carefully (eight were finally picked). "La Place de Bordeaux is not a tool to achieve prestige. You need to have a consistent wine. The aim was to come up with an image as powerful as Italy’s", he points out.
He also called upon the historical connection between the two regions. "Rioja has looked to Bordeaux for 200 years without them paying much attention to us, so it could be great for Bordeaux now to present Spain's great wines to the world," Telmo told us.
Yjar had good scores and a strong recommendation by Bordeaux expert Jane Anson among the international releases. On 16 September, 7,400 bottles were sold. Telmo particularly welcomes the multiplier effect of the Place, as a large number of new customers is reached worldwide.
Ultimately, Telmo Rodríguez and his veteran perspective of Remelluri is not limited to the estate itself. He is creating a comprehensive notion of Rioja: a Rioja with exceptional vineyards and wines.