The mountains have been here for 80 million years; humans have been using the mountains for a lot less time than that, but nevertheless for a long time, historically speaking. The Romans used one of the peaks as a military fort. Later, in the 14th century, a monastery was built that gave birth to this farm, producing cereal and wine for the monks – La Granja Nuestra Senora de Remelluri (Our Lady of Remelluri). In fact, the village of Remelluri dates from the 10th century. It was named after a Christian guerrilla fighter called Ramellis, who helped to push the Muslims south from the valley.
In the 10th and 11th centuries the monks in the monasteries at nearby St Millan de Cogolla (now a UNESCO World Heritage site and well worth a visit) produced beautiful documents and drawings describing the picking and crushing of grapes.
Made their first wine in 1971
The farm was abandoned in the 17th century; it had many different owners, until Jaime Rodriguez and his wife bought it in 1968 as a ruin. They started, little by little, to restore the walls and the house. At that time there was no electricity, no telephone, no roads. It was charming, beautiful, and this was one of the reasons that they bought it – as a romantic getaway for the summer break with the kids. They knew that they could make wine here, as fine wines were already being made in the village, long before the industrial ‘Rioja’ wines of modern times. The family made their first wine in 1971 – about 10,000 bottles – with the vines that were already here. Apart from the historic accident of the monks and the farm, it’s the geography, the nature, the place, the ‘terroir’, that makes Remelluri so interesting.
The traditional Rioja viticulture always took advantage of the bush-vine system (French ‘gobelet’ or Spanish ‘vaso’ – a small glass): there are three main stems trained above the trunk, which spread out making the perfect round shadow to counter the effect of heat and sun. The vines survive with no irrigation, as the owners are faithful to the traditional methods and are looking for quality rather than quantity. They maintain a density of 5000 plants per hectare, so that the roots have to compete with each other.
Highest elevation in the region
Geographically the vineyard is in the cooler, fresher part of Rioja, with a lot of influence from the Atlantic breezes. They have a north wind blowing all summer and autumn. That brings welcome rain and keeps the night-time temperature down below 20 degrees. This helps the vines to produce better because the leaves don’t close, so photosynthesis can continue. The contrast between the cool of the night and the heat of the day helps to develop complexity, acidity, and sugars. This allows the wines to become much more sophisticated. Some of these wines can age in the cellar for months, and in the bottle for decades.
In spring the shoots of the vine are very fragile, and in those past days winters were long, with a lot of snow and ice, and autumn was very short. So the monks in the Middle Ages sited the farm in the best possible place to get the shelter from the surrounding hills, and terraced them to get the maximum sunshine. The vineyards here are at the highest elevation in the region.
In areas such as Xeres, the sherry-producing region of Spain, there were at one time up to 120 varieties of vine. Even here there were perhaps 60 varieties, but phylloxera destroyed most vines. When the disease decimated the French vineyards the owners came to Rioja and Navarra looking for clean plants, and started doing joint ventures with local merchants and aristocracy. That’s how the classic Rioja started. They built wineries in villages near railway stations, and sent wine in bulk to Bilbao harbour, to be bottled in London for sale to Europe. The British and the French dominated the business.
Most prestigious wines
Remelluri only produce 6,000 bottles of white wine, and only have 4.5 hectares of vineyard dedicated to white grapes. In the east valley they have around 20 hectares of very old terraces used to make their most prestigious wines – a really sophisticated Granja Remelluri (10,000 bottles) aged for two years in the barrel followed by six years in the bottle. It’s a wine that will remain in good condition for half a century. The other notable red wine is Remelluri Reserva, which is the ‘house’ wine. It’s aged 18 months, and they produce around 250,000 bottles.
The owners consider that the biggest challenge is to set the best example, be the best model, for their wine-making neighbours. Remelluri represents almost 33% of the organic vineyard area in Rioja. Policies in Rioja have encouraged a massive increase in production; but they have not favoured the traditional producers or protected the old terroirs. The authorities gave money to replace the old vines, and everything was bulldozed and destroyed. There has been heavy criticism from international wine-writers and journalists. Remelluri, because the family liked the wines of Medoc, started using French oak barrels, as opposed to the American oak generally used throughout Rioja. This wood offers less vanilla aroma than the American, and they replace about 10% of their barrels each year.
These wines are delicate
Telmo, the son of the family, who now runs the winery with his sister Amaya, likes to work with bigger barrels for certain wine. Telmo Rodriguez has been described by Berry Brothers and Rudd as one of the greatest of Spanish winemakers. He uses 500-litre and 300-litre barrels as well as the more typical 225-litre. You can see from the names of the parcels of land chalked on the barrels that they ferment and age each plot’s grapes separately until the point of bottling the vintage. Some of the French barrels use Hungarian oak these days; French oak is becoming harder to find and more expensive. As wines are oxygenated and aged they are racked and moved to cooler rooms. These wines are delicate, being alive with yeasts and natural bacteria. They would have a tendency to become vinegar if not expertly handled!
I am sure a vinegar vintage will never happen at Remelluri. They make the wine with passion, dedication and consideration. This family know what they like. They respect heritage and tradition but they also embrace practices that allow them to make the best of this land. It’s the delicious marriage of art and organic science.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018