What's New in April

A Drink From The Porron

Edozein txoriari eder bere kabia
"Beautiful bird in its nest"

Remelluri: an outsider’s look into making the new classic Rioja
by Philippe Broom

I arrived late. Broken Spanish can only get you so far in a surprisingly bustling bus station in rural Northern Spain, the "Pais Vasco". My route to the village of Labastida from San Sebastian was convoluted, stressful and ultimately one of the more important voyages of my life. Running to an unmarked bus stop and barely catching my ride had rendered me absolutely exhausted. Upon arriving at the estate, I found myself in a place where the history was both living and breathing around me, under me even. It was nothing short of palpable. The noisy, rustling olive trees, the vines plump with fruit, and the stoic farmhouse that is Remelluri stunned me. The 10th century necropolis embedded in the rock reminded me of how different those folks’ world must have been from our own. The first walk through the vineyards between sites aptly named after landmarks such as the trees, the rustic vineyard shed off in the distance or even a beloved old lady who worked the vines many years ago, will remain with me forever. I knew I was somewhere special right then and there.

I was immediately partnered with two oenology students finishing their studies at Remelluri and an agronomy student who came from Chile. Harvest had already begun when I arrived early in October; a particularly early harvest was underway in Rioja. We spent hours on end driving the insanely old, yet esteemed, late 80s model Citroen C15 station wagon up around the hills of Villaescusa and Valderemelluri collecting samples (100 grapes exactly, only from fully formed, healthy clusters) and returning them to the lab for analysis. "How much sugar is in this little Tempranillo grape? When will that damned white Garnacha be ripe enough to pick?" These are only a few of the questions that I pondered to myself while in bed at night in my cozy, naturally cool room in the basement of the 15th century estate.

Autumn in Rioja

Day to day activities included collecting those samples, early morning pump-overs in the tank room, density and temperature measures for the must fermenting away in barrels, cleaning winery equipment daily and, of course, destemming grapes by hand. Lots and lots of destemming. Every single open top fermenter was filled with grapes that our small team destemmed by hand after already having gone through a destemming machine. "No pip left behind" became my ironic mantra after about the first week. These were fermenters reserved for the "Granja", the Gran Reserva only produced in the best vintages. One of the rituals of the day after destemming was what I referred to as "the dance". All of the bugs, no matter your preparation method, would crawl into your work gear and would look for suitable "housing". A good shake down after we hosed off all of the stainless steel equipment was always necessary.

Around the middle of October, we stopped harvesting to give the remaining grapes, many of these white varieties, further chance to ripen: a risk that was ultimately worth taking. It was then that I realized how unpredictable and arduous the winemaking process really is. It is a dance with nature. The threat of precipitation caused botrytis paranoia around the winery. This prompted proposals of late night harvesting the night before the storm was set to rain on our viticultural parade. Thankfully, no one was forced to harvest in the vineyards at 2am with headlamps. It was a real worry at one point and it is something that has apparently happened before at Remelluri. Many wineries wouldn’t bother with such extensive quality measures. Most neighboring wineries had already finished harvesting by this time. In a region where the focus is often times on production and not necessarily quality, Remelluri stands out. The rain never came but we waited even longer to for full maturation of the grapes.

A grape cluster on the vine at Remelluri

Learning about Remelluri and Rioja gave me much insight into how the region has been shaped in the past century. Previously, most of the plantings in this part of Rioja were primarily grain, nearly 90% cereals and only 10% vine. Now, that trend has effectively been reversed. Winemakers and business opportunists have clamored for hectares of vineyard sites in non-descript areas of the region to obtain the right and ability to slap the name ‘RIOJA’ on a cheap, low quality bottle of wine. What is so special about Remelluri is its focus on place. It’s about regaining the mentality that one village’s wines might taste different than the wines from the village over the hill. And to go even further, aiming to express these differences has become a clear goal for Remelluri.

After having spent a month at Remelluri, nestled at the foot of the Sierra de Cantabria and overlooked by the ever-ominous Monasterio de Toloño at the top of the mountain, it was time to return home. Harvest had come to an end with the last of the high elevation parcels finally cleared. We were the last to finish harvest in the region. It was time to leave what had become a home for me. I sat and thought of all of the other people in history who had made the journey to Remelluri in the past, be it for shelter, for harvest or for protection. With so much history, I felt honored to have been a small part of that. Remelluri has quietly been the seat of Rioja since the 10th century: a refuge for some, a home for many, a beautiful bird in its nest.