Reinventing Spanish wine

Telmo Rodriguez revolutionised Spanish wine by using his country’s old, forgotten grape varieties and making the stunning wines we have come to love

Telmo Rodriguez has played as large a part as anyone in all of the good things that have happened to Spanish wine over the past two decades. I remember meeting him 10 years or so ago and naively asking if he added any cabernet sauvignon to his Ribera del Duero. He bristled slightly, and gently replied that the local grape, tinto del pais, a clone of tempranillo, was all he needed to produce his wine. Other producers might follow fashion by adding cabernet or merlot, but he had no interest in joining them.

Long before Spain became the hot property it is today, Rodriguez travelled around Spain seeking out old grape varieties that had fallen out of fashion in areas that few considered worthy of attention. It is hard to realise now just how revolutionary that was at the time. Regions such as Ribera del Duero had announced themselves on the international stage, but Toro, Cigales, Alicante, Rueda and Malaga were unknown. He did not ignore the better-known regions either, making some excellent wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. “My biggest advantage was that I did not have any money. It is like restoring a house – when you don’t have much to spend, you don’t make many mistakes. I travelled very slowly, very quietly buying grapes, renting some vineyards. I just wanted to work in vineyards that were beautiful, vineyards you could smell. I was just following our ancestors. The real jewel that our country has are these beautiful vineyards with a great history that are still as yet undiscovered.”

Possibly unique amongst winemakers is his ability to make both interesting good everyday wines and expensive limited production wines that wow the critics.

Rodriguez was born into a Basque family. His father had bought and restored an old monastery in Rioja and named it Remelurri, where he produced wine. Rodriguez studied winemaking with some of the top producers in France and returned full of ideas. His father was quite happy with the way he himself was making wine, so Rodriguez departed. He had met Basque enologist Pablo Eguzkiza while studying at Bordeaux University. Together they founded Compañia de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez in 1984. They were determined to restore the historic grapes and traditional practices of Spain. In each region they hired an old grower who remembered the way things used to be done and a young enologist who knew how to make wine. Alongside people such as Alejandro Fernandez in Ribera del Duero and Alvaro Palacios and others in Priorat they changed the face of Spanish wine.


“A lot has been done in the last 20 years, but it is only the beginning,” says Rodriguez. “We are moving from a very boring system. Right now it is very exciting. For me the best thing is that we have young people making wine, and they are passionate. My biggest criticism is that in the past as a country we have killed the growers and the viticulturists. We have not been interested in pushing, helping, encouraging the people who grow the grapes. We have been pushing brands instead.”

Now Rodriguez has set his sights on Rioja. “I am,” he says, “a little bit old, I am 51 in two weeks, so I think we have enough projects now. But Rioja is very important to me. My family bought our estate there back in the 1960s and I grew up there. Rioja is my main project today, the one in which I am investing most money and effort. It is like the other places I worked in; I have that excitement all over again. Rioja is one of the most amazing places in the world. The big, old, well-known wineries are responsible for the destruction of the vineyards of Rioja. We and other small producers are recuperating vineyards, finding old vines, going back to what existed before. Rioja needs to show what is inside.”

It seems we in this country have finally woken up to the value and interest that Spain can offer; retailers say sales of Spanish wine are booming. In the distant past, most wine shops offered a cheap, very ordinary, red Spanish table wine and a Rioja or two. How that has changed! Spain is now the hot property – go into the right shop and you will find an array of exciting wines.

The wines today are all made from indigenous Spanish varieties and include three produced by Rodriguez.