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Spain's Brilliant $8 Winemaker | Telmo Rodríguez

Why is Telmo Rodríguez as proud of his $8 bottlings as he is of his $80 ones? Wine editor Lettie Teague finds out the answer when she tags along with this star "driving winemaker" on a high-mileage road trip.

I am not a flying winemaker—I'm a driving winemaker," Telmo Rodríguez said to me when we met. From my seat in the back of his blue SUV, I found this self-characterization compellingly modest: Telmo wasn't some fancy, high-priced consultant who ran between wineries and airports, but a simple man in a high-mileage wagon who just happened to make wine all over Spain. (Four days and hundreds of highway miles later, my opinion of those airborne producers—or at least their method of transport—had grown appreciably higher.)

It's not uncommon for a winemaker to produce wine in several different regions at the same time, though Telmo Rodríguez, of Compañía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, is an anomaly in his native Spain. He turns out 20 wines from ten different regions: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Toro, Alicante, Málaga, Navarra, La Mancha, Galicia and Cigales. And as of last year, Portugal too. There aren't many producers in the world, let alone Spain, who make as many good wines in as many places as Telmo Rodríguez. Which brings me back to his SUV.

Telmo (as most everyone calls him) lives in Madrid but, as befits a driving winemaker, spends most of his time in his car. If you don't have his cell-phone number, it can take weeks (as it did me) to track him down. Once we finally connected, I asked Telmo if I could come along as he went about his routine. He not only agreed but declared my timing to be opportune, as harvest was starting, and he had lots of vineyards to check. His enthusiasm surprised me: Most winemakers want to see a journalist at harvest as much as they do an IRS agent at tax-filing time. But Telmo, I soon realized, isn't a typical winemaker.

For starters, Telmo, 42, looks a lot like Davy Jones of The Monkees. (Davy was the one who made the girls scream.) And while Telmo too has his fans, his tend to include more wine critics than lovesick teenage girls. Robert M. Parker, Jr., for example, has called one of Telmo's Toro wines, Dehesa Gago, one of "Spain's greatest wine bargains" (it's about $13), and his other bottlings, from Toro and elsewhere, have also won equally high praise.

Telmo's rise to fame began about 10 years ago, when he was the winemaker at Remelluri, a winery in Rioja owned by his father. A businessman from San Sebastián, the elder Rodríguez had purchased Remelluri more as a hobby than as a business. But when Telmo graduated from Bordeaux's prestigious enology school (he speaks fluent French as well as Spanish, English and Basque), his father asked him to come back to Spain and run Remelluri. By then Telmo had apprenticed at several high-profile chateaus, including Cos d'Estournel, and worked in the Rhône Valley for the great Gérard Chave.

Telmo remained at Remelluri through the mid '90s, earning high scores for the estate, where he practiced rigorous quality-control measures that included reducing yields and implementing organic viticultural techniques, and he largely eschewed both filtering and fining. When Telmo decided to start his own company, he and his father parted on amicable terms. And though Telmo has nothing to do with Remelluri today, the winery was our first stop upon leaving Madrid.

The Road to Rioja

Actually, our first stop was a roadside hotel on the way to Rioja, where Telmo met with Pablo Eguzkiza, his business partner. Pablo was en route to Toro, where the harvest had already begun. The harvest was still a week or so away in Rioja, but according to Pablo, the weather was bad. "I'm very worried about Rioja," said Telmo.

"There are a lot of vineyards in Rioja, but no one knows anything about terroir," Telmo declared, as we approached the low hills of Rioja, the Pyrenees mountains visible in the distance. "My challenge is to find the perfect terroir," he added, using the untranslatable French term for the ideal viticultural circumstances. Telmo looked for promising terroir wherever he went.

Rioja, according to Telmo, had changed a great deal in recent years. The wines, once aged extensively in oak, often to the point of oxidation, were now made in a fresher, fruitier style. The people making the wines had changed as well: There was a lot of new money in Rioja and a lot of new wineries—most of them ugly. Telmo pointed out one that resembled an airplane hangar. "My friend Fausto Maculan [the Italian winemaker] says, 'Five years ago, everyone in Rioja was riding a motorcycle—now everyone has a big, ugly car,'" Telmo told me.

Remelluri was the aesthetic opposite of the new wineries: a 14th-century former monastery made of stone, surrounded by vineyards and gardens. We'd have lunch in the gardens, declared Telmo, before driving to the vineyards. Even as he ate, Telmo never stopped talking. First, he spoke of Remelluri, where he'd found winemaking often frustrating: "I couldn't feel in the wine what I felt in the vineyard." It didn't seem to matter to him that the wines had been sought-after or received big scores.

When Telmo left to strike out on his own, his friends thought he would produce a "Super-Rioja"—a high-priced, fancy, international-style wine made with lots of French oak. But Telmo had something else in mind. His first wine was an $8 Grenache from Navarra. "I wanted to make a democratic, original wine," he said. "I think Spain can produce very good cheap wines."

Soon we were back in the car on our way to the vineyards. "Every place I make wine, I work with a family," Telmo said. "I deal with so many different types of people I should be a psychologist." There was not only his winemaking team but the growers from whom Telmo purchased grapes. He owned only a few vineyards; the ones that met his standards were hard to find. "In Galicia, it took me three years to buy three hectares," he said.

Telmo drove his SUV halfway up the slope of the first vineyard. Then we got out and began tasting grapes. It was a scene we repeated many times. "Taste the grapes," Telmo commanded each time we disembarked. Though the Rioja harvest was still a week or so away, the fat, blue Tempranillo grapes tasted ripe and sweet. But as Telmo pointed out, further up the hill the grapes weren't ready (which he proved by spitting one grape out and showing me its green stem and seeds).

Tempranillo, the most important grape in Spain (it's been called "Spain's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon"), is the varietal that Telmo works with most often, not only in Rioja, but in Ribera and Toro. He also has a great fondness for old-vine Grenache (or Garnacha) and Mourvèdre (Monastrell), in addition to other indigenous varieties. Indeed, Telmo's facility with a multitude of grapes was much like his linguistic abilities; as he talked on his cell phone, he switched—occasionally mid-sentence—from Basque to French to English and back.

We visited several more vineyards then drove to the winery to taste wines from barrel. Telmo produces three wines in Rioja, all 100 percent Tempranillo: Altos de Lanzaga, Lanzaga and LZ—in descending order of complexity and price. Altos de Lanzaga is Telmo's especial pride. Made from four proprietary vineyards and aged in new French oak, it's a wine of great structure and power, balanced by beautifully ripe, intense fruit—hallmarks of Telmo's style. Tempranillo, Telmo believes, is best suited to new oak: "It is a very delicate grape. When you use old oak barrels, you mask the freshness of its character."

Racking Up More Mileage in Ribera

The next day's itinerary included the regions Ribera del Duero, Cigales and Rueda, all within an hour or so of one another. First was Ribera del Duero, where the Rioja hills turned into flat-topped Texas-style mesas. Telmo was meeting his grower, Tomás Esteban. "Tomás is one of the winemakers in Ribera using bush-trained vines," said Telmo approvingly. We walked through the vineyards, tasting more grapes. Telmo and Tomás walked ahead, Telmo spitting out the skins as he went. In Ribera, the Tempranillo grapes were much smaller, their clusters tighter, their skins tougher. Telmo is fanatical about the texture of the skin, which he believes is as important as the grape's flavor. He is just as fervent on the subject of tasting. "Show me your tongue," he demanded at the end of the walk. His was deep purple, mine merely mauve. "You are not working," he said.

We tasted a few wines still in barrel back at Tomás's winery: Telmo's 2002 Mattallana and 2002 M2, both smoky and rich, fleshier than his Rioja wines but still very young and tight. Then we got back into the car and drove toward Rueda using the back roads so we did not have to see "the ugly wineries." Apparently the new Ribera del Duero wineries were as ugly as Rioja's, thanks to a similar invasion of big-money vintners hoping to capitalize on Ribera's newfound fashionability. "I think the architects of Spain should go to jail. They are destroying the landscape," Telmo said.

Telmo's strong feelings about art are reflected in his labels. All are the work of Fernando Gutiérrez, a friend of Telmo's who is a highly regarded artist in Spain. The Altos de Lanzaga label depicts a woman's elegant, manicured hand plucking a large red grape from what looks like a DNA matrix: elegance and structure. But my favorite belongs to Pegaso, a delicious Rhône-style old-vine Grenache that Telmo makes just outside Madrid. Telmo calls it the "mattress wine," as the label's interlocking circles resembled mattress springs. (It is also what the Grenache vineyard looks like during the harvest, Telmo said.)

After an unscheduled few hours spent in a Valladolid tire shop (an occupational hazard of being a driving winemaker), we were back on the road, this time to Cigales, where Telmo's winemaking team was waiting. (People are always waiting for Telmo.) "We are worried—the grapes may ripen here the same time as Ribera del Duero," Telmo said, pacing through the vineyard, talking on his cellphone while tasting the grapes. Later we tried his 2003 wine, Viña 105, from the tank: a soft, simple and delicious Cigales red that costs about $12 a bottle.

On our way to Rueda, Telmo mused about the other wines he wanted to make. "I'd like to do a blend of nine grapes that would sell for $8 a bottle," he said. This ambition is one of many things about Telmo that makes him unique. I don't know many winemakers who get as excited about an $8 wine as they do an $80 one (the price of Telmo's Altos de Lanzaga).

Telmo's Rueda wine, Basa, is his most popular bottling. A blend of Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc and Viura, it's a crisp white that retails for around $10. "Basa is very clean and simple," said Telmo. And at 15,000 cases, its production is practically industrial by Telmo standards. (No wonder Telmo named it Basa, or "foundation"—economically, it certainly was.)

Driving to Meet the "Toro Man"

The next morning we took off for Toro, where the soil is red "like the foil capsule of my bottles," Telmo said, referring to his three Toro bottlings: Dehesa Gago, the wine Parker had praised; its more complex sibling, Gago; and his star Pago la Jara, a rich, aromatically complex red. All are made from Tinta de Toro, a.k.a. Tempranillo.

Antonio, Telmo's "Toro man," was waiting for him, but because the grapes had just been harvested, we didn't walk the vineyards but sniffed the tops of the fermenters instead. Telmo waved his hand in the air like a perfume salesman. "Beautiful," he said.

We were scheduled to drive to Galicia, on Spain's western coast, where Telmo makes a crisp, aromatic white from the native Godello grape. But because the harvest there had just ended, Telmo decided we should drive to Portugal's Douro Valley instead. "It's a short drive," he asserted. (His first inaccurate claim.) He was making a wine with Dirk Niepoort, of the Niepoort port family.

How Telmo and I got all the way to Portugal and back to Madrid is another story (nearly as long). I'll just say that if Telmo is going to be a two-country winemaker, he might have to become the flying kind instead.

Published February 2005
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