Yjar, Telmo Rodriguez’s masterpiece

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Telmo Rodriguez, Lanciego, Rioja Alavesa, Spain, 2017

355 plots, eighty hectares, 43 native grape varieties: over the past three decades, Telmo Rodriguez has travelled the vineyards of Spain extensively, collecting vineyards as so many gems, keeping his greatest achievement for the end, the fabulous Yjar, a vineyard on the Remelluri region of Rioja.

Since the beginning of the 90s, Telmo Rodriguez and his car have become a familiar sight across the Spanish vineyard, as he travels far and wide, inspecting his 335 plots and earning himself the nickname “the driving winemaker”. An appellation he is not keen to propagate. Yes, he acknowledges the fact that he has spent a lot of time driving around, as one of Spain’s most conspicuous wine makers. But the art is not in driving, it’s in picking the right destination. Over the last three decades, he has found many such destinations, made more glorious by his visitations. But as fate would have it, the latest and now the dearest to his heart, he found on his family estate, a mere 15-minute walk from home: Yjar. No more car.

How did you come to be nicknamed the driving winemaker?

It is quite unfair. I am exactly the opposite. I was just at the right places at the right times.

Our generation was able to travel, understand and taste the best wines and meet amazing people. Spanish wineries were not really interested in wines. At the beginning in the 1980s, our thought, with my father, was not to do a great wine, as this would not be accepted coming from Spain and Rioja, but to produce volumes of inexpensive wine. However, I was not interested by this. I was not at the right place at the right time. So I started driving. I went to visit vineyards in France, not the New World. I studied the reds in Bordeaux, Rhône and Burgundy.

Upon coming back to Spain, everybody knew Rioja but driving around in the North, I saw great vineyards that were abandoned, and possibly much better than Rioja. I bought my first small vineyard in 1994 and started making wines. At that time, the fashion was to plant Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots and up-root old vines. I was against fashion and wanted to produce fine Spanish wines. I realised then that mine was a most complex country but that nobody, even in Spain, knew it.

This pushed me to drive around. I wanted to work with old grapes and vines, to be a small grower  making great wines, in a human sized property, of about 10-15 hectares, never more than 20.

With this idea in mind, I continued driving, and bought in the Sierra de Gredos in 1999 where there were old vines of Garnacha at 1000m altitude. I continued driving, looking for the best. We found 20 hectares in Valdeorras and started working there in 2011.

Now tell us about Rioja, where you come from.

Rioja is made up of villages, not estates. My family, originating from the North Basque country, thus francophiles, bought Remelluri after falling in love with the place. It was the oldest property of Rioja from the Monastère of Toloño. My parents were then (well) inspired by the place to start making wines.

And how did the idea for Yjar come to you?

In 2010, we started studying and trying to understand what it was that they loved about Remelluri. Historians came to research and observe. Monks had left the property in 1420. This important territory was run by the Duke of Hijar. In those days already it was the first modern wine in Spain: the area had been studied and the then 94 hectares had been separated into 220 plots.

We took a bit more than four years to identify plots within our 3.8 hectares, the jewel of Remelluri, at the center of the Toloño mountain, on a rock of chalk, in a natural amphitheatre.

Yjar is more than a cuvée or a name. A courtier once told me: “no j no r”, and so Yjar it was (after the Duque de Hijar who managed the property at one time of its very long history).

Being sold on the Place de Bordeaux was a great accolade from your colleagues from across the Pyrenees. How did that come about?

In my youth, Spain was producing ordinary wines that were a staple of meals. I studied in Bordeaux. Spain had been looking at Bordeaux for more than three hundred years. Now it is time for Bordeaux to look at us.

Yjar is a Spanish wine with a terroir, a place, a history. It is a wine from Rioja with a completely different language to what Spain used to be. We are not speaking the same language as Rioja. That is why we are interesting for La Place de Bordeaux, that works with world-class wines. It is not easy to be Spanish in the fine wine world. 300€ a bottle is not Spanish, apart from Vega Sicilia, Pingus and a very few rare stories.

Yjar is not a wine from Rioja, it is more than Rioja, older that Rioja. It has the pure taste of one of the most amazing terroirs of Rioja.

What’s not to like in that?

 

photo by Jason Orton

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