When Telmo Rodriguez and Pablo Eguzkiza saw the big, juicy clusters of Garnacha grapes hanging on the vines in their Las Beatas vineyard, they were tempted to kill their vineyard manager. Except he was already dead.
Rodriguez is one of Spain's best-known winemakers today. He grew up at the historic winery Remelluri in Rioja, but left in 1994 when his father refused to let him innovate. He partnered with Eguzkiza, a fellow Basque he had met while studying enology in Bordeaux. Together they began searching for old forgotten vineyards no one had bothered to tear up in underappreciated regions of Spain—and in the 1990s, Spain had a lot of underappreciated regions.
Today they make wine in nine appellations. When they expand to a new place, they always hire a young enologist to help them make the wine and an old grower to manage the vineyards. "These old guys, they remember how things were done before viticulture became industrial," said Rodriguez.
"The problem is, there aren't many of them left," added Eguzkiza. "And you have to keep an eye on them." Old guys, it seems, often think they know better than hotshot winemakers. That was the problem with the Garnacha in Las Beatas.
During two weeks in Spain earlier this summer, I was struck by how the best winemakers here walk a tightrope between the past and the future. Spain is probably the most dynamic wine country in Europe right now, thanks to people like Rodriguez and Eguzkiza and a younger generation that is following their example. They want to prove that Spain is not just a source for value, but a land with incredible terroirs. The problem is that Spain is still a conservative country in many ways, even three decades after dictator Francisco Franco's death triggered a wave of changes. The New Spain is still a work in progress.
I spent two days with Rodriguez and Eguzkiza, first in Cebreros, a mountainous region north of Madrid, and then in Rioja. Because Rioja is close to their hearts, they returned there and began buying vineyards in 1998. (Rodriguez also came home to Remelluri when his father retired in 2010, and now runs it with his sister.)
Las Beatas, which means "the blessed," is their baby, a place they hope will produce an iconic single-vineyard wine. The previous owner, an old grower, came to Rodriguez, offering to sell. It was a 7-acre parcel, filled with 90-year-old vines—a mix of local varieties like Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and Viura—planted on narrow terraces in a natural amphitheater. The location was ideal too, nearly 600 feet up, in Rioja Alta, above the town of Briñas. The terraces could only be worked by mule, and the grower had gotten too old to do the work himself. Some of the terraces were already semi-abandoned.
Rodriguez and Eguzkiza hired a semi-retired grapegrower to supervise the site and instructed him on which clones to plant to replace the vines that had been torn out. They also converted the property to biodynamics.
All seemed to be going well, but after a couple of years, they noticed the leaves on the new Garnacha vines looked different than expected. "We asked the vineyard manager, 'Did you plant the right clones?' said Eguzkiza. "Yes, yes," he replied.
The next year, the vines bore fruit for the first time. Instead of the small bunches of Garnacha that Rodriguez and Eguzkiza expected, the vines were sagging under the weight of big, juicy bunches, the type of grapes that would produce uninteresting wine. These were clones that were popular in recent decades in Rioja, because they guaranteed high yields.
In the meantime, however, the old vineyard man had passed away. The winemakers asked his assistant, now in charge, "What did he plant?" The man smiled sheepishly and said that the old man had told him to substitute the high-yield clones, saying something to the effect of: These poor boys. I have to help them. They don't know anything. They're going to go bankrupt.
Telmo and Pablo had to replant the Garnacha (again). But my tastes of the 2011 Las Beatas from barrel suggest the effort will prove worthwhile. (We'll see when my colleague Thomas Matthews gets to taste the finished wine from bottle in our blind tastings.) Balancing centuries of tradition with innovation is not easy. But when it works, it is blessed.