Telmo was raised within an artistic family, and his childhood was anything but ordinary. His entrepreneur father and artist mother had purchased the completely crumbling historical 14th-century Remelluri estate in Rioja on a whim, albeit a passion-driven one. They were new to the area and had no knowledge nor any intention of making wine. But the place spoke to them, and they instinctively knew winemaking was to be their calling. Telmo offers this explanation: “The beauty brought them to Remelluri, but then the place felt so connected to wine they decided to make wine. There was a certain energy to the place.”
Telmo too listened to his heart when he quit biology to study oenology in Bordeaux. This followed years in France gaining hands-on experience at some of the most famed estates before settling in the Rhône Valley to work with growers. “I wasn’t interested in working at a famous winery. I wanted to work with real people.”
The young Telmo returned to Spain intent on following his own mission. It was the early 1990s and wine had increasingly gone under the control of big corporations and cooperatives, leaving little or no room for the culture of small wineries. “Progress was seen as the future, for me the future was to work with the past.” In Spain Telmo discovered a country with incredible land that no one was visiting, and forgotten vineyards and grapes that no one appeared to be interested in. “I was a surfer. You know the dream of a surfer is to ride the wave that no one else has,” he muses.
In 1994, under the banner of the Compañia de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, Telmo and Pablo went on a journey to explore and restore neglected old vineyards all around Spain’s classical wine regions. They hired young local oenologists, made a simple wine with them in order to better understand the grapes, land and microclimates, then sourced exceptional vineyards to create top bottlings.
Brimming with knowledge and with an even more profound respect for traditional styles of viticulture and winemaking, in 1998 the duo returned to Rioja and set the foundations for Lanzaga. Their ambition from the start was to make a wine “de pueblo,” a village wine modeled on centuries-old traditions, with many smaller properties that have only 15 to 20 hectares of vineyard each, teamed with 20th-century innovations. The concept was deeply radical.
I ask about the roots of his fascination with the past. “The village of Lanciego in 1680, for example, had 330 growers and 260 cellars. In all our classic literature, Don Quixote and so on, when they talk about wine, they talk about villages. The culture was already there. And it’s so beautiful.” Telmo recalls a journalist asking him back then where is the next place to discover in Spain, and he, being the provocateur, replied: Rioja. “They couldn’t understand since the area was already known so I said: no one knows the internal Rioja, the great Rioja, the beautiful Rioja, which is related to villages, to sites, to history.”
Lanzaga settled in the village of Lanciego, in the subzone of Rioja Alavesa, an area also historically defined by individual grower-makers. They chose the area for its beauty, contrasting climate, the wild mix of Atlantic, Mediterranean, olive trees, and vineyards. “We started slowly. We never had much money but had a lot of talented people.” His mother often advised him that having less money has the benefit of allowing for more freedom to be explorative and take risks.
Initially Lanzaga operated from what Telmo laughingly described as a very ugly place. All the funds went to purchasing perfectly situated beautiful vineyards and exploring winemaking using various grapes. “Our mission was to talk about making this village wine Rioja, not to impress with grand architecture, but I also knew we needed to build a nice space for our team.”
And so, the Bodega Lanzaga winery was finally built in 2007 with the help of architects and old surfer friends Diego Garteiz and Paul Basañez. Telmo refrained from making a spectacular winery, insisting on a modest building to resemble an old cellar using age-old methodology, local earth, so that it would merge with its surroundings. It wasn’t an easy task, but the winery was completed using earth, iron and the staves of old barrels.
“My parents instilled in me the spirit of adventure. They found Remelluri, I was going to find some of the most beautiful vineyards of Spain,” reflects Telmo. “The journey took us 30 years. Our ambition was never to have the biggest winery and make a lot of money but produce the best wine in the world. It’s not a bad ambition, right,” he laughs, adding: “But we wanted to achieve that by doing something small, creating a new model.”