Interview with the director of Lalomba in Zamora Company – Ramón Bilbao
Pablo Eguzkiza: the lord of terroir
Interview with the co-founder and winemaker of Compañía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez.
We talked to Pablo Eguzkiza, the tireless wine traveller. Co-founder of Compañía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, his project has been characterised by a tireless search for wine terroirs in Spain, a journey that has led them to produce iconic wines in places where vineyards form a captivating image. It is precisely the impact of these landscapes that has led them to cover a large part of the peninsula and discover new places for us. This is what the lord of terroir has told us.
Q.- What is terroir?
A.- I'm not very good at definitions. People would tell you that it is the mixture of the characteristics of the soil, the climate, the wildlife, the flora, etc., but I am not convinced by these more orthodox definitions. We, for example, have gone around half of Spain looking for special places, especially recovering vineyards that already existed, with terroirs that were already almost marked. We have been lucky enough to have that particular sense of smell to look for the best terroir in an appellation and for me this has come as a kind of inspiration. There are people who tell you that a good terroir is one that is able to feed the vine with water when it needs it in order to produce quality grapes. A good terroir most of the time is also a good landscape, a good orientation, a good feeling. Somehow you can smell the landscapes. Although I am a very technical person, an engineer by training and an oenologist, these superfluous things are true.
Q.- What do you find in a terroir?
A.- Today, for example, I have just come from the Ribera del Duero to see the vineyards where we make Matallana. There we have five different types of soils, five vineyards in five different villages that cross the Ribera del Duero from north to south in the province of Burgos. There are soils of gravelly terraces, with limestone in the moor. Then you go to Beatas, where you have a completely different environment. You may ask yourself which is better, what is the difference between one and the other? In a moorland environment with a continental climate, what I call Castilian austerity, you look for the richness of the blend of that fine ink that is often aromatically a bit monolithic. And you look for it with the different types of soil you have. Whereas in Rioja Alavesa, for example, you find the proximity to the mountains, the humidity, the different orientations, the two main types of soils, limestone and others richer in sand. There is a greater varietal richness there, which is transformed into the complexity of Las Beatas or La Estrada.
“Talking about terroir when you make more than 50,000 bottles is a bit strange”
Q.- Has the term terroir been abused, do you think it has lost its meaning?
A.- A Frenchman used to say that it is easier to know how to speak than to know what to do. We live in a world where there are many different markets and niches. There are markets where wine is sold at 3 or 2 euros and there are wines that are sold at a different level. Talking about terroir when you make more than 50,000 bottles is a bit strange. If you talk about the characteristics of an appellation of origin as a whole, maybe, but that is not a terroir. Terroir is a very specific place. I translate the word terroir as site or place, and a place can be good or bad. There are wines that are children of a place, those of terroir, others that are children of technique and others that are children of time, of ageing. If you make a technical wine of many litres, something very respectable, I expect you to talk to me about technique, about how it is tasted, but not about terroir.
Q.- You work in Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Valdeorras, Alicante, Cebreros, Rueda and Málaga. Of all these areas, which do you consider the most versatile?
A.- Versatile in the sense that we could make different types of wines with the same grapes, of course, but we try to keep the winemaker's intervention to a minimum and we try to show the place as it is, not as we want it to be.
I like to talk about wines that come from a place, except for the more commercial wines we make. We always make wines from places. We make wines on a human scale. In Lanzaga, for example, we make twenty thousand bottles, or 1,500 bottles of Las Beatas and 2,000 bottles of La Estrada. We are talking about very small quantities that are closely linked to the site.
Q.- Are there any undiscovered terroirs in Spain?
A.- There are many. We are lucky that we are in a country where there are many things to discover, even if it is because of the disadvantage of having been a country that has not been notorious in the world of wine. There are still no wines that have been prestigious for centuries as in other countries. We have a great opportunity to discover and recover hidden treasures. But then, all this potential has to be interpreted and written down. Putting it in a bottle and reproducing it year after year is not so easy.
“Unique and special things are not made by regulations, they are made by the market”
Q.- What do you think of the classification of Singular Vineyards in Rioja?
A.- In Rioja we have gone from everything being the same to having more than a thousand singular vineyards capable of complying with the established regulations, which is a bit ridiculous. Unique and special things are not made by regulations, they are made by the market.
Q.- Is the Viñedos de Álava project an option to take into account?
A.- When a monopoly suddenly asks for a young wine from Bierzo at 3.5 euros and a mature wine from Rioja at 1.5 euros, the cheapest offer is almost always for the Rioja. This means that there is a problem. Now, if it is going to be the same dog with a different collar, then too bad.
I think that if you are better, you have to show that you do it better, and if you have better ideas, you have to put them into practice. I have no idea about Viñedos de Álava because I'm not involved in it, but what is clear is that something has to be done in the DO when we are in a place that equals everyone on the bottom.It doesn't make sense that you are making wines like Las Beatas or La Estrada, wines of a very high category, with the same name on the label as wines that are on the shelves at two euros.
Q.- You were the first to see the potential of Cebreros, when nobody was betting on this place. What did you see there?
A.- I remember that Telmo told me about a very beautiful mountain pass, Arrebatacapas. So, coming from Ávila to Cebreros, I passed by there in different places. I remember that there was a wall of semi-abandoned vineyards, on slate soils. They were vines planted in a frame of 2.5 x 2.5, vase formations with six branches, with almost one spur per branch, a very particular thing. The fact is that we thought it was very beautiful. We said to ourselves "in this very special soil and with these very old vines we can try to make good wine and help to prevent them from being abandoned".
What I saw there is an area at 1,200 metres above sea level, where it is very hot and very cold. We had some very tall Garnacha vines, with an almost southern exposure, and we asked ourselves what kind of wine this high-altitude Garnacha could produce at the latitude of Madrid. This concern is what always drives Telmo and me to make wines.
Although it's true that we started it ourselves, we were joined by many people like Comando G, Fernando García and Marc Isart who have moved forward almost more than we have. We are very happy that the area has been reactivated and that today Cebreros wines have a name.
Q.- Which is the Spanish wine-producing region with the greatest diversity of terroirs?
A.- For me Rioja Alavesa, although not in the sense of it being more complex because it is better. The Sierra Cantabria mountain range, the Toloño mountain range, the diversity of orientations, I think they have an influence in generating that complexity. When you combine a mountain range with a nearby river and a particular climate, something special is generated.
In the area closest to the Sierra de Cantabria you have a variation, not of soils, which are repeated throughout the Sierra, but of a more volatile climate with a stronger Atlantic influence due to the mountain range. Although mine is a very partial view as I don't know all the places. In the Rioja Alavesa we harvest very late, much later than in other wine regions such as Bordeaux, and this generates many problems, but also many opportunities that are transformed into nuances within the wine.
“Prestige wines should be used as a driving force for the rest, and not the other way around”
Q.- Is the pyramid system within the appellations of origin, defended in the Manifesto of Club Matador, the way to increase the prestige of certain vineyards?
A.- Although the regulations bore me, I do believe that prestige wines should be used as a driving force for the rest, and not the other way around. In this country, when a prestigious wine appears in an appellation such as Rioja, it seems that the intention is to make them disappear because a regulation is created in which thousands of singular vineyards appear. In just three years we already have more than a hundred singular vineyards. This is the way to kill singularity. Uniqueness and luxury is the opposite of abundance. If it is abundant, the singularity disappears. We have to ensure that the special pulls the rest, but we are not going to make everything special because the regulations say so.
On countless occasions we have read or heard this word of French origin that producers repeat like a mantra: terroir, or its Spanish adaptation, more traditional and vigorous, terruño. But what is the meaning of this much used and idealised term?