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Reality rearranged by beauty

By |  September 7 2011

Is Remelluri a "single vineyard"? Not really. It’s a small synopsis of the Cordillera Cantábrica foothills that Jaíme Rodríguez and his son Telmo have turned into 192 gardens. Some of the gardens are 30 rows wide; some, three. The journey between them is a hike, and we took Txuspa, the estate terrier, who was quickly lost in that labyrinth of scent adventures that only a dog and a mountain can understand. A cuckoo hailed a mate, its call the definition of soft clarity.

The light was milky now. I wished I could have climbed up to the ridgeline above, for the view. Perhaps, though, it was better that I didn’t. I expected to see the wide Atlantic with its white foam horses and misty sea frets. The reality has to be less dramatic than that; the sea is more than 35 miles (60km) away. But what’s 35 miles when the ocean runs clear to Ouessant, to Bantry Bay, and to Greenland?

I have, I think, underestimated Rioja for 30 years — never disparaged it; every bottle made my mouth water — but all I saw was a forest of brand names and age statements, dressed up in fishnet stockings made of gold thread: crianza this, reserva that. It was hard, sometimes, to taste the land inside the age statement. Things have changed. There was jolly Miguel Ángel de Gregorio a few days earlier, beaming at me across a massive oak table in the heart of his restored palace in Briones, a bottle labeled Allende Rioja (and nothing else) clamped in his hand: "We sell wines, not calendars."

I tasted the 2005 Gran Reserva in the library at Remelluri: a little booklined room in a beautifully restored house whose stone steps were first contoured by monkish feet. I sat by the open window, looking across the vineyard over which the drive unspools. The clouds were gray now and darkening further; the white haze of the sun had been squeezed like toothpaste down the valley, beyond Logroño; the Atlantic was coming, over the mountain.

A perfection of soft clarity

The first few May days in Rioja in 2011 had had a dreamlike quality, principally because every street, every field, and every courtyard had been filled with drifting seedheads: a reef of coral spawning under a full moon.

This in turn had made me remember Andrei Tarkovsky, now dead a quarter-century, whose film The Mirror changed the way I saw the world when it unexpectedly hit me, broadside, in 1980. Tarkovsky could film stones under the running water of a river or the wind coursing through a field of oats or ruffling a birch copse and leave you feeling more deeply moved than after the cumulative violence of every one of last year’s action thrillers. He would have been riveted by the seedheads.

And now the storm was coming at Remelluri. In the distance, across the valley to the west in what was now an eerie indigo haze, a distant dog was barking: another Tarkovsky motif.

The wind continued to rise; the walnut tree out in the vineyard flailed; the chimneys gagged; the roof tiles whistled.

And I tasted the wines from these gardens under the mountain, at somewhere between 2,000 and 2,600ft (600-800m) up in the air of northern Spain, where ripeness comes only as the season closes but brings Tempranillo to a perfection of soft clarity very like the cuckoo’s call. The Gran Reserva is made from the oldest vines (60 years), cut with Garnacha and a little Graciano, nurtured for a couple of years in oak. Dark, rich, smoldering, sappy: a scent of burned stones, of crushed plums, of blood, of pulverized brushwood and wild flowers, all brushed by cedar. (You can see what sent the phylloxerastricken Bordelais scurrying here.)

The palate, golf-ball tight at this stage, made me think of plant essences when I tasted it at Remelluri: the Hieronymites of the past, walking the mountain, searching out its apothecary virtues as the locals still do near Chartreuse today. I’ve tasted it since, and it evokes darkness — not the lurid darkness of the storm, but the sweeter restorative darkness of winter rest under the snows, and of the time that we have to give to create anything of worth (be it a book, a garden, a cathedral). It has an inner glow, too, though, and a wealth behind its prodigious grip, power, and concentration.

The summer solstice is almost upon us now; I know I haven’t tasted a more impressive wine this year. Tempranillo in this high, closed, palesoiled valley, screened from the sea but at the same time ventilated and aired by the sea, is one of the world’s great variety/terroir combinations, as this wine and many others prove. As I tasted in the rising storm, indeed, it was hard not to levitate: a final Tarkovsky motif, and perhaps a metaphor for the extent to which beauty can rearrange reality, if you are quiet enough to let it.

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