Txomin Rekondo has a pleasant little casería near San Sebastian that you’ve probably never heard of. He also has one of the best-stocked wine cellars on earth, says Nisha Lilia Diu
REKONDO HOLDS A very special place in my heart,’ says Serena Sutcliffe, worldwide head of wine at Sotheby’s. ‘I have never seen anything like it,’ adds the wine writer Luis Gutierrez. ‘I could go to Rekondo and order a wine I really want to drink day after day for months. Or maybe years. I imagine only historic cellars such as that of La Tour d’Argent in Paris can compare with this.’
Before Wine Spectator named Restaurante Rekondo in its top five wine cellars in the world last summer, few outside the wine trade — and not many in it — knew it existed. It’s an unassuming caseria ten minutes’ drive from San Sebastian in Spain, built out of honey-coloured stone from the nearby Monte Igueldo. But inside, past the charcoal grill and a painted poster of the owner’s bullfighter brother, down a flight of steps and through saloon-style doors, are three cellars containing over 100,000 bottles of the finest of wines.
‘It gives me goosebumps,’ says Rekondo’s sommelier Martin Flea. ‘If you like wine, here is everything you have ever dreamt of: Vega Sicilia, Pétrus, Romanée-Conti…’
Flea was working at the three-Michelin-starred Martin Berasategui when he started coming to Rekondo once a week for a steak: ‘I’m Argentinian, so meat is important to me, and the steak here is fantastic, the best in San Sebastian.’ He was amazed by the 221-page wine list and the network of regulars — oenophile locals, in-the-know Madrileños and French Basques who routinely crossed the border to dine with ‘le fou des vins’ (aka the restaurant’s owner, Txomin Rekondo) — who had all found their way here through word of mouth.
When Flea saw the cellar, with its verticals of Mouton Rothschild (from 1945), Château d’Yquem (from 1933) and Vega Sicilia (from 1917) alongside cases and cases of Château Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Lafite representing decades of exclusive first-growth Bordeaux purchases, he knew that working here was ‘all I wanted’. He was hired three years ago, making him the restaurant’s first sommelier.
Before that, Txomin would simply wander around offering advice to those who sought it. At least, he would when he wasn’t pacing the aisles in the cool underground gloom of the cellar. That is where the 76-year-old Txomin, by his own admission, spends ‘about 50 per cent of my life. The other half I spend drinking,’ he laughs, a low rumbling chuckle. He drinks ‘simple wines, unless I’m having dinner with friends, or it’s a celebration’. A few weeks ago, he and Martin, plus Txomin’s daughter Lourdes, who also works at the restaurant, opened a bottle of Montrachet to mark a holiday.
Despite his obsessive love for his collection, Txomin refuses to show it to people. ‘It would feel like showing off,’ he says, shaking his head in distaste. Luckily Jon Warren, founder of the specialist travel outfit San Sebastian Food, has convinced him to allow Martin to hold tastings in the cellar. Once there, Martin’s excitement is so irrepressible that he can’t resist showing people around the cellar itself.
‘Look at this,’ he says, pulling out a Marques de Riscal Rioja 1945. ‘This is €350.’ A bottle from the same vintage recently sold at Christie’s for £1,092. Why is it so cheap? ‘Because Txomin bought it 40 years ago and he bought it for very little.’ The keen pricing extends across the entire wine list.
Storage, of course, is critical. The air in Txomin’s cellars is purified, temperature-controlled (15.5°C for the whites, 17°C for the reds) and kept at 60-70 per cent humidity. The wines are never moved. ‘The wine is made, then it comes here and its last journey will be to the table,’ says Martin.
Txomin Rekondo, aka ‘Le Fou des Vins’
AFTER THE TOUR, we meet Txomin in a private dining room upstairs. He is a gentle, inconspicuous man, the most eye-catching thing about him being a gold chain with an enormous pendant of Christ on the cross. He opens a bottle of smoky, spicy Viña Real de CVNE 1985 — ‘not very old’, he says — and gestures at the platters of jamon iberico and manchego on the table. ‘You need to eat with wine.’
Txomin opened his restaurant in 1964, but the caseria started life as a home for his father’s beloved cattle. ‘My father looked after the cows more than his kids,’ he says good-humouredly. The family used to run a grocery store whose famous beef lived in the building’s basement, but a law disallowing livestock in the city centre meant a move to the hills.
He began collecting wine almost immediately after opening Restaurante Rekondo. ‘At first I was just responding to customer demand. In those days you would have eight or ten wines, all of them Rioja. But people began asking for other wines and with a friend’s help I got some wines from France and Germany. We started to travel to Italy. Then it snowballed. People knew I was building a wine list so they started calling me to tell me they had something I might like.’
Rioja is Txomin’s real obsession. His collection of old Rioja is ‘exceptional’, says Simon Davies of Fine and Rare Wines. ‘The pre-war bottles are very, very rare.’ More recently, Txomin was given a Château Lafite 1887. Martin fetches it from the cellar, a handmade bottle with scraps of label and ‘Lafite 1887’ stamped in bas-relief on the dark glass, a gift from a winemaker friend in Castilla-Leon.
‘There is always an exchange [between collectors],’ he says. ‘If I have two of something and [a collector] is missing that vintage I’ll swap one with him for something else.’ Are there any collections he covets? He thinks for a moment. ‘King Juan Carlos I’s, maybe. And the Pope’s.’
Decades of collecting have earned Txomin enviable contacts. He is great friends with Pablo Alvarez, owner of Vega Sicilia and sole importer of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to Spain. Only 450 cases (costing around £60,000 per case en primeur) are produced annually, of which eight are allocated to Spain. Txomin always gets one case and one of the two DRC magnums sold annually to the Spanish market.
The total value of his collection can only be guessed at, as Txomin recoils from the very notion of assessing a wine’s worth by its price. ‘I don’t care about the money,’ he says more than once. Joe Marchant of Bordeaux Index’s investment team estimates it’s worth ‘at least £8 million. Depending on the number of full cases, among other factors, possibly two or three times that.’
FOR TXOMIN, IT’S all about ‘sharing great moments with people who understand wine’. When the golfer Jose-Maria Olazabal came to Rekondo he ordered a bottle of La Romanée-Conti. ‘He was about to play the Masters, so I said, “If you win, come back and we’ll drink it.” Two weeks later, he called me from New York and said, “Get that bottle ready!”’
He has mixed feelings about some of the restaurant’s more recent clientele. He refused to sell a bottle of Romanée-Conti to a group of Russians because ‘they were drinking orange juice. A sip of orange juice, then a sip of wine,’ he purses his lips in disgust. There was a Brazilian, however, who he liked so much he agreed to sell him 50 bottles of Vega Sicilia — an extremely rare occurrence at Rekondo.
‘A lot of people try to buy when they come here. People have offered a lot of money for single bottles but usually I say no.’ Does his family agree with that? ‘Yes, because without my agreement they can’t sell anything,’ he says, as Lourdes explodes with laughter.
‘My mother was always saying to him, “Stop buying!”’ she says. ‘My mother was the brakes.’ Sadly Señora Rekondo passed away a few years ago. ‘Now nobody is stopping him.’
Wine tastings at Rekondo can be booked exclusively through Sansebastianfood.com. Tailor-made breaks are also available. Vueling flies from Heathrow to Bilbão twice daily (vueling.com)
Photography courtesy of sansebastianfood.com