Spain’s Alvaro Palacios Wows WineAligners, plus Bierzo’s Secrets to Success
By David Lawrason and John Szabo, MS
Spain’s Alvaro Palacios Wows WineAligners – by David Lawrason
On Monday evening star Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios sat down with forty WineAlign subscribers to taste through recent vintages of wines from three regions – Rioja, Priorat and Bierzo. The shocking summer weather made it feel like he had brought Spain right into the Spoke Club on King St West’s restaurant row in downtown Toronto. The tasting was sponsored by importer Woodman Wines & Spirits and offered exclusively to WineAlign members, selling out in less than six hours.
The wines were a hit, but Palacios himself stole the show, conducting a tasting that not only charmed and informed, but displayed a captivating passion and reverence for his country and his craft. Anyone who might have wondered, ‘why on earth do people get so fussed about wine?’ would have finally understood.
Many other winemakers express the same connection to country and the land, but Palacios’ is somewhat unique in that his passion for Spain and the potential of its wine regions has been transformed into a kind of activism by having made wine in France (notably at Château Petrus) and having travelled the world. And he has learned to speak up and let his sincerity, humour and intelligence do the convincing. Not to mention the sophistication of his wines. They do indeed capture a new taste of Spain.
As moderator of the tasting I began to get a bit concerned when Palacios delved back into Spanish wine history to explain the relevance of what he is doing now, but it was indeed essential to understand that Spain’s vinous history runs as deep as any place in Europe, and that through the troubled 20th Century its wine industry suffered a post-Civil War industrialization. The guiding economic principles of quantity and uniformity became the foundation of its regulation (Denominacion d’Origen or DO) system, which created only very broad regional appellations and promoted the idea that quality stemmed from wine age (i.e. Reserva and Gran Reserva), rather than specific location.
“France is still making the world’s greatest wines because France has understood the importance of specific vineyard sites, or crus, for decades, even centuries”, Palacios explained. “Spain has many sites that have this potential but it may take decades to fully develop them. But I am impatient so I have searched for existing old vineyards so I don’t have to wait as long”.
He has done so in three regions, and created three tiers of wine within each region. This formed the structure of the WineAlign tasting. The first tier were regional wines; the second tier village wines, the third tier single vineyard wines. As one tasted from broad to specific – and from less expensive to more expensive – the transition to greater depth, complexity and individuality was obvious. And the words reserva or gran reserva are nowhere to be seen on his labels or heard in his dialogue.
Individual reviews and ratings for the wines below can be found on WineAlign. These newer vintages are not yet in Vintages or the Classics Catalogue, but they can be ordered directly from Woodman Wines & Spirits at 416-767-9008. (Private orders require a deposit and must be purchased by the case.)
The Rioja range from the Palacios Remondo winery located in Rioja Baja began with an elegant, bright white wine from the Viura grape called Placet ($32). The first red, 2009 Montessa ($21), was a garnacha-dominated blend from younger vines. The second Rioja red was 2008 Propiedad ($39) was also a garnacha-based blend, this time from very old, estate vines. In both cases the vineyards are organically tended, and the wine is aged in French oak barrels.
The second group of wines were from Priorat, an arid, luminous region with impossibly steep vineyards located south of Barcelona and about 20kms inland. As a young man of 25, Alvaro was one of the pioneers of the region’s renaissance when he arrived in 1989. The first two wines were regional wines, with 2010 Camins del Priorat ($26) coming from younger vines, and 2010 Les Terrasses ($45) being from 75 year or older sites. The 2008 Gratallops ($68) is a single vineyard site with old garnacha and carignan vines plus a bit of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. The 2009 Finca Dofi ($90), from a vineyard Palacios purchased in 1990, is again based on garnacha, but this time without carignan and including a higher proportion of cabernet and syrah.
Palacios explained that there is currently no maximum or minimum amount of cabernet or syrah stipulated in DO regulation for Priorat, and he projected that use of these French varieties will gradually decrease in the region in favour of native garnacha, carignan and cinsault.
The third series of wines were from Bierzo in northwestern) Spain, where Alvaro has teamed up with nephew Ricardo Perez to form a company called Descendientes de J. Palacios that makes red wines from the indigenous, dark skinned mencia grape. The 2010 Pétalos del Bierzo ($26) is from younger, lower altitude sites around the region. The 2008 Villa de Corullón ($49) is created from several old vine sites near the hillside village of Corullón, while the 2009 Las Lamas ($119) is from a spectacular, old vine site high in the hills.
El Bierzo – The Secrets of Success – By John Szabo MS
From near total obscurity just a couple of decades ago to one of the Spain’s hottest regions, Bierzo’s rise can be chalked up to a series of unrelated events and lucky circumstances.
Bierzo has been producing wine since Roman times, but until recently the majority was consumed locally or shipped across into neighboring Galicia, where the severe maritime climate makes red production challenging. With guaranteed markets, there was little motivation for quality. “My father wouldn’t even drink his own wine it was so bad”, muses Alejandro Luna-Beberide of Bodegas Luna-Beberide, referring to the coop-based production from the 70s and early 80s. But the market was changing rapidly, and fortunately, a shift to quality was possible.
The region is shaped like a bowl, surrounded by protective mountains. The air is perfumed by fragrant honeysuckle, lavender, rockrose and oregano, and apple, cherry, chestnut and pear orchards share land with hectare after hectare of gnarly old vines that look more like a vast collection of bonsai trees than modern vineyards. In the west, radically steep hills of nearly pure slate, coloured blood red by iron, stretch up to over 900m.
The climate of Bierzo is ideally suave, midway between the maritime conditions of Galicia and the hot, dry conditions on the plains of Castile: winter temperatures hover around a manageable 4ºC, while summer highs average a moderate 24ºC. Rainfall provides adequate but not excessive water. Vines seem to like it here so much they refuse to die.
To realize potential takes a visionary, and in the case of Bierzo it was a couple of outsiders: Alvaro Palacios (Rioja, Priorat) and his nephew Ricardo Pérez. It happened that Ricardo, under the wing of his famous uncle, was on his way back from a wedding in Galicia when he stopped into Bierzo on a whim. The wine, then virtually unknown outside of this small corner of Spain astonished him.
In 1999 the pair established Descendientes de J. Palacios in Bierzo, an homage to Alvaro’s father José. They had a strong feeling that these hills along the mystical pilgrimage route to Santiago de Campostella could yield something extraordinary. “The presence of monastic orders brings grape growing to a spiritual level”, says Palacios. “The wines become impregnated with the mystery of the region.”
Beyond mysticism, Palacios and Pérez had recognized in Bierzo the rare confluence of factors that lead to great wine: suitable climate, proven history, great terroir, a unique local variety, mencía, and tons of old vineyards, not to mention obscurity and therefore reasonable prices.
Laws of Circumstance
Old vines are key to Bierzo. Many regions in the world boast parcels of old vines, but in Bierzo one can scarcely find a single young vine. Of 7000 ha of vineyards, around 90% are old (60+years), traditionally bush trained vines – it’s like a Jurassic park. The reason is another one of those unplanned circumstances: incredibly fragmented land ownership.
Thanks to an extension of Napoleonic code, each individual parcel, not the estate as a whole, was equally divided among all heirs. The result is thousands of parcels, some barely a couple of rows of vines, beyond even Burgundy’s fragmentation. J. Palacios contracts grapes from some 30 hectares, divided into 200 micro-parcels farmed by over 60 growers, for example, while Bodegas Peique contracts 20 ha in 100 parcels and Bodegas Pittacum 40 ha from 200 parcels.
This fragmentation makes acquiring large contiguous parcels near impossible; growers here are too attached to their postage stamp-sized parcels of land to sell. This in turn has discouraged the big players from moving in, who might otherwise have replanted large tracks to make mechanization possible. As it stands, Bierzo’s tiny plots are farmed mostly by hand, and the old vines, which yield better wine, have been left largely untouched.
One big name can draw attention, but to really gain traction takes critical mass. One thing Palacios and Pérez may not have seen was the coincidental coming-of-age in the late 1990s of a new generation of twenty-something local winemakers who would join the quality revolution: Jorge Peique, Amancio Fernandez (Dominio de Tares), Alejandro Luna-Beberide, Raúl Pérez (Castro Ventoso), Isidro Fernández Bello (Casar de Burbia) and Alfredo Marqués (Pittacum) to name a few. Young, trained and ambitious, this group took the reins from the previous generation and helped put Bierzo on the map.
Results: The Wine
Bierzo is almost exclusively red made from mencía (there are scattered plantings of white godello and other local grapes). Mencía is described by winemakers as amable, literally ‘lovable’ and makes some of Spain’s most elegant reds. It reaches full maturity at moderate alcohol levels, while the tannins are soft and plush. The wines grown on the steep, high elevation slate-covered hillsides near the village of Corullón are leaner, supremely elegant, more mouth-watering and decidedly more mineral and floral; those from the lower, clay-rich gentle slopes between Villafranca, Valtuille and Cacabelos have a broader, softer profile with a voluptuous, velvety texture, deep dark fruit and soothing power.
Palacios and Pérez follow a Burgundian model with their range: Pétalos is the equivalent of a regional wine, blended from grapes purchased throughout the region and intended to be an introduction to Bierzo. Villa de Corullón is the village wine, blended from vineyards within Corullón in the steep western part of the appellation. And finally, at the top of the quality pyramid are the single vineyards within the village: Moncerbal, La Faraona, and the powerful, south facing Las Llamas, the broadest and most generously proportioned of the three.
In less than a decade, the wines of Bierzo have earned a place on top tables around the world. “When Alvaro arrived I knew the whole world would soon recognize Bierzo” recalls Jorge Peique of Bodegas Peique. And so it has.