The terrain in Spain
Rather than just carry on in the family business, Alvaro Palacios made it his mission to restore his country’s lesser-known and neglected wine regions to their rightful glory
When you are born into a family with over 350 years of winemaking history, the road is not always as easy as it seems. The expectation to join the family business is no doubt strong, as is the pressure to follow centuries of tradition. But for Alvaro Palacios, the seventh of nine children at Rioja’s renowned Palacios Remondo, following in his forefathers’ footsteps was not an option.
It was not that Palacios did not love wine; he grew up playing among the barrels and watching his father do business with local grape growers. But a stint studying in Bordeaux, encouraged by his father and older brother, opened Palacios’s eyes to the great wines of the world and ignited a passion to uncover such wines in his homeland of Spain. Palacios returned there and took a job travelling through the regions of Spain selling wine barrels while studying the vineyards, their potential and their history. One region stood out: the county of Priorat, with its calcerous soils.
Palacios was far from the first winemaker to discover the region’s immense quality. Two thousand years earlier the nearby ancient city of Tarragona was the Roman capital of Spain. As they did throughout Europe the Romans brought with them knowledge of the vine and established vast vineyards. The hills of Priorat were ignored, however, such was the difficulty of working its steep slopes and infertile soils.
It was another millennium before these prized soils were first planted by the local monks. The world of wine owes much to the monks from centuries ago: during the Dark Ages these men not only treasured the knowledge of tending vines and making wines, developed by the Greeks and Romans over hundreds of years, but built on it. Today their influence is indelibly imprinted on many of Europe’s greatest wine regions, even though only one such monk’s name remains prominent today: Dom Pérignon.
The area of Priorat was named after its local priory. While the Romans ignored these hills the monks, with their greater understanding of the connection between infertile, rocky soils and wine quality, invested great time and energy to draw wines out of the tricky land, soils marked by grand outcrops of llicorella slates.
For centuries the local peasants also worked the vineyards for the monks — difficult and back-breaking work — but in 1845 they rebelled. The monastery was destroyed and the monks were driven away, taking with them their centuries of accumulated knowledge and the skills to craft wines that would do the land justice. And so it was for more than 100 years that the treasure of Priorat remained largely hidden.
In 1989 Palacios stumbled across it and with Priorat local René Barbier started his quest to bring the area back from the abyss and to its rightful position, as he believed, among the great wine regions of the world. Palacios gave up his job, sold his motorbike, borrowed a car and began a journey that would help to redefine the global perception of Spanish wines. Initially they made their wines from grapes bought from local growers but over time they also acquired some of the area’s finest vineyards: Finca Dofi in 1991 and La Ermita in 1993, the latter being composed of vines planted in the 1940s.
The grape variety of choice in Priorat is garnacha, similar to our grenache, and carignan. In the lowyielding soils of Priorat under the hot Spanish sun, which is tempered by the nearby Mediterranean, it creates dense wines that are deeply flavoured with aromas of licorice, spice and floral aromatics underpinned by brooding slatiness and rustic tannins.
Over a decade ago some local winemakers, including Palacios, experimented with cabernet sauvignon and other international varieties in the blends, with most now convinced that the best wines are made solely of the local varieties.
While not cheap, the wines of Priorat are not only a superb expression of modern Spain and the very special nature of this region, but are also a tribute to the local monks that toiled hard for centuries to uncover its beauty.
DESCENDIENTES DE JOSE PALACIOS ‘LAS LAMAS’ BIERZO 2012
Bierzo is another largely unknown region that Palacios has championed, this time in the Atlantic-influenced northwest of Spain. This is a savoury and mineral-driven dry red — deeply coloured with tarry, herbal and dark cherry fruits finishing long and strong.
ALVARO PALACIOS ‘FINCA DOFI’ PRIORAT 2012
A wine that well and truly lives up to its reputation. Initially reserved, it slowly evolves in the glass with glimpses of earth, spice and baked cherry emerging from its muscular frame. Dry, full-bodied, dense and long with excellent new French oak integration and robust tannins, it promises to evolve in the bottle superbly over the next 20 years.
PALACIOS REMONDO ‘LA MONTESA’ RIOJA 2010
Palacios returns to his roots with what is a superb Rioja from a good vintage showing classic tobacco, dark cherry and slightly lifted strawberry fruits. Dry, full-bodied and quite fleshy with baked earth nuances and sandy tannins, it finishes with touches of rosemary, chamomile and generous toasty oak.