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

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Drinking - An­gus Hugh­son

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.

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