There is a movement afoot among a handful of international wine producers to save wine from itself. It’s nothing organized, but rather a small band of disparate growers essentially working alone. What they agree on is that all wine varietals come from somewhere and, given that privilege of provenance, should reflect their origins and taste differently from one other.
It’s not always true given modern winemaking, but one winery well down that road is Descendientes de J. Palacios, where Ricardo Perez Palacios, nephew of famed Priorat wine grower Alvaro Palacios, has partnered with his uncle to revive the ancient wine culture of Bierzo on the mountain slopes of northwest Spain. The pair have been instrumental in shining a light on the region, and in particular, the idiosyncratic mencia grape that is the star of Bierzo’s production.
The majority of Bierzo’s vines are planted in the valley, at about 300 metres above sea level. But it’s up on the steep slate-covered slopes where the wine takes on a whole new level of complexity, boasting a strong minerality and floral component that freshens every sip. This is wine you can age—a prerequisite for the Palacios.
What began with three hectares has grown to 40, which sounds normal until you consider those hectares are cobbled together from scores of individually farmed sites, rising from 400 to 1,000 metres in altitude. It may be Spain, but the model is eerily Burgundian when you see the tiny plots bunched together on the hillsides.
A journey to Faraona, one of the highest single vineyard sites in Corullón (a village in Bierzo), reveals a scruffy bunch of century-old, dry-farmed bush vines clinging precariously to the steep slate slopes. It is a magical place where the cool Atlantic climate meets the warmer continental weather that creeps north from the Mediterranean, demanding the equally mystic art of biodynamic farming. “It’s a crazy amount of work, but for the complexity of the wine of Corullón, it is necessary,” Ricardo Perez Palacios says. The decision to work at Corullón was deliberate. The soils are among the oldest of the Iberian peninsula and are very diverse throughout the region, some with more broken slate, rock, silica, quartz, or clay than others, and each of these unique sites produces different wine. It is the heart of Bierzo.
And for Ricardo Perez and Alvaro Palacios, the key to Bierzo is mencia. The grape was once used only to blend with palomino, but that is no longer the case for serious wines. The colour and savoury aspects, for a while, had some thinking it was cabernet franc from Bordeaux, but DNA testing has since proved otherwise. What we do know is that at altitude, in complex old soils, mencia can beguile with its dark garnet/purple colours and impeccably pure fruit flecked with minerality and finesse.
Even better: these wines are elegant. The attack is juicy and fresh. It’s the minerality or wet stone nuances and acidity that entice and make you want to finish every bottle.
Last spring, Alvaro Palacios was in Vancouver pouring a selection of his wines from Rioja, Priorat, and Bierzo, but it was the Descendientes de J. Palacios 2008 Pétalos at $29 that was electric. “The gift of this wine is that most of the vineyards in Corullón are covered in old bush vines, 50 to 100 years old,” he says. “Corullón is the home of the waves and Pétalos is like a sea breeze on the nose.”
As we taste the ’08, Alvaro Palacios can’t stop talking about the 2009. “It’s the best we have made since we began in 1999,” he says. He’s right, and for the moment British Columbia is one of the few markets in the world to be allocated some bottles.
It’s tempting to say the wines of Bierzo are new wave, until you consider that the original roots of mencia are tied to the historic pilgrimages made across the region to Santiago de Compostela as early as the 11th century. A thousand years before the iPhone, pilgrims often travelled with their favourite vine just in case they decided to lay down more permanent roots in the area. And lucky for us they did; now all we need do is make a quick pilgrimage to our local wine shop to share in their wisdom.
Photo: Courtesy of Descendientes de J. Palacios Vineyards.