Spending a day with Ricardo Pérez is the fastest, most reliable way to learn about Bierzo’s distinctive character and huge potential. The project he set up together with his famous uncle Álvaro Palacios, the maverick winemaker behind L’Ermita and Finca Dofí in Priorat, has not only set new quality (and price) standards in this northwestern Spanish region; it also reflects a deep commitment to its surroundings, history and tradition.
A member of the sixth generation of the Palacios saga, Ricardo Pérez Palacios discovered Bierzo at the end of 1990s and has remained there ever since. After training as a winemaker in France, Chile and California, and despite his contribution to the family winery Palacios Remondo in Rioja, he was eager to move onto a smaller, different project. Álvaro was already familiar with the area from the days he travelled across Spain selling oak barrels. After his experience in Priorat, he was particularly sensitive to wine regions with a monastic influence. He had also mastered winegrowing in steep slopes and was determined to work only with local grapes –it took him a long time to shift away from international varieties in Priorat. “We started with Mencía in Bierzo, but we are now mixing all the grapes grown in the vineyards, including white varieties,” he told me a couple of months ago in Madrid.
The Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way), which for so many years served as a means of communication and cultural exchange, is a source of spirituality in Bierzo. The region in fact was (and still is) a crossroads between Castilla and Galicia in the far northwest of the country. The landscape can be described as a bowl-shaped basin surrounded by mountains where Atlantic and continental climates converge. Ricardo likes to point out the differences in vegetation between the north and south slopes: chestnuts, oak trees and broom grow on the north-facing side, while the south-facing side is ideal for holm oaks and rockrose.
Galicia has been a traditional market for red wines from Bierzo. This has enabled to sustain the local wine industry as well as traditional smallholding vineyards with home-made wines being part of everyday life. Bierzo boasts at the moment one of the largest amount of old vines in Spain. As Ricardo Pérez sees it, making bad wines with such fine material is a crime.
When they first arrived in Bierzo, Álvaro and Ricardo found some interesting wines being made there: old vintages of Valdeobispo and some young reds made by the Villafranca and small local producers like Castro Ventosa. But what really caught their attention was the way local farmers made their artisan wines. They treaded the grapes on the tractor tows used for harvesting, then filled bocoyes (big open casks) with them, submerged the cap with sticks during fermentation and finally sealed the recipient with a slab of slate. Grape bleeding was delayed until winter farming tasks such as slaughtering the pigs or picking chestnuts were completed and they would use grape skins for grape marc. “These were graceful wines,” recalls Ricardo.
Descendientes de J. Palacios (literally Descendants of J. Palacios, the “J” standing for father and grandfather José) has held onto this heritage. Whole bunches are used in fermentation —around 10% to 50% depending on vintage conditions and they tread the grapes, punch the cap and cover vats for a couple of months. Aging times range from 10 months in the case of entry-level red Pétalos del Bierzo and 15 to 18 months for the rest of the wines. According to Ricardo, working in a reductive style (avoiding contact with oxygen) helps to offset Mencía’s oxidative character.
The project goes beyond understanding local winemaking traditions. Ricardo, who is very knowledgeable about biodynamics, says that Bierzo’s traditional land layout has many similarities with Steiner’s holistic farms. Crops are adapted to the landscape: winter grazing is found at the bottom of the valley, close to the river, whereas annual crops, fruit trees and vegetable gardens lie close to the farmers’ houses. Mountain slopes with a northern exposure are planted with chestnut trees and vines and almond trees on south-facing hillsides. “It’s a subsistence-based economic model,” concludes Ricardo. “Even today many families grow different crops and are cattle-owners.”
“As we started buying vineyards, we found ourselves with other crops on our land; it almost got out of hand until we realized that the farmhouse concept really made sense. In the end, we have adapted the local land structure to biodynamics, permaculture (self-maintained habitats and sustainable farming systems) and other current schools of thought,” explains Ricardo.
He is the best example of this adaption. Ricardo has set up Cando, a farming school with monthly activities ranging from baking bread to cheese and wine making workshops and ploughing with animals. There’s also an annual vinegrowing encounter attended by biodynamic experts like Pierre Masson or soil specialist Yves Herody. Just a few metres away lies the stables with space for eight horses which are used to plough both their vineyards and those of their purveyors. Titín, as Ricardo is called by those closest to him, is also a member of Bierzo’s Regulatory Board and is an active member in the community. Despite his involvement, locals keep referring to him as “o riojano" ("the Riojan” in Galician).
Descendientes de J. Palacios owns 40 hectares of vines on 220 different plots, all of them near the village of Corullón (€39,90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), which boasts many steep vineyards. Both uncle and nephew loved their distinctive character, so different from the valley vines, as well as the high concentration of slate soils. Yet they still source grapes from many local growers. Production of Pétalos (€14,90 at Lavinia or vía Wine Searcher), their entry-level or “regional wine”, as Álvaro likes to describe it, reaches 350,000 bottles. Ricardo is proud to have been able to persuade most of their purveyors to reduce the use herbicides from 80% to 10%. He also provides the preparations they need to farm their vines.
At 700m high, Moncerbal is their largest vineyard and has a southwestern exposure (see picture above). Many of its grapes go to Pétalos and Corullón (€36) which, based on their Burgundian philosophy, would be their village wine. Just a small area (furthest to the right on the photo) goes to the single-vineyard Moncerbal (€125 at Ideavinos or via Wine Seacher). It is distinctively shallow with a high concentration of silicates, quartzite or calc-schist. No wonder this is the wine with the highest minerality. The 2014 vintage, set to be released by the end of the year, is a superb, lush, savoury red showcasing orange zest, herbs, tobacco and great tension.
At 800m high, Las Lamas (€115 at Lavinia or vía Wine Searcher) lies on the same ravine but it is slightly smaller (3 hectares) and has some clay mixed in with the schist. Despite a similar exposure it’s notably sun-drenched. I find in this red a text-book fruit expression of Mencía (small red fruits and berries) with outstanding juiciness. The 2015 vintage has an open, more expressive nose than 2014, but both of them share than distinctive character. The bad news for wine-lovers is that both wines are produced in tiny amounts and retail at around €100.
La Faraona is anecdotal, given its price tag (€1,050 en Vinissimus or via Wine Searcher) and production (600 bottles). It is sourced from their highest vineyard at over 900m above sea level and has a particular feature, says Ricardo: a small tectonic plate crosses thought it, which makes it rather unique and is also a magnet for storms. The 2015 vintage is fascinating and singular in equal parts, with lots of low brush herbs and wet stones on the finish.
Between 2001 and 2005, they made two single-vineyard reds, San Martín and Fontelas —this one from a plot close to the village— but their grapes are currently destined to Corullón. Ricardo generously opened a bottle of 2001 Corullón —in his opinion, their best vintage together with 2012. On the nose it had evolved towards spicy, dairy and leather notes, but the palate was as deep and juicy as you would expect from a fine Mencía red.
According to Ricardo Pérez, Bierzo’s greatest virtue is “the ability to make fresh reds despite low acidity and pH levels up to 4”. He adds that it is impossible to have seeds, pulp, skin and stems ripening simultaneously in a short-cycle grape like Mencía. “If you harvest early you get herbaceous aromas like celery; if you harvest late, you get baked fruit and a loss of acidity and freshness.”
Titín has his particular vintage classification according to dominant climatic influences: he rates 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2010 as continental years, while 2012, 2013 and 2014 are Atlantic. 2003, 2005 and 2006 were hot years with alcohol levels climbing to 15%. “We usually have to do a strict selection in Atlantic vintages, except for 2001 and 2012.” They also tend to use new, small oak barrels in continental years and used, large casks in Atlantic years. The range of wood casks is wide: from 225 and 228-litre to 200, 400, 500-litre barrels to big 700-litre casks and 1,000 and 1,200-litre foudres.
Álvaro speaks more poetically: “As long as there are traditional wines we will be able to make wines with soul”, he says. “Pétalos is so successful because grapes are sourced from traditional vineyards. Exclusiveness cannot be replicated.”
A new winery designed by renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo will be completed by 2017. Located very close to the Moncerbal plot, wines will be almost at the heart of the vineyards they come from.