If anyone embodies the promise and spirit of “The New Spain,” it’s Alvaro Palacios. His L’Ermita is widely considered—along with Peter Sisseck’s Dominio de Pingus—to be the most important Spanish wine of the modern era. The influence that Alvaro Palacios has had on Spanish winemaking can hardly be measured. Not only has he been an important point of reference for up-and-coming winemakers throughout Spain; he pioneered the two highly important regions of Priorat and Bierzo. Named Decanter’s 2015 Man of the Year and the Institute of Masters of Wine 2016 Winemaker of the Year, there is no shortage of accolades for Alvaro Palacios.
Coming from a prestigious wine family in La Rioja, Alvaro could have secured a prime position in the family winery, the world-famous Palacios Remondo (Rioja Baja, est. 1945). However, being the dynamic visionary that he is, he decided to go out in the wine world and make his own way. He studied enology in Bordeaux and had the enviable job of working under Pomerol superstar Château Pétrus winemaker Jean Pierre Moueix. Upon his return to Spain, Alvaro established two of his own wineries: Alvaro Palacios (Priorat, est. 1990) and Descendientes de José Palacios (Bierzo, est. 1999).
Bodegas Palacios Remondo - Rioja
The Palacios family boasts an impressive viticultural tradition that traces back five generations. Founded by Alvaro Palacio’s father in 1945, José Palacios Remondo, Bodegas Palacios Remondo is located in Alfaro, in the Rioja Baja. The old family winery has been revitalized as of late with the guidance of Alvaro, intent on bringing the families Rioja wines to the forefront of the Spanish wine industry. Palacios is altering the viticultural landscape in his Rioja Baja vineyards, creating a new, distinct, and exciting style.
The 100 hectares of estate owned vineyards (a rarity in Rioja) unfold over a long incline facing south-east, at the foot of the mountains of the Sierra de Yerga, at an altitude rising to 550 meters above sea level. It is a rough, mountainous terrain, with chalky-clay soils containing little organic matter but plenty of pebbles and a typical calcareous layer that limits the plants’ hardy nature. The region experiences a Mediterranean climate which is somewhat tempered by Atlantic influences.
Palacios is deeply committed to organic viticulture and natural winemaking practices, such as use of organic fertilizers in the stone-covered, clay soils. All wines are unfiltered and clarified only with egg whites, no exogenous yeasts or commercial compounds are added to the wines and sulfites are kept to minimum levels.
Total respect for the family’s vineyards and the surrounding environment results in wines that express the true nature of the estate’s soils.
Alvaro Palacios - Priorat
In the late 1980s, Alvaro Palacios was drawn to the largely abandoned, ancient vineyards of Priorat. Located 60 miles west of Barcelona, Priorat had been one of Spain’s important pre-Phylloxera wine regions. With its unique terroir of steep hills and terraces, Alvaro believed he could make wines that rivaled the best of Europe.
In 1990, he acquired his first vineyard, Finca Dofí, planted to Garnacha, Cabernet and Syrah. Then, in 1993, he located L-Ermita, his crown jewel property in Priorat, a precipitous, northeast-facing Garnacha vineyard on well-drained schist that had been planted between 1900 and 1940. Finally, Les Terrasses, what was originally conceived of as a value wine, slowly evolved into the essence of what makes Priorat special. Drawing on over 15 years of study, Les Terrasses is sourced from many of the region’s steepest and oldest vineyards.
The growing acclaim of Les Terrasses eventually left room for a new wine, Camins del Priorat. Alvaro had never wanted to be known solely for expensive “trophy” wines, and with Camins, he found the opportunity to create something special and accessible. Drawing on his wealth of vineyard sources, Alvaro aimed to produce a wine that was affordably priced, but which also stayed true to his vision of Priorat—powerful but elegant, approachable but restrained.
Alvaro has also been instrumental in introducing the Burgundian “Cru” classification model to Priorat. In 2006, together with respected winemaker Rene Barbier and a few others, Alvaro ventured on what has been called the “Gratallops Projects”. The aim was to identify a collection of the vineyards possessing the best soils with old vines throughout the township of Gratallops, and thus create a tiered appellation system based on geographically determined quality.
Descendientes de José Palacios - Bierzo
Although he saw much success in Priorat, Alvaro Palacios remained intrigued by another remote area with great potential: Bierzo, in the far Northwestern Spain. Bierzo, too, had all the ingredients to make great wine: incredibly steep hillside vineyards; distinct terroirs; and, most importantly, ancient vineyards of Mencía, a unique red grape believed to have been brought by French pilgrims during the Middle Ages.
The idea of making great wine from old-vine Mencía never left Alvaro, and his experience in Priorat—particularly with L’Ermita—convinced him of Bierzo’s enormous potential. Meanwhile, his nephew Ricardo Perez had finished enological studies in Bordeaux and began working across France. He worked the harvest at Château Margaux, and did internships at other Bordelais firms like Moueix (Pétrus, Trotanoy, etc.). He also visited Alvaro frequently and came to share a belief in Bierzo’s potential.
In 1998, Alvaro and his nephew, Ricardo Perez, created a tiny jewel of a domaine in the town of Corullón, on Bierzo’s western border; Descendientes de J. Palacios—named for Alvaro’s late father. Old vineyards lined the precipitous hillsides there, and the local soils were extremely poor—composed mostly of schist—but with incredible diversity. The minute variations in soils and exposures across this zone immediately reminded the two of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Since the first vintage in 1999, Descendientes has proven that it is Spain’s closest kin to the great domaines of Burgundy.