Alvaro Palacios: Spanish Wanderer

Alvaro Palacios,Priorat,L'Ermita People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 24 February 2010

Alvaro Palacios is Spain’s most talked about winemaker. But as Beverley Blanning MW finds out, he can talk a fair bit himself…

There are no signs, but ask any local and he can point out the bodega that belongs to Alvaro Palacios. On a large, dusty site set back from the road and overlooking the medieval village of Gratallops, its airy, glass-walled offices and white, leather-furnished reception area are in striking contrast to the tumbledown buildings huddled around the church tower of the little village. Tasteful rather than flashy, it is a fitting reminder that this is the home of Priorat’s most renowned wine, L’Ermita, made by the area’s most famous adopted son.

With bodegas in Rioja, Priorat and Bierzo, Palacios is one of the defining personalities in Spanish wine today. In just 20 years, he has established a formidable reputation as a dynamic pioneer, generating global praise for his wines – in particular, those from the

forgotten regions of Spain he has been so active in promoting. You can tell he’s different – he rejects the usual winery and tasting tour when I visit him in favour of conversation – in fluent English and colourful Spanish – in his immaculate vineyards around Gratallops.

Born into a family with a 350-year winemaking history, Palacios has lived and breathed wine since he was a child, playing hide-and-seek in the corners of his parents’ Rioja winery. With such a background, it’s hard to imagine he could have done anything else. ‘I was in love with wine my whole life,’ he admits.

But as the seventh offspring and fifth boy in a family of nine, his path to the head of the family business was not automatic. And neither was the appeal of following in his father’s footsteps. ‘I remember going to buy wine with my father as a child; it was miserable,’ he tells me. ‘All of the regions were very poor, and this was just four decades ago.’

When he finally decided he would spend his life working in wine, his father and elder brother sent him to study in Bordeaux. He dropped out of school, but not before finding work with the Moueix family at Pétrus. In Bordeaux he was captivated by ‘the magic of the grands crus’, and developed a passion for the classic wines of Europe. ‘I only believe in the great classics of Europe and I only learned this when I left Spain,’ he explains.

Now these wines provide the key reference point for his own endeavours. ‘I taste the greatest wines in the world every year,’ he says. ‘I need to taste them, to enjoy them, to feel them. It’s a crazy, magical sensation. How can you aspire to that if you don’t taste them?’ On his return to Spain, Palacios travelled the country selling barrels. He found that

many facets of winegrowing in Spain were consistent with what he’d seen in the great

terroirs of France.

‘We had all the same historical ingredients,’ he realised, ‘but Spain had been in decline and isolated for many years, so the demand wasn’t there. After the civil war, Rioja was really the only wine region, and it was very industrialised.’ He concluded, and maintains to this

day, that pre-existing monastic origins are of critical importance in identifying and nurturing great winegrowing sites.

‘The Romans established vineyards but it was the monks who gave direction and spirituality to winemaking; they dignified viticulture,’ he insists. It’s a theme he returns to repeatedly, even to the extent of dismissing the wines of the Médoc as ‘not good, too modern,’ compared to Bordeaux’s Right Bank. ‘History has chosen the best’ is his simple justification,

which has, understandably, attracted controversy.

When Priorat forefather René Barbier, who was working for Palacios’ father in Rioja, asked Alvaro to join him in a new vineyard project in Priorat, it gave him the impetus he needed to strike out on his own. ‘I was looking for a place with old vines and monastic origins,’ he says. Priorat fitted the bill. This was in 1989, when he was just 25 years old and without

resources. ‘I left everything and sold my motorbike to come here. I borrowed a car from the winery at home to drive over. My father told me, “you have a bed and food here, but no money”.’

Together with Barbier and three others, Palacios bought grapes and planted vines to create the wines that would resurrect this historic region. Although Barbier was the catalyst, it was Palacios who became the leading voice of Priorat to the outside world. Spanish commentator Victor de la Serna recalls: ‘He may not have been the best winemaker in Priorat, but he was the one who most strongly communicated what they were trying to do and who really got the rest of the world to pay attention. He travelled and talked to

everybody.’

In 1993, Palacios bought the 1.7ha (hectare) plot La Ermita, probably the best single-vineyard site in Priorat today and the source of his spine-tingling icon wine. It is a steep, northeastfacing slope of pale, greenish slate, planted with Garnacha (Grenache) since the 1940s. ‘This is a monumental vineyard,’ he says, ‘la bonita Ermita.’ As we walk among the vines, he pulls up weeds and rearranges rocks. ‘I need my vineyard to look clean,’ he says.

He considers that ‘nothing is more important than history with wine.’ Which makes his work in revived wine regions a particular challenge – even if there are old vines to be found, old bottles simply don’t exist. Undeterred, he is returning to old-fashioned methods of cultivation, swapping herbicides for mules (‘the only difficult part about being organic’) and

reverting to bush vines.

He shows me this painstaking work, adding: ‘It’s not easy, but you can do it. A bush-pruned Garnacha vine survives perfectly well here.’ Clearly his favourite, he describes Garnacha as ‘the only variety that transforms heat and aridity into such a beautiful, refreshing liquid’. Having tried other grapes and ways of training the vines, he concludes: ‘It doesn’t work; you become humble when you see this.’

He says he understands viticulture now, ‘like my arm going into the earth.’ For the winemaking, though, he sighs: ‘I need my whole life. I see the 20 vintages I made and where I made mistakes. Life goes too fast.’ In the past 10 years, Palacios has diverted his energies elsewhere, becoming a pioneer for the second time in Bierzo, where he runs a project with his nephew.

When his father died in 2000, he returned to Rioja to take over from his older brother as winemaker (in circumstances the family prefers not to discuss). He brought in sweeping changes, cutting production by half and improving quality. He is now based most of the time in Rioja, but travels weekly to Priorat, where he has a small apartment over the winery.

He has been instrumental in Priorat’s Consejo Regulador in encouraging others to preserve the traditional, often abandoned terraces when planting vineyards, and has created a new village labelling system to distinguish the region’s terroirs.

His latest wine, Gratallops, is the fruit of this. But he laughs at the idea of becoming similarly involved in Riojan wine politics. ‘In Rioja I’m nobody. I’m in Garnachaland,’ he jokes, referring to the bodega’s position in the traditionally less prestigious Rioja Baja. ‘Everything happens in the west [Rioja Alta] there. I’m the Rioja orientale – and I’m so happy about that.’

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