Famed Spanish winemaker and recent Decanter Man of the Year Alvaro Palacios was recently in Hong Kong to share his latest projects, Les Aubaguetes and Quinon de Valmira. Credited largely with repositioning the Priorat region as a collectors’ target for Rioja, his expressive, ultra-premium L’Ermita blend is one of the most famous wines from Spain – and also one of the priciest.
Hailing from his family’s successful winery, Palacios Remondo, and having trained under the head winemaker at Château Pétrus, it would have been easy for Palacios to return to his family’s winery in Rioja and continue making the same wine. Instead, he returned to Spain and bought abandoned vineyards in what was a barren, underserved region of Priorat. Now, he is on an ongoing mission to revitalise the region, make world-class wines and help to redraw Spain’s archaic wine laws so that the terroir finally gets the credit that he believes it deserves.
Palacios shared five reasons why wine lovers should get to know more about wines from Priorat and Rioja:
Photo credit: Alavaro Palacios
Located in the north-west of Spain, Priorat is not the most inviting of lands. Long, hot, dry summers, low rainfall and stony soils consisting of slate (known as licorcella in Spanish) and quartz make it challenging for agriculture to thrive. Due to a combination of the harsh climate, external events such as the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and urbanisation, Priorat became largely abandoned as rural villagers went to the coasts in search of work.
Yet it’s often the climatic conditions that help the best grapes to thrive, though the result is low yields. Palacios likens it to a chef in the kitchen: “Making wine is like cooking in a clay pot; you have to consider the soils and temperature that you’re cooking in.”
Today, vineyard management is still done by hand owing to the steep slopes, but thanks to a new generation of winemakers such as Palacios and René Barbier (whose Penedès wine is part of well-known Freixenet), there is now a growing recognition of Priorat’s potential for high-quality red wines. Others have caught on to the potential of the region, and there are now more than 50 wineries in Priorat, with more to come.
Garnacha (Spanish for Grenache) has had a bad rap in the past. One of the most popular varieties grown worldwide, Grenache actually originated in Spain, which is why it thrives there. Used as a blending partner in Bordeaux and Côtes-du-Rhône GSM blends, it’s a powerhouse when used in Spanish blends. An early-budding grape, it’s a notoriously slow-ripening variety and thrives in long, hot, dry weather, which is why it does so well in Priorat, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot do not.
Garnacha takes its time when it comes to maturing. Experienced vignerons like Palacios wait patiently until October or November to harvest at higher altitudes in order to build acidity in the grapes. Yet it’s worth the wait – with its balance of tannins, luscious blackberries, intense fruit and high acidity, Grenache helps to round out wines with power, structure and finish, components that make a wine memorable rather than merely quaffable.
Combined with the traces of the aforementioned signature licorella, rich mica, aluminium, calcium carbonate and clay, the resulting wines offer a texture and silkiness that can rival those from Bordeaux – which leads us to the next point...
Though not generally well known, Priorat’s proximity to Bordeaux also renders it a region of substance that resembles the French wine-growing hub. Having studied oenology and winemaking in France, Palacios returned to Spain to apply similar techniques there. Despite his training in France, he is an outspoken proponent of Spain’s winemaking capabilities and Priorat’s similarities to Bordeaux owing to its terroir.
Others are recognising Priorat’s strength when it comes to powerhouse reds. Unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy, the Catalunya region only recently achieved DOC status for wines across the entire region, which is unfair for nuanced winemakers like Palacios who believe that the land should be classified similarly to Bordeaux as “crus’’.
Consequently, Palacios has made it his life’s mission to update the classification for Priorat to resemble that of other Old World regions so that it finally get the recognition it deserves. He will soon see the fruits of his hard work; after working with the government for the past 20 years to update the classification for Priorat to resemble that of Bordeaux, the first wine to be awarded Grand Cru Classes will be the 2017 vintage.
With origins from Carthusian monks who started making wine in the 12th century, Priorat and the surrounding lands remain steeped in mysticism. For Palacio, it’s simply magical. The patience of the monks and efforts in working the soil despite the soil and climatic challenges attest to the resulting vines that produce low yields but consequently intense and powerful reds. Thanks to these efforts and those of Palacios and his cohort of talented winemakers, people will never look at Spanish wines in quite the same way.
While many of the wines from Priorat are collectors’ items, not every good wine from Spain has to break the bank. In the northern and mostly isolated Catalunya region where Priorat is located, the primary grape varieties that are well known to those outside Spain include Garnacha (otherwise known as Grenache) and Mazuelo (otherwise known as Carignan). Its more popular cousin Tempranillo is primarily found in Rioja in the upper Ebro region and is mostly grown in northern and central Spain, including the famous Ribera del Duero.
Despite his high-priced wines, which are all sold sold en primeur, Palacios also wants Spain to be known for quality mass-market wines. Perhaps this is the reason why he also produces a 12€ wine like La Montesa, a blend of Tempranillo and Grenache from Rioja, in addition to his highly coveted and renowned Quinon de Valmira. We couldn’t agree more as there is a breadth of diversity and value to be found in Spain’s wines.
While the Rías Baixas region in the north-west is well known for its refreshing Albariño, there are other regions famous for white wines including Rueda in Ribera del Duero. One would also be remiss not to mention sherry from the famous Jerez region, which is also going through a revival in winemaking.
Wines to try:
Quinon de Valmira 2015: powerful fresh fruit, medium finish, medium bodied and silky tannins. Can drink now or age for later.
Les Aubaguetes 2015: aubaguetes means “little shade” in Catalan. Medium bodied with blackcurrant, berries, medium acidity and silky and elegant finish.
Cims de Porrera Vi de Vila Porrera Caranyana 2014: according to Watson’s Wine’s general manager, Jeremy Stockman, this is “one of Vivino’s favourites as voted by consumers. Classic Priorat Grenache with strength but also subtlety. Deep black fruits, spice, tannin, blood orange and minerality.”
La Montesa 2015: fresh cherries, strawberries, vanilla and spices. Soft tannins, good acidity for the price.