The drive from Madrid was so hot that lowering the window for tolls felt like leaning over a grill to flip steaks. Even now, at just before 9 p.m. on the streets of Villafranca del Bierzo, the sun lingers in the sky. But as I walk beneath chestnut-wood balconies perched above the pavement in the Galician style, I understand why Alvaro Palacios, Spain’s most talented winemaker, has chosen the Bierzo region as the site of his newest winery. With my hair still damp with sweat on this bright July evening, I suddenly feel a chill.
Hot days, cool nights. That has been the litany drummed into me since I first came to understand that great wine is produced in specific, quite special places. The extraordinary wine regions in the world give their vines plenty of summer warmth each day, then cool down to let them recover. Otherwise, sugar levels in the ripening grapes would rise too quickly, creating wines full of alcohol but devoid of nuance and complexity. It’s why Sonoma makes better wines than Modesto.
Spain is a hot country, all orange, red, yellow, and barren brown. There aren’t many places in which daytime temperatures of 105 degrees can segue into evenings so cool that you need a sweater. The Bierzo region sits at the western edge of the great, dry meseta of Castilla y Léon, but also on the cusp of green Galicia. Its primary grape, Mencia, is found nowhere else in the world. As recently as five years ago, the region had scant enological history and absolutely no cachet on the international market.
In other words, it was exactly what Palacios was looking for.
When people meet Alvaro Palacios, they’re often struck by how earnest he appears. His face is open, friendly. His dark, thick, uncombed hair looks uncomfortable on his head, as if it might work better on someone else’s. His eyes are a cornflower blue. He seems incapable of artifice, since his every emotion is instantly and automatically rendered as action. He envelops his friends in bear hugs, drums his fingers in a fierce staccato rhythm, tosses back his head, creases his forehead into parallel lines, and wails a stanza of flamenco.
I first met Palacios more than a decade ago, when he was starting to gain fame. In the late 1980’s, he’d repudiated his father’s industrial-size winery in Rioja to join a small band of winemakers plotting a viticultural revolution amidst the arid moonscape of the Priorat, south of Barcelona. The wines of that area had historically been so bad you’d have rejected a glass at a wedding, but Palacios saw something special in the cracked, thirsty soil and the decades-old vines of Garnacha and Carignena. He saved money working as a barrel salesman, found vineyards so steep that they had to be farmed by mule, then set about painstakingly working his craft. By the mid-1990’s, when I visited him at his makeshift facility in tiny, tumbledown Gratallops, he’d gained renown for his chocolate-smooth Las Terrasses, his sculpted Finca Dofi, and his few hundred annual cases of L’Ermita, which was emerging as one of the best (and most expensive) wines in Spain.
The wines would only get better. And when his father died in 2000, having seen but never fully come to terms with his son’s success, Palacios returned to work his magic on the family property, Palacios Remondo. He did, driving the two-and-a-half hours between Gratallops and the riojano town of Alfaro as often as five times a week, instituting a complete overhaul of the winery and its techniques.