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Spain’s Next Wine Region

Jose Bernad Alvaro Palacios and nephew Ricarado Pérez, at their winery

Photo: Jose Bernad

But along the way, he’d found Bierzo. One day in 1998, his sister’s son, Ricardo Pérez, was returning to Rioja from the Atlantic coast, when he came upon a verdant valley just past the Galicia border. He took one look at the interplay of afternoon light and shadow on the mountain slopes and fell into a reverie. This is the place, he kept telling Palacios. The idea wouldn’t be to make the full-throttle wines that had become so fashionable, but something as subtle and uncommon as the valley itself. At its best, Mencia has the ethereal nature of Pinot Noir, the brightness of Cabernet Franc, the refreshment of Italy’s Nebbiolo. Creating a wine with those characteristics, but one that could come only from Bierzo, was something nobody had even attempted. That was all the prodding Palacios needed.

I stopped here two winters ago to taste the first vintages. Now Palacios has invited me back to gauge how the project is evolving, so I’ve booked a room at the Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo, a handsome 1960’s building set on a rise just off the highway, two blocks from Palacios’s winery. It’s the best of the town’s five hotels, and the vintner’s home whenever he’s in Villafranca. My room looks out on the deep green hills that surround the town on three sides and includes a huge terrace with ivy-wreathed posts. But a parador—government-owned, government-run—is a parador. There’s no Internet, the television in the room is tiny (that night, most of the male guests will gather downstairs to watch soccer on a console screen straight from the Ed Sullivan era), and breakfast isn’t served until eight o’clock.

Weary from the drive, I dine at the hotel. The waitress recognizes me from two years before, which makes me wonder how many strangers have passed through since. I request a bottle of sparkling water, and after a long wait, still water arrives. The wine doesn’t come at all, then appears on the bill twice. But the food is delicious—fresh fish, authentic local meat pies—and the experience takes me back to when I first started to travel in Spain, during the 1980’s, when most Spanish wine tasted old and tired, the service was solicitous but often utterly inept, and places like Villafranca looked, well, almost exactly the way they look now.

The winery sits on the town’s sedate main street. It was a ruin six years ago, but Palacios and Pérez have transformed it into a glorious place. Ceilings are more than twice a man’s height. The rooms are spacious and airy and handsome dark wood frames the glass door leading to the business office. Bottles that once stored memorable wines are displayed like heirlooms.

Palacios makes wines from Bierzo on three levels, viewing the terrain through an increasingly narrowed lens with each. "It’s exactly like when a traveler arrives," he says. "First you see the valley. Then you see the village. Then someone takes you to a specific hill." He has divided his 30 hectares of old-vine Mencia into 188 parcels that range from small to laughably minute. From those parcels—and some purchased grapes—he makes 250,000 bottles annually of an appellation-wide wine called Petalos. One step up from that is Villa de Corullón, a blend from vineyards that Palacios and Pérez own in the town of Corullón, just west of Villafranca; an average year yields 10,000 to 15,000 bottles.

The five cru wines originate on particular hillsides. Output is tiny. Only 600 bottles exist of the 2004 La Faraona, and the largest production, the San Martin, is 1,800 bottles. Each of the wines has a personality all its own: the San Martin is rustic; the Moncerbal crystalline; the Las Lamas meaty and wild. The Faraona is a combination of all of these that Palacios describes as magical. As I sip a still-unbottled sample of the 2004, which seems awkward and shy at this difficult stage, Pérez tells me they have purchased another parcel, their 189th, located just a grape’s toss from Fontelas, the fifth cru. They hope to make a single-vineyard wine from it, but the parcel is so small and grape yields so low, they’ll have enough for only 500 bottles.

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