Palacios’s wines here have been a stunning success, artistically and commercially. They’ve also transformed the appellation. Before Palacios and Pérez arrived, Mencia was used almost exclusively to make wine primarily for blending. In an effort to capitalize on Spain’s emergence as a source for big, dark wines, ambitious local producers had planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other grapes that are ubiquitous worldwide but have no connection with Bierzo. Yet Palacios is held in such esteem among Spain’s winemakers that when he announced his intention to use only Mencia in Bierzo, the grape underwent an instant reevaluation. New vineyards were ripped out and replanted with Mencia.
The vintner chose the grape because he believed it would make a superior wine, but also because he’s in love with his country, its geography, history, and culture, and believes that these overlooked grapes, as much as flamenco and bullfighting—he is a connoisseur of both—are an essential part of that. He vows that, unlike many of the world’s great vintners, he’ll never leave Spain to make a wine. He could produce a fine Cabernet or Merlot, perhaps one to challenge the best wines of Bordeaux, where he lived for two years after attending enology school there. But does the world really need another claret?
As a result, his work is imbued with an intensity of purpose that transcends the concocting of a pleasurable beverage. No less than those made by religious orders through the Dark Ages, these wines have a higher meaning: to create one, even to drink one, is to make a sociological statement. "How could anyone grow Cabernet Sauvignon here?" Palacios asks. "It’s not natural." His hands have turned to fists, and his arms are crooked like a boxer’s. His voice is passionate, nearly strident. "We are not enologists," he says. "We are finders and restorers. The enology we learn, day by day. But what we are really doing here is restoring the patrimony of Bierzo."
He glares at me for a moment. Then his mood lightens. "Come on," he says. "Let’s eat."
Palacios takes me to Menta y Canela, in Ponferrada, the provincial capital. We eat cod tripe with morcilla sausage; tuna belly; a loin of pork. We drink a perfumed Moncerbal from 2003. Then we take a nap. (European Union guidelines or no, the siesta remains integral to the Spanish way of life.) By the time we head off to see the vineyards, it is almost 8 p.m. The light in the valley has taken on an unfocused quality that I usually associate with Provence. It is not the crisp light of early morning, but soft, fuzzy at the edges.
As we drive up a steep dirt road, we scrape against underbrush and rumble through mud. Eventually we park, then walk about half a mile along a ridge. And there is Moncerbal, a vineyard planted on a slope angled at 60 degrees. Across from us, on the other side of the valley, is an even sheerer slope covered with chestnut trees, which gleam like emeralds in the hazy light.
Moncerbal’s soil is full of quartzite, which diffuses heat. That’s where the freshness of the wine comes from, Palacios says. Las Lamas is just down the way, but there the soil is slate degraded into clay, which holds the heat, so the grapes there are markedly different. Palacios reaches down to pick a plant called jara; its scent of cinnamon and lemongrass reminds me of the Moncerbal we had with lunch. "That’s no accident," Palacios says. "The wine is the product of its surroundings. You can smell and taste this in it."