Spain’s most prodigious winemaker has set his sights on a sleepy valley in the country’s northwest corner— and the Mencia grapes that grow only there. Bruce Schoenfeld gets the lay of the land.
Jose Bernad Alvaro Palacios and nephew Ricarado Pérez, at their winery
| Credit: Jose Bernad

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.

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.

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."

We visit Las Lamas, where vines are planted among purple wildflowers and river elms and fist-sized stones. We see Faraona, a tiny patch atop the tallest hill in the area, high above Corullón. We sit outside the Café Bar Alameda and drink champagne. At 11:15 p.m., with the day’s light finally gone, we head to dinner at Meson El Lagar de Montejos, an old stone house with a huge limb of a chestnut tree bisecting the dining room.

After lunch I feared I’d still be full at dinnertime. But now, seven hours later, I find my appetite has returned, right in sync with the Spanish schedule. I devour an omelette of mushrooms and sea urchin, one of the best egg dishes I’ve had in my life, along with three slices of angel food cake disguised as bread. We drink Las Lamas 2003. When lamb chops arrive, Palacios opens the La Faraona from the same vintage. Tannic but elegant, with lavender on the nose and a Burgundian complexity that is only beginning to show itself, it is not merely the wine of this visit, but also one of the finest Spanish wines I can remember. Palacios is enormously pleased by it. He breaks into a rayuela, a flamenco tune, by El Potito, one of his favorites. He stands up and sits down. He can’t contain himself. "This is what we are trying to accomplish," he says. "There it is!"

It is past 1 a.m. when we return to the parador. We linger in the lobby discussing the day, then grip each other in a hug. I enter my room and sit on the bed, suddenly exhausted, but filled with the satisfaction of having drunk an uncompromising and original wine that speaks of both its geography and the man who made it. From down the hall I can hear, distant but distinct, the soaring refrain of the rayuela.

When to Go

Summer is extraordinary in Bierzo, where, thanks to a gerrymandered time zone (same longitude as Belfast; same clock as Berlin), daylight lasts until almost 11 p.m. Most area towns have harvest festivals in the fall. As in much of Spain, late fall and winter can get surprisingly cold.

Getting There

Villafranca is a five-hour train ride or a three-hour drive from Madrid. You can fly to Léon from Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, or La Coruna.

Where to Stay

Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo Handsome and comfortable government-run hotel where I stayed with full, if feckless, service. 28 Avda. Calvo Sotelo, Villafranca del Bierzo; 34/987-540-175;; doubles from $115.

AC Ponferrada Modern chain hotel in the provincial capital, a 15-minute drive from Villafranca. 2 Avda. de Astorga, Ponferrada; 34/987-409-973;; doubles from $137.

Where to Eat

Menta y Canela Traditional ingredients in unconventional preparations from Bierzo’s most ambitious chef. 10 Alonso Cano, Ponferrada; 34/987-403-289; lunch or dinner for two $100.

Meson El Lagar de Montejos Local and regional specialties, including well-sourced seafood. 3 La Cabrita, San Andres de Montejos; 34/987-402-029; lunch or dinner for two $80.

Las Pallozas A6 Highway, Exit 399 Carracedelo; 34/987-684-025; lunch for two $25.

Meson El Lagar de Montejos

Menta y Canela

Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo