He Told Me So
By James Laube, senior editor
Ten years ago, on a whirlwind three-week fact-finding mission that crisscrossed Spain, I met a young winemaker at a trade tasting in Rioja. Alvaro Palacios, then 22, conveyed such enthusiasm about the wines of his native Rioja that I've never forgotten him or his passion. Rioja reds of that era, for the most part, were a sorry lot, aged for long periods in wood and then aged even longer in bottle prior to release.
By the time you poured those aged Riojas, you expected a mature-tasting wine, with soft, earthy tannins and a slight brown or orange hue to the faded red color. But oftentimes the wines tasted dusty and oxidized, with nutty, Sherry-like flavors. The worst were flat-out dirty, flawed by bacterial spoilage. Rioja whites were even more weird, with earthy, candied flavors. The wines were victims of Old World--and sometimes shoddy--winemaking practices.
Poor Rioja, I thought. These wines don't stand a chance. These winemakers don't give their wines a chance. Still, the best Riojas, those with a hint of dried fruit remaining, are pleasant to drink, especially when paired with the regional Spanish fare. But drinking Rioja took some time to get used to, especially for those of us accustomed to drinking younger, heartier, more robust wines.
Young Spanish winemakers like Palacios understood that, and they knew that Spanish wines needed to be fruitier and livelier if they were to survive in the modern wine world. But in many areas of Spain, where tradition dictated the way the vineyards and wineries were run, reforming styles and techniques was next to impossible. Farming practices that had worked for decades were strictly adhered to, as were ancient winemaking customs.
Palacios was determined to make a different style of wine, and he boldly predicted that one day he'd make the Pétrus of Spain. He told me that he'd even worked at the fabled Pomerol estate and studied everything there--vineyard strategies, fermentation temperatures, tannin control and barrel aging--so he knew what needed to be done. His big obstacle was convincing others, namely family members, that his vision represented a viable new path for Rioja.
His impressive early efforts with the Tempranillo grape at his family's Palacios Remondo in Rioja were among the best wines of the region. But by 1989 he decided to take a greater chance and venture beyond Rioja. He moved with a group of fellow winemakers to Priorat, then a largely unknown and untried wine region southwest of Barcelona, and planted a small, 7-acre vineyard. Since then, he has also bought grapes from vineyards planted years ago, and he has a strong say in how the vines are managed.
Steep, rugged hills make farming difficult in Priorat and discourage most from even considering settling there. But Palacios' drive and determination to make a great wine, evident a decade ago, have finally paid off.
While his 1993 and 1994 wines won praise, his 1995s are stunning, perhaps the greatest wines ever made in Spain. His dense, opulent L'Ermita (97 points, $260), made from the Grenache grape (called Garnacha in Spain), earned the highest rating Wine Spectator editors have ever given to a newly released Spanish wine. His Finca Dofí (93, $40), containing Mazuelo (the Spanish name of Carignane), Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, is lush yet muscular.
Even at the time of my earlier visit, I could see the signs. I came away from Spain believing that winemakers such as Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera fame were at the dawn of a new era of winemaking in Spain. Pesquera's wonderful Tempranillo-based reds from Ribera del Duero were rich and vibrant, unlike the tired-tasting Riojas of old.
I've run into Palacios half a dozen times since we first met in Rioja. Each time he's repeated his vows and reminded me that he was moving closer to his goal of making a great wine. Someday I would taste one of his wines and know that he'd gotten there.
Once I bumped into him in a crowded elevator in Manhattan. We didn't have time to talk. He just smiled and nodded his head. Sign language. I knew what he was going to tell me, and now it's true.
Somehow I always figured he'd make it, but now the proof is indisputable.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor Jim Laube, in a column also appearing in the Feb. 28 Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Jim Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.
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