For a variety unknown in the United States 15 ago, the red Spanish grape Mencía made a surprising number of appearances at this year's Wine Experience—picked by chef José Andrés for a food pairing and highlighted in Matt Kramer's "Most Challenging Vineyards" seminar. Much of the credit for that goes to the man who took the stage first on Saturday morning: Álvaro Palacios.
Though he grew up in a winemaking family in Rioja, Palacios got restless with tradition and joined a group of "rebels" exploring the potential of Priorat. "Thanks to Álvaro and his friends, it has become one of the most sought-after, high-quality wine regions in Spain," said executive editor Thomas Matthews, noting that Palacios' L'Ermita is one of the country's priciest and highest-rated reds.
"Álvaro wasn't satisfied to climb one mountain," Matthews continued, so Palacios went to Bierzo, a forgotten region in northwestern Spain. There he fell in love with the indigenous Mencía. In 1998, he started Descendientes de J. Palacios with his nephew, Ricardo Perez, coaxing Mencía "into a wine of distinctive character and impressive elegance."
For the Wine Experience, Palacios poured his single-vineyard La Faraona 2011—"his highest expression of Mencía in Bierzo," said Matthews. "If Álvaro's judgment of this vineyard is correct (and in my experience, Álvaro's judgment of a vineyard is very rarely incorrect), this tasting today is sort of like if you went to see the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany, before they made it big."
Palacios—who flew in for the event despite being in the middle of harvest—admitted to a case of nerves being in front of the audience, but conveyed passion, warmth and openness. He said he was influenced in his 20s by his time working in Bordeaux with Christian Moueix and by attending the Wine Experience to learn from "the exciting way of seeing wine in the United States."
The places Palacios chooses to work have a few key ingredients. First, he said, is "a religious, mystic background"—where monks played an important role in the Middle Ages and contributed to the quality of the vineyards. (His map of the pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, showed Bierzo between Léon and the final stop of Santiago de Compostela.) "The other ingredient, of course," he continued, "is a region with a constellation of many, many vineyards with a very high age—old vines, because I couldn't wait 50 years to see what happened with the wine."
As Palacios walked the audience through topographic maps and stunning images of the steep vineyards, he delved enthusiastically into the geographic of Bierzo. While most of the valley of Bierzo is clay soils, he explained, the village of Corúllon is on metamorphic soils such as schist and slate. He and Perez work with 86 acres, divided into 20 parcels, and their wines include the Pétalos blend, a "village" Corúllon and single-vineyard bottlings from small hillside sites, including Las Lamas and Moncerbal.
La Faraona, which Palacios considers their best vineyard, is about an acre, at 2,800 feet, facing southeast so it gets gentle morning light. A fault runs through it, he noted, and it has "an amazing blend of minerals," including quartz and metals found in lava.
He still had much to say about what makes this site and its wine so special, but it was time to wrap up. "I was so nervous when I came out here," he joked, "and now I'm running out of time!"
He asked the audience to taste the wine together, as he described its red cherry and forest character, its finesse and refinement. Commenting that they refer to the wine of La Faraona as "The Supernatural," he concluded, "The main thing is about the emotions it provides to you—the great, almost thrilling aspects."
Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo La Faraona 2011 (NYR, $795, 75 cases made)