July 28, 2009

Last night, I drank a magical bottle of 2006 Descendientes de Jose Palacios “Moncerbal,” one of the single-cru Bierzo bottlings of Alvaro Palacios and Ricardo Perez.

Much has been written about the high quality of this and the other Descendientes wines, but for me 2006 Moncerbal represents something else: the richness that is Spain’s birthright, but with an Old World sense of restraint and terroircharacteristics that are not always present in the country’s elite wines.

Drinking that bottle reminded me of a conversation I had with Alvaro nearly a decade ago, at a time when he had not yet become a superstar. We were talking about Spanish wine generally, and I recall him saying something to this effect: In Spain, we are blessed with old vines and plenty of sun. Power comes very easily to us. But, what is it that makes the great wines of France so revered? Their esteem comes from their equilibrium and their distinctive personalities. There is no other wine in the world that tastes like Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne, or Petrus, or La Tâche. It’s the intensity of personality that makes those wines so great.

But Alvaro also drew a distinction between conditions in Spain and those in France. He said: In Northern Europe, the struggle is always to get ripeness. For us, the problem is to tame the power, and to crystallize the personalities of our great vineyards. I am in PrioratI can’t make Burgundybut my goal is the same as the Burgundians: to enhance the voice of my vineyards.

This philosophy can be seen clearly in the evolution of the wines he is making today not only at Descendientes in Bierzo but at his eponymous Priorat estate. At Descendientes, Ricardo Perez, Alvaro’s nephew and winemaking partner, is now farming entirely biodynamically and fermentations have become more gentle and patient. The grapes are picked a little earlier than in the early vintages, and the oak aging is a little less prominent. The changes are subtle but, with the arrival of Descendientes’ 2006s, one can see a new level of sophistication: the wines are fresher, and their personalities more defined.

A similar arc has occurred in Priorat, where Alvaro started adapting Ricardo’s biodyamics in 2000. In the early years, he put a little Cabernet in L’Ermita for structure, but by 2005 he put his trust entirely in the vineyard’s noble old Garnacha. Here again, one sees a new level of freshness and delineation. The changes are subtle, but then what separates the world’s greatest wines from the rest of the pack?

Alvaro’s story is one of an intellectual journey that began when he grew up in Rioja, born to an old winegrowing family but with ideas and curiosity that went far beyond what he was taught as a boy. Looking back over his career, not once, but twice (in Priorat and Bierzo), he has been the most influential early figure in an emerging wine region. And in each instance he has led by example, teaching those who have followed to seek purity and expressionnot commercial samenessin their wines.

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