Álvaro Palacios is successful with everything he does. This Rioja winemaker has a real golden touch. He has managed to find the full potential in forgotten wine regions, like Priorat and El Bierzo, and turn them into coveted production areas.
He is full of both wisdom and intuition. Creator of L'Ermita, one of the most sought-after wines in the world, he seduces through his vines and his conversation and puts all of his passion into every wine he makes with no greater claim than doing a really good job. This man is capable of bottling emotion and joy.
- Wine is undoubtedly part of your DNA. Can you imagine living without it? What would you replace it with, if you had to?
Wine is obviously irreplaceable. And this has been the case for 100 generations of Europeans and more than 2,500 years.
- People who have had the privilege of listening to you know that you always talk about your trade and profession from a point of simplicity. How would you define yourself?
As many of you know, I consider myself a humble farmer. As such, I have been learning my whole life. And I am still learning to pick up the baton of a tradition, on a path between vineyards that never ends, and that must continue for a long time yet.
- What led you to leave La Rioja and throw everything at Priorat?
I am just a small part of Spanish winemaking history and, at the same time, I have received international training that has led me to see our reality from the outside. So when I was young, I felt a call and a great pull towards areas outside my family origin, and I began a search that was influenced by that outside view.
When I began to look for other areas, René Barbier, a close family friend, invited me to visit Priorat. And that was it. I wanted to be there.
- What is harder, making good wines or selling them?
There is bit of enigma around making good wines. A great wine is just the product of an exceptional location. You have to learn to listen to the vineyard, which requires a series of important human traits: respect, humility to learn and passion. Also growing your knowledge: knowing what a great wine is. And to do that you have to taste, drink and absorb the atmosphere of the world’s great wines.
To sell you have to work long hours; days, evenings and weekends. It's a vocation: it's about putting in the hours because you’re passionate about it. To sell, you have to know how to explain what is special about your location, your wine and your country.
- You have also started a project in El Bierzo with your nephew Ricardo Pérez, which has been a success. What led you to believe in this region?
The ancient hints of a long wine-growing history, the landscape, a fascination with the challenge of those difficult slopes, the presence of the Camino de Santiago, the gifts of nature, and so much more. All of this made it a very attractive prospect, but the key thing was Ricardo’s enthusiasm and passion when he suggested making wine there. And then the idyllic idea we had of the region became reality by making great wines in Bierzo. These wines are as irresistible as the ones made in Priorat, in my opinion.
- La Faraona, a wine from Bierzo that has been awarded 100 Parker points, in your own words “caresses from within”. Is that intuition, magic, emotion...? What caught your attention with that wonderful little plot and why did you choose this name for your wine?
It was love at first sight. L'Ermita, Quiñón de Valmira and La Faraona have all evoked a feeling similar to love. I knew, through a combination of intuition and emotion, that this is the place. It’s hard to explain, you know?
In terms of the name, we have said many times that it comes from the name given to the best barrel of new wine in Rioja Oriental. There is that, but I like to say that this is a name that symbolises the very best: a wine for goddesses, sultans, empresses and pharaohs.
- First Priorat, then Bierzo and back to your origins in Rioja, but always Spain. Have you ever been interested in making wine in Jerez. Anything you want to tell us here? Or is your intuition nudging you towards another area that has caught your attention?
Every week I think about making wine in different parts of Spain. I would love to, and I feel committed to showcasing all our heritage and as many significant Old World wines as we can. But there are not enough hours in the day: great wines take a lot of work. To make them you need to walk in step with the vineyard at all times. The Jerez thing is just a pipe dream at the moment.
- At the time it must have been very difficult to leave the family winery in Rioja to embark on an adventure in Priorat when no one believed in that project. A moment of mixed feelings in terms of your family, especially, and your worries as well. In what way has everything your father taught you and everything you learned in the family winery in Rioja influenced you?
My father, José Palacios, was my great mentor in so many areas, like business management, an obsession with quality, and how to negotiate properly. It was in Alfaro, in Rioja Oriental, where I sensed and understood the true mystery of wine. As a child I would play with my brothers in the cold, damp darkness of the cellar, and then I grew up and worked in there. I would always listen to the beautiful colloquial descriptions of the wine, the sayings and phrases, the eternal expressions... Through my father and later my sister Chelo I learned the importance of work and people. In short, I learned about the family tradition and legacy.
- You were very young when you left for Priorat, and the odds were stacked against you. You have told us about your feelings and what you learned from that moment, as the child of winegrowers who left home to achieve his own dream. What did it mean to you, as a father, to be able to share in your daughter Lola’s first harvest of the “Quiñón de Valmira” wine in Rioja?
My father instilled in us his passion for the La Montesa vineyard, which was his dream come true, so you can imagine what it means for me to work the Quiñón de Valmira vineyard and produce its wine with my daughter Lola.
- You have a true passion and admiration for old world wines. What do you think is different about these wines compared to those made in the new world?
The exclusivity of living among the origins. Where the essence of the origin lies. It is really important to understand that varieties have been cultivated in historical natural settings. The affinity of our vines to those ancient places, alongside the culture, history and spirituality, is a unique privilege. This is what allows us to explain the most mystical side of the great wines, their magic and transcendental emotion.
- And what about your great wines, what are they like? What do they taste like?
I am constantly working to make sure my wines convey the characteristics of the place they come from. My wines have the character of their variety, they are full of life, and they taste like clean and pure air.
- Do you think we know how to “communicate” wine? From your point of view as a winemaker and consumer, how do you think we can connect people with wine culture?
I think we should teach children in schools about the role wine has played in our country. We should think about whether wine has been a god! The problem is that we have all become gods and we have no idea what we want.
We should also explain to our children what wine has meant in a social sense, in the history of our societies and in our daily lives. Explain our exciting story to them, explain phylloxera to them!
- We know that you are a big fan of flamenco, an intense genre that is full of feeling. Do you think there are some similarities between flamenco and winemaking?
There is a clear connection, at least for me because I experience it, and that is passion. And passion sharpens sensitivity and inspiration.
- Finally, could you tell us which wine you have most recently tried and fallen in love with?
There are so many great wines that I try and that I like. When it comes to wine (and this is the good thing about it), we can love so many different ones at the same time.