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Discovering Ricardo Pérez Palacios

30/06/2020 Interviews , Wineries

The Spanish winegrower Ricardo Pérez Palacios runs the Descendientes de J. Palacios winery in the DO Bierzo with his uncle Álvaro Palacios, a place where some of the most sought-after wines in the world are made. The family oenological tradition runs in the veins of Ricardo Pérez Palacios, along with an artistic side and a spirit of solidarity which we can learn a little more about below.

ricardo perez palacios

WHAT DOES WINE MEAN TO YOU?

Most obviously, it’s a foodstuff which nourishes the body and the spirit.

In addition, in my case, it’s much more than this and it intermingles in almost all aspects and levels of my life.

It’s my Office, with a capital O, with everything this word implies related to tradition, culture, knowledge and know-how passed down from generation to generation.
It’s also a hobby which makes me enjoy the development of the senses, mainly taste, but also the coming together of nature, civilization, art, anthropology or even good physical condition of the body.
Working so closely to the land, in such a holistic branch of agriculture, where via a glass of wine you can feel everything from soil geology to socialization, sometimes makes you think that it’s an ideal way of life; but we mustn’t forget that it’s a well-tuned business model, that if you know how to manage and promote it in different aspects, not just the monetary one, it can fulfill you as a person … although I’d like to think that all trades, well understood, should lead you to something similar … what happens with wine is that, in addition, you drink it and, sometimes, you levitate.

WHAT’S THE FIRST MEMORY YOU HAVE RELATED TO WINE?

The smell of the vintage in the Alfaro winery, the hustle and bustle of the tractors arriving to unload at night, the darkness of the cellar. And my grandfather making us classify wines by color and smell on three points … and later, or secretly, the taste … mmm!!! That sour and generous Garnacha!!

COMING FROM A FAMILY OF GREAT WINE ROOTS. DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THAT YOU WANTED TO DEDICATE YOURSELF TO WINE TOO?

The commitment in my family has been so complete that it reached the hotel and restaurant business, a kind of incipient wine tourism which led my grandparents to build a hotel. It was very complementary on my father’s side; he was also a hotelier. Let’s say it was a foregone conclusion, but logically it wasn’t the only option.
I also think that I’ve been able to develop other options in parallel and thanks to wine.
And I had my punk band, very ephemeral luckily; in general, I can feel satisfied.

IN THIS ENVIRONMENT, THE SURNAME PALACIOS CARRIES A VERY IMPORTANT WEIGHT. YOUR UNCLE ÁLVARO, AS WELL AS BEING ONE OF THE CREATORS OF THE PRIORAT REVOLUTION, IS ONE OF THE SPANISH PRODUCERS WITH THE MOST INTERNATIONAL PROJECTION AND YOU HAVE A VERY CLOSE RELATIONSHIP. WHO PERSUADED WHO TO START THIS PROJECT IN EL BIERZO?

I arrived from France, after a few years of training and learning, with the hope of doing something new, on a human scale, in the pure “Vigneron” style, highly influenced by the “homegrown” of the small French independent winegrower, by agroecology, biodynamics and above all because of how all of this can materialize in a bottle of great wine.
The simplicity and humility of the earth in something so sublime; I came from France with this idea set in stone.
Álvaro must have seen that stubbornness, surely he’d fostered it in me for years; and then el Bierzo came into our lives, with its momentum, which is what has taken from me what’s necessary so that together we’ve made this idea a reality.

THERE ARE SOME SIMILARITIES BETWEEN PRIORAT AND BIERZO, ITS HEROIC VITICULTURE, ITS SLATE SOILS…

The reality is that the denominations of origin in Spain are too general, hence our effort to recognize the differences between wine-growing geographies, specifying as much as possible: vineyard, area, hamlet, municipality, etc.
Examples such as La Rioja or Ribera del Duero, where there are even different regions and Autonomous Communities, are models that, although they’re valid and make sense, we’d have to revisit.

Even when you say that the Priorat resembles the Bierzo for its slate soils, there’s many nuances.
Despite the small size of Bierzo, the different areas and soils are very dissimilar, and there’s no more than 10 or 20% slate.

We could almost compare Bierzo with DO Priorat, Montsant and even Terra Alta together for its variety of terroirs.
DOs in Tarragona are more focused, which doesn’t mean that they can’t be made more specific, as has been done in Priorat; nor does it mean that DO Bierzo is poorly defined, but it’s always possible to classify within the established classifications, generally valid, but very broad, seeking excellence and differentiation for the enjoyment of people who love wine, for the recognition of wine areas and for the dignity of people dedicated heart and soul to viticulture.

WHY EL BIERZO? WHAT DIFFICULTIES DID YOU FACE?

El Bierzo is a historic area, with an unusual wine heritage, with all the ingredients the great areas of Europe need and usually have. A cosmopolitan monastic influence due to the Camino de Santiago, a perfectly adapted variety, accompanied by many others which enhance it, a very old vineyard planted in the best wine-producing areas… it has it all.
We were captivated by the great potential we sensed the area had for giving us great wines of northern style.
As Emile Peynaud said, Bierzo produces the most Frenchified Spanish wines, and we love that.

In Corullón we find the slate soils so familiar to Alvaro; these always give the wines a crystalline air, revealing the particular characteristics of the vineyard: the variety, the vintage … more freely than other soils such as limestone, which are more influential in the structure and texture of the wine. That purity is also very attractive to us.

When we arrived in Bierzo in 1999, the wines which were in fashion were not those we thought could be made in the region, and the area was not known or recognized, so the commitment to venture into such a humid region which was so different from our origins was very risky, especially for my uncle, who didn’t need any more complications and entertainment than he had in Gratallops.
But his blind faith in Mencía and El Bierzo, which he had become aware of before me, and his passion for wine, were enough to meet the challenge of obtaining a great wine in this forgotten historical area.
As you can imagine, I can never be grateful enough that we’ve done it together; working with him is a stroke of luck, a challenge and a constant joy.

SO THERE THEY FOUND THE PLACE WHERE “LA FARAONA” ORIGINATES, A WINE WHICH HAS ATTAINED THE MUCH SOUGHT-AFTER 100 PARKER POINTS AND WHOSE NAME HAS A STORY BEHIND IT. COULD YOU TELL US THIS STORY?

La Faraona is what the best vat, cask or barrel was called in the cellars of La Rioja, the queen of the house, or that’s how it came to me.
When we arrived from the East, we went down to the apple orchard and the Bierzo appeared, with that plot visible more than 30 kilometers it emerged in the distance, perched on the rock, with Corullón below … Alvaro said: “That’s going to be La Faraona!” … and so it was.
Until the third harvest in 2001, we weren’t entirely convinced that grapes matured so high, Alvaro insisted so much that we managed to convince Miguelín “Cacharulo” to wait almost a month for
harvest and from there came the first Faraona
… incredible subtlety in one of the best crops since we arrived.
We bought the grape and the vineyard from Miguelín the same day as the harvest. Every year he comes during pruning to see how it’s going, I think he’s also happy with everything that’s happening with his vineyard, and it’s beautiful, because we don’t own something material but are simply concessionaires of a legacy we hope will always remain.

WHAT’S THE SECRET OF THE SUCCESS OF DESCENDIENTES DE J. PALACIOS?

Perseverance.
In 1999, we came up with an idea, we started the winery with a very specific work spirit in the vineyard and winery, and in twenty-one vintages we haven’t changed much this way of production.
It’s curious, because in our short history and without having drastically changed the initial concepts, we have gone from being innovative to classic, harvesting first to last, mashing most to the least … and I imagine this rise and fall of emotions will continue around us for many years.
The world of wine thinks about everything too much; it’s as “simple” as finding a great vineyard, it’s not necessary to change much something which is so sublime and simple at the same time.
In Europe and Spain we’re lucky to have many treasures like this, and some of them waiting to be rediscovered.

WHEN THEY SAY THAT YOUR VINEYARDS ARE FOUND IN AN AUTHENTIC POT, WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND WHAT DOES THIS BRING TO YOUR WINES?

There’s an etymological problem in the question. It’s a tectonic basin (hoya), not a cooking pot (olla).
But it’s funny because in 2001, precisely with this misunderstanding, we created the “Association of Ecological Agriculture La Olla del Bierzo”; the idea was to turn it into a large cooking pot for the best of traditional agriculture, agroecology and the people of the basin of El Bierzo.
At heart, the region, in addition to being a tectonic basin or pit, looks like a big pot, with its valley and the mountains which surround it in a circle.
In short, this makes the climate quite unusual due to the thermal inertia it causes. In addition, the fact that El Bierzo is the meeting point between the two great climates, Continental and Atlantic, definitely marks the environment where we live, from culture to vegetation, and logically the wines which are produced here.

PRACTICALLY ALL THE WINES YOU PRODUCE IN EL BIERZO CONTAIN A MINIMUM PERCENTAGE OF WHITE GRAPES FROM THE AREA. HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF PRODUCING AT LEAST ONE WHITE WINE WITH THEM?

One of the great assets of the area is the quantity of old vineyards which with difficulty resist the transformation in the ways of the rural world.
The aging of people dedicated to the countryside and the difficulty we Spaniards have in making the best of ourselves and our culture known, including gastronomy, is gradually wiping out a heritage which is unmatched in the world: very old vineyards, from varieties perfectly adapted to their growing sites, ancestral wine culture and other things, often immaterial.

One of these assets is the great varietal wealth which exists in each and every one of the country’s regions. In general, many of these varieties complemented each other to give the desired wines and with the particular characteristics of a good balance between the parts involved in giving a wine region a differentiated character. In El Bierzo there was a lot of white wine and when we arrived, with our youthful arrogance, it seemed to us that it had nothing to contribute to the great wines we intended to make.
Well, we were very wrong, and we learned that each and every one of the varieties present in the vineyards had their meaning and reason for being in the final wines, accompanying the indisputable queen, Mencía.
In the case of the two main white wines, Palomino and Valenciana, they provide a roundness and volume capable of calming the sometimes bitter finish of Mencía on the palate.

And now to answer your question, forgive me, making white wines is for more meticulous people than I. Achieving a great white wine requires great precision, it’s hard to find great white wines which fill me … I’m a coward in that regard.
Yes, we make a little for the use of the household and the team, but after doing it some years with dubious success, maceration with skins and without sulfur, I’ve left it in the hands of the winery technician Miguel, who’s from Galicia and handles it very well.

COULD YOU PRESENT US YOUR FAVORITE WINE FROM THE WINERY?

I can’t answer this question directly either, it must be the airs of the Atlantic which make me increasingly Galician.
I don’t have a favorite wine from the winery, but I’m going to tell you that over the years I’ve had to defend Las Lamas against Moncerbal.
I like the two places equally, each one has its good things, few bad ones…
Moncerbal gives more modern wines, more of the style that you like because it’s cool: sharp, super mineral, very fresh and even, as more than one person would say, with a lot of tension!
And Las Lamas is more classic, very vinous, round, carnal … the year we know how to work well and get it right, the resulting wine is the most delicate and balanced anyone can imagine.
I admire people who are able to abstract themselves and say what they like and what they think about a wine from their most sincere opinion, as Mannie Berck, a very cultured person and our American importer, always did, who since first harvest is his favorite.

AS FOUNDER OF GRANJA CANDO, CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT IT CONSISTS OF?
It’s a link in the agricultural system we’ve been creating in Corullón. We came to Bierzo with the idea of making a great wine, but that’s not enough, our commitment is to everything it encompasses: the landscape, culture, tradition, coexistence in the rural landscape, etc.
It’s a complete, holistic commitment, we couldn’t have made the wine from Alfaro as consultants or investors. I’ve been living in El Bierzo since spring 1999, and we’re involved in all the matters you can imagine.
Granja Cando is the most human part of this system, it tries to be a meeting point between people and the landscape, a critical and open space where knowledge can be generated and links created between popular wisdom and research.
Everything’s a bit conceptual, in more tangible terms and in this time which is more virtual and less face-to-face time than ever, we’re dedicating ourselves to translating and publishing soil science books, participating in training sessions, organizing conferences and promoting an enduring rural life.
At other times we’ve carried out workshops on biodynamic agriculture, animal traction, chemical-free winemaking, cheeses, breads, fermented foods and a very long list of other activities.

IN ADDITION TO YOUR LINK WITH THE EARTH, WE ALSO KNOW ABOUT YOUR ARTISTIC VEIN. HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT DESIGNING YOUR OWN WINE LABELS?

I’m currently making labels for the “experimental” wines we make at the winery, which are wines we make to learn and try things, we’ve done this since 1999, and sold them locally.
Now we’ve organized it a bit, we’ve put a brand on it, I paint a label for each bottle and we sell it in the region, in the Farmer’s Market of the AE Association and in the bars and restaurants of some friends.

WHAT’S THE LAST WINE THAT EXCITED YOU AND WHY?

On 15th June, his family and mine celebrated the complete recovery of my friend Raulín, who caught the bug which seems to have turned our civilization upside down.
More than the wine in particular, it was the company and everything we had to celebrate, the wine rose to the occasion to fill us with joy.
We opened with a Fino Pando, then a Bonnes Mares 2012 from Vogué in magnum, a Faraona 2009 … and as we were in good spirits, a Corton and a Volnay from 2006 from Montille.
All exquisite, just as it should be to accompany a fine evening.