Lessons from a Master Storyteller


Álvaro Palacios (Photo credit:  7canibales.com)

Álvaro Palacios
(Photo credit: 7canibales.com)

I read the other day that there are about 140,000 wineries in the world, most of them small. It’s not hard to imagine that given this fact, gaining the attention of distributors, retailers and consumers is a monumental task. Because wine is an emotional product, telling a good story is an essential first step.

Rioja has a number of master storytellers, notably María José López de Heredia, Agustín Santolaya from Roda and Miguel Ángel de Gregorio (Finca Allende), but the king is Álvaro Palacios.

Álvaro is one of several brothers in the Palacios family from Alfaro in Rioja Baja. In the 1980s it appeared that family patriarch Antonio Palacios was going to pass the torch to his oldest son Antonio. Álvaro felt restless so he went to work for a few years at a barrel manufacturer and then struck out on his own. He settled in Priorato, a remote hilly area with slate soil in the province of Tarragona, known chiefly because of a company that made communion wines. He must have seen something special there because he soon began making very small batches of wine that he aged in a few oak barriques. I’m sure his father was proud of Álvaro for his independent spirit but that didn’t keep him from making a little fun of him. Antonio senior once told me that Álvaro only had two or three barrels – a joke at a time when a Rioja winery had to own at least 500 barrels to have the right to use the official Rioja crianza, reserva and gran reserva back labels.

The next thing I heard from Álvaro was at the holiday portfolio tasting in 1990 at Martin-Scott Wines, Campo Viejo’s New York distributor. Each of the suppliers present had to pour their own wines as well as those from producers from the same country who weren’t able to attend the tasting. I had to pour a wine called Clos Dofí, a powerful, inky red from Priorato made with garnacha and six or seven other varieties. Surprise! It was Álvaro’s first wine.

The rest is history as Álvaro has parlayed the wines from those few barrels into a reputation as Spain’s most famous winemaker.

A few years ago, the tables turned for the Palacios family with the eldest son leaving to start his own venture, and the Rioja winery in the hands of his sister Chelo. She persuaded Álvaro to return to Rioja to lead the family winery while maintaining his businesses in Priorat and Bierzo, this last one with Chelo’s son Ricardo Pérez.

Álvaro’s presence was quickly felt in Alfaro with the creation and success of Placet, La Montesa, Propiedad and La Vendimia with which he has tried passionately to elevate the image of Rioja Baja, the garnacha grape, that accounted for half the area planted to red grapes until the early 1980s, and high altitude viticulture at the family’s vineyards on the slopes of Mount Yerga.

It’s a job he’s been largely doing by himself. A few days ago he wrote an impassioned article in our local paper criticizing the decision of the governments of La Rioja and Álava (central and western Rioja) to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa while completely ignoring Rioja Baja. It’s a shame.

Álvaro once again turned the status quo in Rioja on its head at a recent press conference where he announced the creation of a ” game changing” single vineyard garnacha from Rioja Baja. At an interview given to The Drinks Business, Palacio touched all the right buttons, instantly creating enormous expectation about the release of his revolutionary Rioja. This is wine storytelling at its best.

Below is an excerpt from the article summarizing the interview which I have copied from The Drinks Business online:

“Palacios to release ‘game changing’ Rioja

28th March, 2014 by Lucy Shaw

Pioneering Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios is to release a “game changing” single vineyard Rioja onto the market next year.

Speaking exclusively to the drinks business at an en primeur tasting of the 2013 vintage of his wines from Priorat and Bierzo, Palacios said: “It will be nothing like any wine to have come out of Rioja so far.

“It’s a bit like a Gevrey-Chambertin in character – it has real soul and is quite magical.

“Currently in barrel, it’s a beautiful, bright ruby red and has crisp red fruit aromas of wild strawberries. It’s quite lactic too, so has a creamy mouthfeel, but also notes of tangerine peel, rosemary and thyme.”

Due to be called Valmira, the wine is made from 100% Garnacha grown in a three-hectare single vineyard of the same name at Palacios’ family estate in the village of Alfaro in Rioja Baja.

“I’m confident about the pricing because I’m confident about the quality of the wine. Plus, there won’t be a lot of it – only around 1,300 bottles of the 2013 vintage,” he said.

Palacios has been working on the project for a decade, but a standout harvest in 2013 has spurred the perfectionist to finally release it.

Over the last 10 years, Palacios has been busy grafting low bush vines with Garnacha and uprooting the Tempranillo planted in the vineyard.

“Garnacha is the queen grape of Rioja Baja – it’s been there for centuries. Producers were wrong to uproot it for Tempranillo in order to make a quick buck,” he said.”

The wine business would be a different place if more wineries told their stories with as much passion as Álvaro Palacios.

Gender wars – ‘El’ Rioja and ‘La’ Rioja

Tom and sister Fran ca. 1953

The recent ruling by an Argentine judge affirming that wines from the Argentine province of La Rioja don’t cause confusion with Spanish Rioja reminded me that even here in Spain, the use of ‘Rioja’ can be confusing.

First of all a short Spanish lesson: ‘el’ and ‘la’ are the masculine and feminine singular definite articles in Spanish.  Both mean ‘the’ in English.

‘El Rioja’ means ‘Rioja wine’ as does ‘el vino de Rioja’, while ‘La Rioja’ is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, comparable to ‘states’ in the USA or ‘länder’ in Germany.  ‘Rioja’ without the article refers to the Rioja denomination of origin (denominación de origen calificada Rioja), or Rioja wine region.  The D.O. Ca. Rioja is located in three of Spain’s states: La Rioja(68,2% of the total area), Álava in the Basque Country (21,1%) and Navarra (10,7%).

This fact has a number of consequences for Rioja wine.  First, it means that ‘el Rioja’s’ wine rules have to be approved by the Spanish ministry of agriculture, while for practically all of Spain’s DOs, located within one region, the regional government has the power.  There are only three exceptions:  Rioja, Cava and Jumilla.

Three states, three governments and therefore three groups of elected officials, from three different political parties, are represented in the Rioja Regulatory Council, the organization made up of farmers and wineries, where the development of Rioja grapes and wines is debated. So politics often interferes with the running of the wine district. In addition, several organizations vie to promote Rioja wines:  three Chambers of Commerce, regional and city government promotion boards, ICEX (the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade) and the Rioja Regulatory Council itself. I once counted 17 of them.

It would be great if these organizations put their money into a common pot.  However, with the exception of the Regulatory Council and ICEX, for whom ‘El Rioja’ is a whole, each of these local and regional organizations promote ‘their’ Rioja, which means that promotion, PR and advertising often resembles shoppers fighting over a piece of clothing at a fire sale.  Distributors, wine writers and journalists are often bewildered by the conflicting messages they hear.

I remember talking to a Dutch journalist several years ago about attending a series of wine tastings in Logroño called ‘Grandes de La Rioja’, organized by the government of La Rioja.  He asked me whether he would be able to taste the Riojas produced in the other two regions.  ‘Sadly, no’, I replied.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has jumped through a lot of hoops to get everyone in the boat to row in the same direction and promote Rioja wines in general, with some success. For several years, elected officials from the three ‘states’ have provided a small amount of money for promotion, but it’s peanuts compared to the funds they devote to ‘their’ Rioja.

It’s ironic that the growers and wineries themselves don’t feel as attached to their subzone as their elected officials.  Many farmers sell their grapes to wineries in other parts of the region, wineries do the same with bulk wine and some companies located in one part of Rioja have vineyards and even wineries in more than one subzone. They recognize that the strength of the word RIOJA transcends these regional differences.

Discovering the Riojas and Cavas from Mount Yerga in Rioja Baja


After several months’ absence, I was finally able to attend the Rioja tasting organized by our local newspaper LA RIOJA.  The November tasting featured Amador Escudero and the wines of Bodegas Escudero and Bodegas Valsacro.

It was a great review of wines and the potential of cavas from Rioja Baja.

The Escudero family has 128 hectares of vineyards in Rioja Baja, on or near Mount Yerga, one of the highest sites in Rioja. Yerga was once largely ignored by wineries because grapes produced there ripened late.  This prompted growers to plant on the fertile alluvial plain near the Ebro river.  Today things have changed, with criticism heaped on the high-yielding vineyards near the river while Yerga is one of the most sought-after sites.

Escudero has been producing cava in Rioja for over 50 years, and as cava producers, are allowed to plant varietals allowed by the Cava appellation. 

As we arrived, we were served a Benito Escudero rosé cava made with pinot noir.  Beautiful cherry bouquet and very refreshing.

The first Rioja was Bécquer red 2008.  The brand was created to honor Spain’s romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, who wrote  his Miserere on the slopes of Mount Yerga.  70% tempranillo, 30% garnacha.

Intense ruby.  Red fruit, spicy, a touch of oak.  Balanced acidity with a long finish.  I thought that the wine’s power overshadowed its elegance.

Vidau 2005.  70% tempranillo.  Aged in French and Rumanian oak.

‘Vidau’ is how Escudero calls a field blend, where the different varieties in a single vineyard determine the blend of grapes in the wine.

Intense black cherry.  Very ripe red fruit and new oak.  High acidity.  In my opinion it needs more time in the bottle.

Valsacro Dioro 2004.  40% tempranillo, 40% garnacha, 20% others. Aged in French and Rumanian oak.

Intense black cherry with brick.  Very ripe dark fruit, spicy, well-balanced with ripe tannins.  In my opinion, the best wine in the tasting.

Arvum 2005. (‘Arvum’ means ‘field’ in Latin.

Intense brick.  Red fruit, candy and butterscotch.  High acidity, tannic, not mouth-filling.  I thought the aroma was better than the mouthfeel.

My overall impression of these wines was that they were well-made but expressed more depth on the nose than on the palate, dominated by high acidity. In Rioja, high acidity is highly prized because it gives potential for ageing. In Rioja, winemakers call this quality ‘frescura’ or freshness.

 I missed, however, more complexity to go along with this acidity.

We then tasted two cavas.  The first was Dioro Baco extra brut, made exclusively with chardonnay from vineyards on Mt. Yerga.  Amador said that the base wine remained for six years on its lees.  Straw-gold.  Nutmeg, banana and a slight whiff of burnt sugar.  I liked it a lot.  

Dioro Baco semi-dry ‘dessert’ cava.  I thought it was well-balanced, not cloying, with a graham cracker bouquet.  Frankly I prefer brut cavas but this one was pretty good.

I left the tasting satisfied but curious to taste more wines made from grapes grown on the high altitude vineyards of Mount Yerga.



Setting the record straight about Rioja Baja


When I moved to Rioja in the early 1980s, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa were the darlings of the region, where ‘modern’ Rioja flourished starting in the last half of the 19th century and most of the wineries were located.  In contrast, Rioja Baja was fruit tree and vegetable country, roundly criticized for allowing the planting of grapevines in highly fertile alluvial soil near the Ebro that produced twice as much per vine as in the Alta and Alavesa.  Even the name Rioja BAJA (Lower Rioja) was an adjective reminiscent of inferiority, like Baja California or Outer Mongolia (my apologies to Mexico and Mongolia).

Nothing is farther from the truth, however.

In fact, without Rioja Baja, Rioja would not be what it is today.

First of all, Rioja was traditionally made by blending grapes from all over the region.  Because Rioja Baja is warmer and drier than the Alta or Alavesa, the harvest always begins here and the grapes almost always reach total ripeness, something that happens with less regularity in the other two subzones.  This is perhaps not as evident as it was in the past, before global warming, when, toward the end of October, plummeting temperatures and rainstorms often ruined the harvest or at best, produced thin wines with no more than 9 or 10% alcohol in the Alta and Alavesa.  Clearly these wines needed some muscle and it always came from Rioja Baja.  In fact, most of the wineries in Haro such as La Rioja Alta, CVNE and López de Heredia either owned or had long-term arrangements with growers in the Baja.  Most of these traditional wineries still own property there.

Secondly, Rioja Baja was garnacha land, adding character in blends to the predominant tempranillo of the Alta and Alavesa.  Sadly, most of the garnacha has been replaced with tempranillo since the late 1980s, but garnacha is still in demand, with wineries like El Coto de Rioja investing heavily in replanting it.

We also have to take into account the low-yielding, south-facing vineyards located at  high altitude on or near Mount Yerga, south of Alfaro, where well-known winemakers like Álvaro Palacios and his family have long recognized their potential for producing wines of great character, as well as vineyards planted in the gravelly soil around Mendavia on the north bank of the Ebro, home of Barón de Ley.

Then there’s Marqués de Murrieta, located at the western edge of Rioja Baja, near Logroño, that shares with Marqués de Riscal the honor of  ‘inventing’ modern Rioja in the mid-19th century, as well as Marqués de Vargas, located next door.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the potential of Rioja Baja, however, is the San Isidro Cooperative in Aldeanueva de Ebro, the largest in Rioja and the coop that has most successfully made the transition from supplying young wine to other wineries to making, aging, bottling and selling well-made, attractive wines throughout Spain and all over the world.

My only complaint with Rioja Baja is not keeping the old vine garnacha that predominated until the 1980s.  Given the success of old vine garnacha in the neighboring regions of Campo de Borja and Calatayud, Rioja could have benefited from these vines.  As a big fan of garnacha, I hope growers will start to plant it more widely again.