An Intuitive Wine Grower’s Works from Bierzo
Raúl Pérez vineyards in DO Bierzo. Photo by Friederike Paetzold, Vinimenta
Raúl Pérez is a very prolific winemaker. During a visit with him not long ago, I asked him how many wines he makes. He joked, “Do you mean the wines I make at my winery, the wines I make with friends, or my consulting projects?” In a 2013 Wine Spectator article, Raúl guessed the number was over 200. In recent years, Raúl has continued projects across Spain (Bierzo, Rías Baixas, Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei, Tierra de León, Vinos de Madrid, Cebreros) while he has launched new wines from Portugal’s Douro with Dirk Neipoort, South Africa’s Swartland with Eben Sadie, Bordeaux, Argentina and Chile.
Subtlety and Nuance
Raúl has a powerful, husky build and a cheerful, cherubic character. He doesn’t stay in one place for long. Among his vines or barrels, he’s in constant motion, a hummingbird flitting from blossom to blossom. To contrast, Raúl’s ability to focus on your words in conversation is striking. He’s a very good listener. Avoiding anything overt or bold, Raúl admires subtlety and nuance, qualities apparent in his wines. Raúl intently listens to his terruños (terroirs) and makes wines that communicate a clear sense of place. Rather than intervene as a “great winemaker,” Raúl chooses to faithfully transmit the story that each terroir has to tell. Over the past two years, Raúl’s prominent beard has lent him a monastic appearance, but his playful warmth and brilliant intelligence constantly animate him. An impish smile and easy laugh punctuate his almost every sentence.
Part of Castile-León, Spain’s largest autonomous region, DO Bierzo is more like “Green Spain” in climate and topology than Ribera del Duero or Toro. These regions of Castile feature a seemingly endless expanse of low-hilled landscape many shades of earthy brown, regularly broken up by páramos (flattened hilltops). The land seems to stretch forth inexorably, like an ocean. In contrast, Bierzo’s rolling hills are lush, verdant, and many shades of green. With some peaks over 900 meters elevation, Bierzo feels like an enchanted forest, a mystical place that holds hidden treasures.
Terroir in Bierzo
Minutes after meeting, we’re driving to Raúl’s countless small parcels. He points out his family’s vineyards near Valtuille, a place he considers Bierzo’s most important wine growing village. Of Bierzo’s total of around 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres), Valtuille has 600 (10%), all owned by family growers. Raúl’s family owns vines in a densely planted area around the village of Valtuille de Abajo, 14-15 hectares (about 38 acres) farmed by 300 growers. Each holding is a tiny parcel of a mere 3-4 rows. With incredible topography, the hillsides look like three massive, undulating ocean waves, but instead of sea foam, each is composed of vibrant, lime green vines.
Beyond one wave is an area that is part of the village of Villadecanes, and past another is Cacabelos. Each hillside’s numerous parcels contain different soil types, visible as vigorous dark, lighter clay, or compact light grey clay, respectively. Each parcel has a different exposure, maturation, harvest date and name. Vine vigor on the same hillside can vary from 20 to 10 bunches per vine. Raúl explains that the village of Corullón, where Alvaro Palacios and nephew Ricardo Perez have their bodega Descendientes de J. Palacios, has a more Mediterranean climate (relatively dry, warm), while this area is more Atlantic (wet, cold).
Raúl calls his mentor Alvaro Palacios “the most important person in this region” who changed the concept of winemaking in Bierzo. In 1999, Alvaro and Ricardo made their first Bierzo wines at Castro Ventosa, the winery owned by Raúl’s family. Alvaro stressed vineyard work and quality of the grapes. Before Alvaro, Bierzo had big companies who bought fruit from family growers and made bulk wines with little regard for viticulture. The concept of terroir-driven wines didn’t exist. From 1999-2001, numerous high profile projects were begun, and, today there are many styles of wine made in Bierzo. Raúl was winemaker at Castro Ventosa from 1993 until 2004, when he left to found his own winery, Bodegas y Viñedos Raul Pérez.
Retaining the vine’s genetic diversity
We visit the other parcel blended to make Raúl’s Ultreia de Valtuille, 115-year-old vines planted in a field blend, mostly Mencía, along with Doña Blanca, Godello, Sousón and Merenzao. Clay and sandy soils are typical of this area, called Villeras. To replant, Raúl does a careful selección masal, wherein a number of vines are taken from each parcel to retain the genetic diversity of the plants. He works the soil rather than use herbicides, the local tradition. Two parcels that cover 1.7 hectares (4.25 acres) produce grapes for 13-15 barrels. Low yields (2,000-2,500 kilos per hectare) result in 4,200 bottles for the world each vintage.
Past Ponferrada, near the village of San Esteban de los Barrios, twelve parcels cover three hectares (7.5 acres). Cooler conditions than Valtuille result in harvest three weeks later. One part has red clay, the other schist. Wild lavender grows here, but not in Valtuille. Two or three barrels come from 80-year-old vines at 800-900 meters elevation. Hard bedrock is under thin topsoil, as in Ribeira Sacra or Priorat. Raúl’s vines are small, with miniscule bunches and berries, while his neighbor’s vines have large bunches and big vegetation. “They’re only thinking about production, not quality,” he explains.
We spot a parcel with fractured stones, clay and big stones atop the hill, and Raúl exclaims, “This is my Ferrari. The most interesting part is the north-facing parcels with fresh winds. The other parcel is hot and the vines look different.” Fifty meters on, schist soils show a distinct aspect. “It’s very important to know the soils, we think about the parcels when we’re working in the winery. Here, I use 100% of the stems. I do long skin contact, macerations for two-three months. With the other parcel, I use 50% of stems with 30-35 days maceration. Here, I do pigeage (punching down) every day; the other one, I don’t intervene.” Brimming with birds, insects and scurrying rabbits, a fecund energy emanates from Raúl’s parcel while his neighbor’s appears dry and lifeless.
Tasting Raúl’s Local Wines
Like Picasso’s works, Raúl’s Bierzo wines are compelling, alluring and profound sensory and intellectual experiences. Made from two parcels, Ultreia de Valtuille shows complex mineral, spicy, crushed red fruit and forest floor aromas, with an array of violets, cured meat, licorice, camphor and earthy notes.
A blend of parcels, Ultreia St. Jacques has fresh, tart red and blue berry aromas that become linear, focused, mineral-inflected flavors that gain heft on the palate, with graphite, red currant and green leaf traces.
Also blended parcels, Vico exhibits spicy cherry pit, red currant and bitter cherry aromas before focused, chewy, structured palate flavors, with cassis notes.
Made from 100% Godello, Ultreia La Claudina’s explosive profusion of aromas show astounding minerality, with stone fruits, smoke and burned rope notes. This wine evokes the power and finesse of the legendary Grand Cru white Burgundies Montrachet and Batard Montrachet.
From a vineyard planted in 1901, Ultreia Cova de la Raposa has dark wild berry, Asian spice, incense and lavender aromas and flavors. From a 100% pizarra (slate) vineyard, Ultreia de Paluexas shows red and black berry, exotic spice and incense aromas and flavors, all underlined by intense, earthy minerality.
Chris Fleming is a journalist who has been published in The World of Fine Wine, The New York Times, The Wine Spectator and others. His “day job” is wine sales for importer Domenico Valentino Selections in New York. Recently, Chris earned WSET’s Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits. He has lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he has taught wine classes at some of New York’s premier culinary schools. Previously, Chris has worked for U.S. importers Kobrand Corp., Olé Imports and Frederick Wildman & Sons. In 2008, Chris was Technical Advisor on a DVD produced for the Vibrant Rioja campaign in the US by the Culinary Institute of America. This disk has been distributed in over twenty countries.