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going wild for spain's old vines

Last week, Alvaro Palacios impressed all with his charm and affability, over lunch at The Residence.

A son of the owners of Rioja's respected Palacios Remondo, Alvaro studied oenology in Bordeaux, while working under Jean-Pierre Moueix at the iconic Chateau Petrus. There, he developed his winemaking philosophy and skills. Petrus, Palacios confided, showed him the virtue of great wines and imbued him with the desire to make one.

He could have returned to the family domain, but he was drawn by his friend Rene Barbier to the remote Priorat region, 60 miles from Barcelona. Priorat was one of Spain's significant wine regions in the days before the phylloxera louse devastated Europe's vineyards, but had since fallen into neglect.

In Priorat, Barbier had found old vines planted on steep, sun-soaked terraces cradled in a terroir capable of making stellar red wine. Other friends were persuaded to invest. Barbier (Clos Mogador), Palacios (Finca Dofi and L'Ermita) together with Josep Lluis Perez (Mas Martinet), Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus) and Carles Pastrana (Clos de L'Obac), aka 'The Famous Five', made their first wine together, in 1989, at a rented winery.

The growing influence of US critics, led by Robert Parker who had a gra for wines with power and concentration, helped build the region's reputation and respect for Palacios' wines. He had acquired his first vineyard, Finca Dofi, in 1990.

Three years later, he located what is now regarded as the jewel in Priorat's crown, a precipitous, northeast-facing Garnacha vineyard on well-drained schist planted in the early years of the 20th century. Palacios named it L'Ermita, for the tiny chapel atop the slope.

While L'Ermita has received the bulk of the critical acclaim, he produces several other highly regarded wines. Finca Dofi from the original vineyard, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in proportions that vary from year to year. Like L'Ermita, Dofi combines power and richness with stunning elegance. Gratallops, from land around the town of the same name, is another stunner.


Les Terrasses, a favourite of mine, was originally conceived as a 'value' wine but its consistent excellence stimulated demand, won critical acclaim and elevated the wine to upmarket status.

Palacios had never wanted to be known solely for "trophy" wines, and with Camins del Priorat (above), he created a wine that is affordably priced, but which also bears the stamp of the philosophy developed in his time at Petrus; wine that is powerful but elegant, classical but approachable.

A blend of Samso (Carignan), Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah makes a worthy introduction to the wines of Alvaro Palacios. Priced around €18 from Jus de Vine, The GrapeVine (Glasnevin), Sweeneys, Hole in the Wall, Redmonds and other independents.