Spain could have lost a champion bullfighter — that was Alvaro Palacios’ childhood ambition — but never mind that. What the country has today is a wine revolutionary of a son, one of the most prominent personalities in the history of Spanish vines.
Straight-talking Palacios, who hails from a centuries-old winemaking family, always had his own ideas and dared to take on new challenges. He bought his first vineyard in 1989, not in the familiar grounds of Rioja where he grew up but some 300km away in Priorat (home also to Palacios’ now-revered L’Ermita). A decade later, he tackled Bierzo with his nephew Richardo. Only when his father José passed on in 2000, did the seventh child in a family of three girls and six boys assume management of the family bodega and secure a foothold in Rioja.
In town last month for the Singapore leg of the Vintners’ Tour 2012, the 48-year-old shared with Quotient TravelPlanner his winemaking adventure and love for wines.
You come from a family with a very long history of winemaking. How did that impact your personal wine journey?
I was born in the vineyard and spent all my life breathing wine. My father would make us work when we were young — when we were on holiday… after school. In the end you have these kinds of references — in your soul, in your senses.
I knew the flavours in the grapes when I was very young… since I started knowing about life… three, four or five years old. Those flavours, the aromas when tasting the wines… all these internal references help a lot, give a lot of security.
You bought your first bodega in 1989, when you were 25, and it’s been more than two decades since you’ve been a winemaker. What’s your most memorable moment as a winemaker?
Every day is memorable because there are things to discover and try to make better.
They gave me a special prize once; my father and mother went with me to Barcelona. That was memorable — to have the appreciation of my parents before my father died.
Do you feel Spanish wines are behind, compared to French and Italian labels?
Yes, very much behind. We need more time to develop the brand of Spain. The French were here (in Asia) first; even Australia and New Zealand wines are more important than Spain’s, even though Spain is a much older wine country. It is what it is. We didn’t travel as much as they did.
But the quality [of Spanish wines] is amazing. Of course we don’t have many, many Grand Crus like in France… I’m one of those who’s creating Grand Crus, that’s why I left home… to rescue some really great vineyards that were being forgotten. It’s just that the 20th century really seemed like a period of isolation. But Spanish wine is coming of age. I’ve been travelling to Asia probably since eight years ago… things move very, very slowly… small quantities… it’s difficult. For instance in Thailand, you see how the French and Italians sell — because there are a lot of Italian restaurants — whereas wines from Spain… slowly, slowly. Nobody knows. But right now, it’s more promising. There are now more Spanish restaurants in Singapore which are very modern and more contemporary, that’s going to help a lot.
Is it a culture issue? That Spanish winemakers are more reserved and shy?
They are shy, lazy or… (shrugs). Now with the crisis it’s changing. Everybody’s broadening their outlook, becoming more creative and risky. This crisis has been very good.
Since I was young I wanted to communicate Spain to all over the world — with my wines, with others’ wines. This sort of thinking, not many have. Only the big wineries have an export manager. But it’s changing… nobody speaks good English in Spain — most in my generation speak worse than me, or none at all. Now, the younger ones are very different.
What is the key ingredient to being a successful winemaker?
Passion. You need good vintners, you need a good place, you need good vision. And then to work correctly, well. Passion is the agent that moves everything.
Tell us your favourite wine.
I like drinking wines very much. It’s true that I only drink high-end wines… very, very classic wines from the old world namely from France and Italy. Whites from Germany only from very special (chuckles) sites. And a lot. Since the last two, three years, I’ve drunk too much Burgundy. Before that, it was right bank Bordeaux, now it’s a lot of Burgundy, Chateau du Pepe… Piedmont, old Barolos. Hmmm, old Barolos… leave them 20 years and they become silky and mysterious — really, really magical. And, of course, a lot of champagne.
What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?
Diving, and everything around diving. Depends on the time of the year. Actually, I’d like to go to an undiscovered paradise.
We have had the driest year this year in Spain. I was thinking about spending four or five days in my little cottage in Rioja — I have my horses, I have sheep — and hopefully it will rain for five days.
That, or an undiscovered paradise.