Rafael Palacios does not need any introduction among Spanish wine lovers. Considered to be among the best white wine makers in the whole of Spain, if not the best, he began his new wine project in Valdeorras in 2004 using the Godello grape which is an indigenous white grape variety of the Valdeorras region of Galicia.
The Godello grape is a stunning variety that has been rescued and is now attracting a lot of attention. Rafael Palacios recognised the grapes’ potential has been making wines which are the perfect expression of the quality of this grape variety.
I met Rafael last weekend at a wine tasting organised by Belgian importer La Buena Vida and asked him what it means to be the ‘best’ white winemaker in Spain. “That’s a very big statement,” he tells me. “I am very happy to work with the Godello grape and I am extremely happy and proud that I have found my passion. That is important and that motivates me to continue to work to make better wines.”
Rafael is the youngest brother of Alvara Palacios, famous for his Priorat wines. His L’Ermita wine is widely considered to be the most important Spanish wine of the modern era. “When my father died in 2000, my brother returned to the winery. After four years, I discussed with my mother and said that it was now the time to leave the winery in the hands of my brother. At the time I was the technical director of the winery.”
Rafael was always working on white wines but he knew that he could get the best out of the grapes and terroir of the Galician region. It was for this reason that he started the Rafael Palacios project. “I moved to the region in 2003 which was a very difficult year. It was incredibly hot that year and the grapes suffered so I decided to look for vineyards on the highest altitudes in the area. My family moved with me in 2004 and I started to buy medium to old vineyards because my intention was to start with premium wines. I came from a famous wine family so I needed to have excellent terroir,” he told me.
Rafael makes three white wines, the O Bolo, the Louro and the As Sortes. It is a relatively small winery making less than 200,000 bottles of white wine.
He likes to describe his wines as having a deep body and being gastronomic wines to be enjoyed with food.
In 2004, he started to purchase old Godello vineyards from old local growers. His experience for the region led him to buy and restore old vineyards in the Bibei Valley, in the municipality of O Bolo, the name of his entry level wine.
The vineyards are located in the western part of the Valdeorras region, on the right bank of the Bibei River at altitudes between 600 and 740 metres. The sandy soils are very distinct.
The winery owns 24.3 hectares of vineyards consisting of 26 different parcels all planted with the native white Godello grape. The vines are between 18 and 94 years old.
Since the vineyards are cultivated on terraced slopes supported by fragile granite walls, the work in the vineyard requires the use of specially adapted light-weight machinery. At the same time, Rafael is convinced of the quality of the vineyards. He tells me that he does not use any pesticides in his vineyards because for him the expression of the terroir is essential.
“You asked me about being the best white wine maker in Spain. For me the success of our project is based on the fact that we are the only project in Spain currently focused on producing terroir white wine,” Rafael tells me.
Does he have other plans? “For me this is the best project. It is my project to have top wines which can be enjoyed by people who love wine. And they can also be found in some of the best restaurants in the world. I want my wines to reflect the terroir, parcel by parcel,” he tells me.
We try the Bolo 2014 wine (which was bottled a few weeks ago) first. The vines for this wine are 10-21 years old. For this wine, he gets some grapes from associated growers that have a long term relationship with the winery. This area is the highest altitude in the Valdeorras appellation, close to 800 metres high and the soils are of sandy granitic origin. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and then is allowed to mature in stainless steel tanks before being bottled in January/February.
The wine is incredible fresh and fragrant with a beautiful nose. The palate is round and creamy and fruity. The quality of the wine is stunning for its price. You can find this wine for around €10.50.
We then try the Louro 2014. This wine is made from Rafael’s own vineyards and from controlled wine growers. The fermentation takes place in 3,000 litres French oak from Normandy forests. “We use the oak to give the wine oxygen rather than to make it oaky or smokey.”
The wine is again exceptional value for money. It is more complex than the O Bolo wine though it has the same characteristic. But on the nose, you get more complex notes while the balance for such a young wine is exceptional. Again the quality/price ratio is excellent. This wine retails for around € 15.95.
We finish off with the As Sortes, There is a history to the name of the wine. The very rigid topography and low fertility of the soil had led to the almost complete abandonment of the terraced vineyards in this tiny but historically important area. The predominance of small plot vineyards was the result of inheritances drawn by lot often out of a hat, called “Sorte” in Galician. This old tradition became the inspiration for the name of the top wine “As Sortes”.
The wine is made from the oldest vines in the property, vineyards which are found at the highest altitude and on the North face of Bibei’s Valley in the municipality of O Bolo. The Godello vines are between 39 and 94 years old and were bought by Rafael between 2004 and 2007. In 2007, Rafael acquired the “Sorte Antiga” parcel which was plated in 1920 after the phylloxera louse. The soil is decomposed grantic sands with very low fertility and yields but which produce wines with very strong terroir expressiveness and personality.
The wine has a great aromatic intensity on the nose with a very attractive mineral edge. It is extremely well balanced despite its ageing potential. It has an extremely long finish. At around € 36 this is not a cheap wine but it has incredible ageing potential and can compete with Burgundy’s best.
If you love white wines, this is really a winery to note and remember.