Summer's 2019 wine route through Spain and Portugal was all about increasing my familiarity with producers I've been enamored with for a long time. Of course, traversing three weeks through land steeped in such rich history is going to also provide some revelations. In all, there was no single introduction to a wine that made things stand still like they did one night at the must-visit Mesón A Curva restaurant in Galicia when their owner blind-poured a glass. The reveal: a joint project between Rodrigo Mendez & a guy you may have heard of named Raul Perez, their Forjas del Salnes Rias Baixas Albariño.
Less than 1,000 bottles were produced of the 2013 Leirana. Like production numbers may lead you to believe, this is as unique and singular a wine as I've ever had from Galicia. Val do Salnes, the birthplace of Albariño is the coolest of the five subzones of Rias Baixas. With average temperatures here of 60 degrees between April and October, one would expect these Albariños on pure granite to showcase the most heightened sense of tension and salinity. But, the most profound trait in Leirana is centered around multi-layered textures and that ultimate elusive chase to find density without weight.
Rodrigo and Raul approached this micro-production cuvée with an eye on deep experimentation. This particular parcel of 1954-1964-planted Albariño vines comes from an incredibly sandy section over granite. This cuvée is only produced in cool growing seasons. Grapes see partial skin-contact fermentation, with malolactic blocked to preserve the verve that's so indicative of these sandy soils that mirror a beach setting. A single foudre is used for fermentation, and wine is aged in stainless steel for six years prior to bottling.
The orchard fruit tones of Albariño veers heavily into the under-ripe white pear register, with Meyer lemon and orange peel building a greater presence on the mid-palate. The real magic of Leirana comes in the beautifully incisive finish that simultaneously embodies a more rounded frame of acidity that's, at once, mouth-watering in its freshness, but with driving waves of layered complexity that continue to change and linger long after swallowing.
Galician winemakers are more focused than ever before on wines that compel with their levity instead of power. Leirana strikes me as the one project that's found a way to instill both of these virtues with a balance that inhibits any one descriptor from standing front-and-center. If Grand Cru white Burgundy perhaps exemplifies this balancing act the very best, I'd highly suggest you get acquainted with north-west Spain's boldest feat.
"This is Volnay meets Cote de Brouilly—super fresh, focused, with red fruits and wild aromatics of flowers and herbs." — José Pastor, Importer
After weeks on the road covering nearly every corner of Spain, I walked away with a lot of epiphanies, but none surpassed the thrill I had during my introduction to Alberto Nanclares. His traditional pergola-trained Albariños from Cambados, the seaside village with vines just meters from the Atlantic, marked a massive shift in my understanding of what descriptors like crystalline and acid-driven can truly mean in the context of Spanish white wine.
Today, I'm happy to offer Alberto Nanclares' 2018 Rias Baixas Albariño.
Legendary Spanish importer, José Pastor, has been the gateway to so many new Spanish discoveries, like Envínate and Luis Rodriguez, to name a couple. Nanclares follows a philosophy in the vines and the cellar that Pastor has used as his foundation in building such a critical and impressive portfolio of ultra-attentive, thoughtful growers-producers.
In 1992, Alberto Nanclares and his wife chose to leave their native Basque country and settle in this extreme Atlantic Ocean setting in the beautifully green and lush northwest Galicia region. Organic viticulture is no easy task in Rias Baixas, as the high humidity and constant rainfall have meant conventional farming with chemicals, and extremely high yields are the overwhelming norm. There was a gradual shift over the years for Nanclares to get his parcels farmed the right way, through painstaking labor.
If you, like me, put Roulot's Meursault at the top of your wish list, you will be pleasantly surprised by what you'll find from this naturalist in the most historic and traditional village of Rias Baixas. Like Roulot's Meursault, "Nanclares" wows the senses with that unmistakable mineral spring-like purity and acid-driven frame that levitates on the palate. This parcel of granite bedrock with sandy topsoil captures the very most ocean-influenced personality of Albariño, with white peach and white flowers melding with faint almond notes on the finish. Aging in a combination of older French tina barrels and stainless steel.
La Tinaja de Aranzazu is sourced from a west-facing parcel of 30-plus-yr-old Albariño vines located in the village of Meaño - here, on sandy granitic soil next to Nanclares' home. Fermented in a single tinaja (amphora) with aging on fine lees for 9 months. A more textural style to pair with the celebrated, rich seafood of Galicia.
Minato da Rana Tinto is sourced from a very steep vineyard of 100-plus-yr-old-vines planted on granite at 600 meters. 60% Mencía, 30% Garnacha Tintorera, with 10% Godello & Palomino. Whole cluster fermented in 600L open-top wood fermenters for 20 days. Then to 500L French barrels for malolactic and 9 months aging.
Touring with the team at Bodegas Raul Perez was the ultimate masterclass on Bierzo terroir. I had never before witnessed such a diverse range of soils and grape varieties under one person's hands. Finishing the day at both of Raul's cellars and tasting each of the parcels we visited was an unbelievable experience. Walking away I was left in total awe of his execution from a vision he had many years ago to work with only the oldest vineyards and immediately shift to the most fastidious organic viticulture.
The arrival of the Raul Perez wines into the US have garnered a lot of attention. Although offers in the past past have been wildly popular, things have changed a bit for the new release of both his whites and reds from Bierzo.
The California allocation sold out in less than a few hours, and today I'm happy to provide the full range that has now arrived to us directly from Perez's U.S. importer's New York warehouse. Wines are all ready to ship now. With the Wine Advocate's Luis Gutiérrez fanning the flame on the first release of these new wines, the quantities are again very limited.
Today, I'm happy to offer the game-changing wines of Bierzo's Raul Perez, covering old vine Mencia, Bastardo, Alicante Bouchet, Godello, and Albarińo.
Perez's natural focus endow his wines with an authenticity that's impossible to miss. As much as he follows the historic path of his ancestors (no herbicides, pesticides, or additives of any kind in the cellar), he's made waves with his 100% whole cluster fermentations and extra long macerations on skins. Raul completely redefines what Mencia is capable of in Bierzo. And, for his whites, he now owns the mineral-driven category within Spain, showing depth and the nuance I've come to expect from elite Chablis and Côte de Beaune Chardonnay.
Tempering the impact of the heat and sun has always been the area of largest concern in the more continental Spanish zones. Working with high elevation vineyards and old vines is not enough to ensure grace, subtlety, and lift are the overriding characteristics when the wine is finally poured. It's the attentive, thoughtful approach to viticulture and minimal intervention in the cellar that Perez has come to trust as the root of success. In doing so, he's become recognized only recently as a master of his craft.
In 2014 Raul Perez was named best winemaker in the world from the German publication, Der Feinschmecke. And in 2015 the same honor was bestowed by France's Bettane & Desseauve. And just last week Decanter magazine asked, "is this the world's best winemaker?"
Ultreia Saint Jacques is sourced from 5 hectares Mencia vines planted between 1900-1940 on clay soils. Supplemented by small portions of Bastardo (Trousseau) and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouchet). Macerations go as far as 2-5 months. Aged in older wood ranging in sizes: 225L, 500L, foudre, and cement.
Ultreia Tinto is sourced from 3 hectares of mainly Mencia planted in two villages, one on clay and the other on slate. Supplemented by small portions of Bastardo (Trousseau), Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouchet). Doña Blanco, and Palomino. Aging in neutral 228-liter barrels.
Ultreia Godello is sourced from vines throughout Raul's village of Valtuille de Abajo, planted on clay and alluvial stones. Fermented and aged in neutral foudre.
Ultreia La Claudrina comes from a 0.3 hecatre parcel of Godello planted on sandy soils in Valtuille de Abajo. Fermented in one 1,500L foudre and aged for 1-2 years under flor, which develops starting in the spring after harvest.
Atalier comes from two parcels of own-rooted, pre-phylloxera Albariño vines in the Cambados area of the Salnés valley, located in the southern portion on the northwest tip of Spain. Blocked malo and aged in large neutral foudre.
Encinas is an exciting joint venture between Raul Perez and Crozes-Hermitage's Antoine Graillot. Because Mencia amd Syrah share similar qualities, the plan here was to incorporate Antoine's cement fermentation protocol working with the Bierzo terroir. Interestingly, Mencia was a little more reductive than Syrah on first go around, and so in this 2nd vintage the decision was made to move the wine to large neutral wood after initial fermentation and aging in cement.
La Vitoriana comes from a 1.8 hectare vineyard of the same name, planted with Mencia in 1890 on a mix of sand (upper slope) and clay (bottom slope). Supplemented by small portions of Bastardo (Trousseau) and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouchet) and Doña Blanca and Palomino. Whole cluster fermented in large oak vats, followed by a 60-90 day maceration, then one year of aging in neutral 225 and 500L barrels.
El Rapolao comes from a 1.5ha plot of Mencia with small amounts of Bastardo (Trousseau) and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouchet) planted on clay at 550m elevation. Whole cluster fermented and aged for one year in neutral 500l barrels.
La del Vivo comes from 1.5 hectares - a mix Godello and Doña Blanca from two vineyards, La Poulosa (1940, clay) and Las Villegas (1925, sand). 80% of grapes are pressed and fermented in 500 and 700-L neutral barrels. The remaining 20% of grapes ferment on their skins in clay amphorae and remains untouched for one year. The two parts are then blended together and bottled.
Ultreia de Valtuille is sourced from 1.7 hectares of vines planted in the late 1800's. Sitting at nearly 600 meters above sea level on sandy soils these old vines produce what comes across as Raul's most delicate and deeply layered wine. Incredible concentration is met with finesse and a cool-fruit quality that sandy soils are often associated with.Maceration can go as long as 90 days on skins, and aging also is in neutral French barrels. Here the blend is almost identical to the above, but tiny amounts of Godello has replaced Palomino.
This summer's trip to Spain and Portugal was nothing short of epic. The goal was simple: to get ultra-intimate and familiar with the people and places that have awoken me to the new potential here. Select wineries from both countries are emphasizing a greater focus on freshness, site-specificity, and restraint. It truly felt like a small-scale renaissance as I visited my top producers over three weeks in nearly every pocket of the Iberian Peninsula. When it came time to decide where to start with my first offer from the trip, the choice was clear.
It would be unfair in telling you to stop being surprised by Raul Perez releases, as I'm continually left dumbstruck. For the life of me, I don't understand how one producer can redefine the Spanish white wine category across a spectrum of regions and varieties. His most elusive (and monumental) wine is simply known as Sketch - an Albariño sourced from a 0.5 hectare parcel of old vines in Rias Baixas. At $100+ per bottle it's worth its weight in gold, but upon release, rumors swirled in New York that his "other" Albariño was going to be the proverbial mic drop moment for the variety.
At $28 per bottle, I'm happy to offer Raul Perez's new release, the 2018 "Atalier" Rias Baixas Albariño, sourced from un-grafted and pre-phylloxera vines.
No reason to mince words, the 2016 release of Atalier was the most requested wine I've ever offered. Sadly, the majority of requests were not able to be met due to limited availability of the wine in California. Today, I've made sure that does not happen again.
Atalier comes from two parcels of Albariño vines in the Cambados area of the Salnés valley, located in the southern portion on the northwest tip of Spain. As Raul's greatest influence is top white Burgundy he takes every step possible preserve cut and delineation in Albariño while also pushing for maximum ripeness and flavor development. All easier said than done. The key steps are harvesting very late and then blocking malolactic fermentation - this allows for superb ripeness, but eliminates the more viscous and creamy elements of Albariño that don't appeal to him (or us!). Aging is in older French foudre, the large format both working to preserve tension while providing some oxygen exchange to soften texture.
Salinity and white peach are apt descriptors for Albariño from the extreme coastal vineyards of Rias Baixas. In the case of Atelier these tell-tale notes are met with oyster shell, lychee, ginger, almonds, and white flowers. And that driving sense of salinity and sea breeze is captured brilliantly in the long finish.
Raul completely redefines what a mineral-driven Spanish white is capable of, showing depth and the nuance I've come to expect from elite Chablis and Côte de Beaune Chardonnay. In 2014 Raul Perez was named best winemaker in the world from the German publication, Der Feinschmecke. And in 2015 the same honor was bestowed by France's Bettane & Desseauve.
Much like the Bourgogne Blanc cuvées from Roulot, Vincent Dancer, and Pierre Yves Colin-Morey, Raul Perez's Atalier simply over-delivers is a big way. Finding Spanish whites that harness all of the inherent richness of the sun-soaked terrain is no tall task, but revealing them in a frame where harmony and balance steal the show is something entirely unique to this man.