A Garnacha that’s redefining Rioja – and sells for as little as €10.99, $14.99 or £17.50. Above, Álvaro Palacios' La Montesa vineyard.
At a masterclass last week at 67 Pall Mall in London, Álvaro Palacios insisted, ‘I am not Mr Garnacha’. But it is hard not to think of him as such when tasting the latest vintages of Palacios Remondo, La Montesa Crianza Rioja.
Palacios (shown below) grew up in Rioja, where his family had run a winery, Palacios Remondo, since 1945. (See Luiz Gutiérrez’ guide to the Palacios family for its early history.) But in 1989, after spending some years criss-crossing Spain selling wine barrels, Palacios decided to settle in the warmer, sunnier climes of Priorat. There he turned his attention to the local Garnacha, bringing the variety a new degree of international respect and recognition with the wines he made at Finca Dofí and L’Ermita.
He did the same in Bierzo, where, with his nephew Ricardo Pérez, he began showing the world what could be done with the Mencía grape through the wines they made at Descendientes de J Palacios. (Read more about these wines in Andy Howard MW’s review of the 2022s.)
Since 2000 he has quietly been changing the face of Rioja, having taken charge of winemaking at his family’s estate. While Tempranillo has long been synonymous with Rioja, Palacios believes that the warmer, more gently rolling hills of Rioja Oriental, where his family’s vineyards are, are more adept at growing Garnacha. (Palacios Remondo is based in Alfaro, in the far east of La Rioja – see this map of the region.) His La Montesa Rioja suggests that he’s on to something, particularly when the Garnacha is planted in the region’s higher elevations.
I had heard and read about Palacios’ work in Rioja for quite some time, and when I finally had the opportunity to try a mini-vertical (2018–2021) of La Montesa at the masterclass last week, the wines surpassed all my expectations. In my explorations of Garnacha from various regions, from Spain to South Africa, Australia, the US and France, I’ve become increasingly enchanted by the versatility this grape variety offers, and here was yet more proof. Palacios’ winemaking style skilfully delivers layered flavours and aromas with finesse and charm, and the wine impressed me even more when I discovered the quite reasonable price.
The wines comes from the three named sites – Valtomelloso, Valfrío and Valviejo – in La Montesa, a vineyard at 550 m (1,800 ft) above sea level in the foothills of Mount Yerga. As you can see from the photo above and at top, the slope is quite gentle (10%) facing east and south-east. The soils are silty alluvial with a calcareous layer that keeps the soil temperature relatively cool despite the semi-arid Mediterranean climate. The vines are a mix of ages, most of them planted by Álvaro Palacios’ father from 1988 to 2001, with Valviejo added in 2011. They began transitioning to organic cultivation in 2004, going entirely organic in 2011 and gaining certification in 2017.
It is technically a field blend of 95% Garnacha Tinta and 5% other grape varieties traditional to the region, all picked by hand. Palacios used to destem the grapes but starting in 2020 he began including a portion of the stems in the ferment (20% in 2020, 50% in 2021). He ferments the fruit in stainless-steel vats with ambient yeasts, then transfers the wine after malolactic conversion is finished to oak barrels (80% French and 20% American; some new and some barrels up to 6 years old), where it rests for a year.
Of the four vintages I tasted, the 2019 was the one that really got me with the way it balanced its intense and expressive personality with fragrant charm – and it’s still widely available around the world, although in the US the importer, Taub Family Selections, has moved on to the 2020 vintage. That wine is earthier, almost Pinot-like in its structure and savoury complexity, the product of a more humid vintage. Watch for the 2021, which is yet to be officially released but promises in its stunning aromas and lovely complexity to be worth the wait.
The price is impressive, too: in Spain the 2018 can be had for as little as €10.99; in the UK, where it is imported by Bancroft Wines, prices start at £17.50. It is also available throughout Europe as well as Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Brazil, Canada and New Zealand.
Come back soon for Flor’s interview with Álvaro Palacios and his daughter Lola. Members can also access our tastings note database for reviews of more than 2,300 Rioja wines.