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2003 Descendientes de J. Palacios "Moncerbal," Bierzo, Spain

This is one of those wines that I live for. The kind that begins with an unknown bottle thrust in front of me by a friend with a twinkle in their eye, and ends with a profound memory of taste that becomes one of those moments that wine lovers cherish. Such wines are not common, at least not for me, but they are what keep me passionate about drinking and writing and enjoying the world of wine.

Occasionally still described by romanticizing writers as "off in a forgotten corner of moncerbal_03.jpgNorthwestern Spain," the winegrowing region of Bierzo can no longer be described as truly unknown. While it remains off the radar of most mainstream wine drinkers, this little appellation has gained some attention from wine lovers and wine critics in recent years thanks to a few spectacular wines some of which were made by, and all of which owe a debt of gratitude to a man named Alvaro Palacios.

Palacios is in his early forties, but he has dramatically shaped what we know as Spain's modern wine industry. The Palacios name has been associated with winemaking in Spain for several generations, and Alvaro eventually decided to continue the family tradition. He studied winemaking in France and went on to work at Chateau Pétrus with Jean-Pierre Moueix. But instead of returning to work on his family's estate in Rioja he traveled around Spain looking for places where he could make wines of the character and grace he had experienced in France.

Palacios eventually stumbled onto the disused Priorat region, which he singlehandedly proceeded to put on the map, both through evangelization and by example, with wines that have now become some of Spain's most sought after and most celebrated.

As if completely revitalizing one of Spain's historical winegrowing regions wasn't enough, Palacios went on to do it a second time with Bierzo. Known only 10 or 15 years ago for making fruity, innocuous wines of little consequence, Bierzo's valley floor vineyards were not of interest to Palacios. What caught his eye were incredibly steep schist and shale hillsides where select plantings of the local Mencia grape were still hanging on to life after more than a century.

The rocky soils of the region are apparently both very poor in nutrients, but also quite varied in their composition, especially on the steep hillsides around the town of Corullon. Reminded of the detailed variations in terroir he had observed in Burgundy and Piemonte, Palacios decided this region held the promise he was looking for. Just as he did in Priorat, though this time with his nephew Ricardo Perez, Palacios has snapped up several ancient vineyard sites and transformed them into something magical. The diminutive, scraggly vines, eking out an existence on hillsides of almost solid rock, yield very little fruit, but what they do give under the patient hands of Palacios and Perez is nothing short of astonishing.

Named after Palacios' father and Perez's grandfather, Descendientes de Jose Palacios makes an entry level wine named Petales, as well as its flagship bottling known as Villa de Corullon. In addition, however, the winery makes 4 single-vineyard bottlings from the oldest, most extreme vineyard sites around the town. These are named Las Lamas, San Martin, Faraona, and Moncerbal. The winery produces very little wine to begin with, and these single vineyard bottlings are made in even more minute quantities, somewhere between 200 and 400 cases apiece.

The Moncerbal vineyard is a step schist hillside about 2200 feet above sea level. The vines average 80 to 100 years in age and produce less than one ton of fruit per acre. Despite these somewhat austere conditions, Palacios and Perez farm the vineyard Biodynamically. All work in the vineyard has to be done by hand, with occasional assistance by a mule.

The wine is made just as manually, with hand harvesting and hand destemming. The grapes ferment using native yeasts as gently and as long as they need to. After fermentation the wine ages in 100% new French oak barrels and is bottled without fining or filtration.

This is one of the most unique and impressive wines I have had from Spain, and certainly the best from this appellation I have ever tasted. If you can manage to get your hands on a bottle, I highly recommend it.

Tasting Notes:
Opaque, inky ruby in the glass, this wine has a stunning nose of wet stones, black pepper, black cherry, and a vague pruney / leathery quality that emerges with some time. In the mouth it is nothing short of astonishing for reasons that are difficult to describe. This wine offers a mysterious dichotomy between what can only be described as liquified rocks -- an earthy mineral backbone that takes the breath away -- and a very thick, ripe, black cherry and plum fruit that avoids all trace of sweetness. These flavors actually taste more like the skins of these fruits than the flesh, and the impression of tartness is aided by a remarkable acidity given the ripeness that the fruit must have actually achieved (this was, after all, the year of the deadly heatwave). Overall this wine ripples with muscled power, its tannins glassy-smooth and incredibly sculpted. The finish is minutes long, and resonates with both sides of this wine's personality -- wet stones, and dried cherries. Outstanding.

Food Pairing:
I had this with a pasta in a wild boar ragu, but frankly it would have been better with wild boar morcilla.

Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10

How Much?: $85

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

Comments (12)

Aaron wrote:
11.18.09 at 7:48 AM

I have always found anything made by Palacios to be reliable at a minimum. Some of his wines are truly magical. It sounds like you may have found another one to be added to the "magical" list.

Adam LaPierre wrote:
11.18.09 at 3:57 PM

Alder, for some reason our tastings have been closely in sync lately. You seem to be posting about wines just as I am being exposed to them myself. I just returned from Spain and had the opportunity to taste the Villa de Corullon, whose identity I completely fumbled when served blind! In any event, it was a stunning wine and a real eye opener with regards to the potential of Mencia. Cheers!

Mark wrote:
11.18.09 at 3:59 PM

Palacios certainly has a history behind him and as I've found those types of histories also come with the right connections to build another quality organization, no matter if they are sourcing grapes or growing them on site with the best farmers in the industry.

Great Spanish bottles are always rare finds for me here in San Diego as we are dominated by the Chile and Australia imports.

Georgia wrote:
11.18.09 at 4:16 PM

V. evocative tasting notes, especially:

"This wine offers a mysterious dichotomy between what can only be described as liquified rocks -- an earthy mineral backbone that takes the breath away -- and a very thick, ripe, black cherry and plum fruit that avoids all trace of sweetness."

Josh wrote:
11.19.09 at 11:39 AM

I just found your blog on the corner of the internet - one of the most complete and educational pieces from a true professional. I can almost taste what you're writing about. I love the flow of your writing and tasting notes too.

Louis wrote:
11.20.09 at 9:12 AM

I have found a few Spanish wines that my wife and I enjoy from time to time. I too have just found your blog on the net. You have a very good and educated take on vino.

Grape wrote:
11.20.09 at 2:16 PM

I love drinking good wine. It can make an event more beautiful. The gesture itself is a symbol. But, as any other drink, its quality is determined by the grapes used, and the method also.

Michael Havens wrote:
11.29.09 at 11:40 PM

Alder, full agreement on the greatness of Moncerbal (and the other single-vineyard wines here). These are incredible vineyards: one samples them with three-point climbing (as I know from practice). Harvest is a feat of acrobatics. Saving these vineyards from obscurity ranks with finding the tombs of the Pharaohs.

Only this caveat: this wine is truly the genius of the young Ricardo Palacios, the true jefe (auteur) of the J. Palacios wines in Bierzo. Alvaro is without question a key part of this project, but Ricardo has executed it all. Do not fail to give credit to this new Spanish master, Ricardo Perez Palacios.

Louis wrote:
12.26.10 at 7:31 AM

Villa Corullon, it's an excellent wine from El Bierzo, they do a marvelous work with Mencía and it's price very good. The best wine yards from Valtuille to elaborate this wine, very old grapes more than 100 years old.

EF wrote:
04.15.11 at 6:17 AM

You are lucky to have found the Moncerbal! I bought a bunch of the 2000 Corullon and have enjoyed [savored] each and every bottle -- and really enjoy serving it blind to friends as a way of introducing them to Mencia. Between these wines in Bierzo and Clos Mogador, Finca Dofi and L'Ermita in Priorato -- Alvaro is a GOD.

Leon wrote:
07.29.12 at 2:16 PM

Descendientes de J. Palacios "Moncerbal" 2005 is still an absolutely amazing wine. High price but really fantastic wine.

vino wrote:
11.27.12 at 7:46 AM

it´s a excellent wine I bought a bottle and I like it

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