Any profile of Rafael Palacios inevitably leads to his family history. While being a scion of a famous winemaking family […]Keep Reading
Any profile of Rafael Palacios inevitably leads to his family history. While being a scion of a famous winemaking family in Spain is an excellent way to get attention, it makes Rafa’s hard work and achievements seem fated or predetermined. If one were asked to rank the indispensable white wines from the old world, there would be very few on the list originating below 45º in latitude. Yet, only after a decade in Valdeorras, it is becoming apparent that Rafa can make wines from warmer climes that have the potential to rival Hermitage Blanc, Corton-Charlemagne, the Mosel, or the Wachau.
As quaffable and enjoyable as Godello can be from Valdeorras, it rarely reaches the level of richness, balance, and complexity as it does in Rafael Palacios’s hands. Having left his family’s estate in Rioja in 2004, Rafa settled in the Val do Bibei, a rugged, weathered, and off-the-beaten-path sub-zone of Valdeorras. Bordering Ribera Sacra, the Val do Bibei is a tortured landscape of granitic, terraced slopes dotted with hard-to-reach and hard-to-farm vineyard plots. Whereas most of the rest of the DO is at a lower elevation with limestone and schist soils, Rafa works exclusively with Godello planted on granitic soils at much higher elevations – so high that late Spring snow and frost are ever-present dangers to his already low yields. Locally these plots are known as sorte, a word in the local dialect that refers to the regional practice of drawing lots to determine inheritance. Rafa has assembled 24.5 hectares of vines divided among 32 sorte. Some plots he owns outright, while others are on a long-term lease. The oldest vines, some nearing a century, are head pruned while the younger vines on more gentle slopes are trellised. The farming is minimalist since the sub-zone is blessed with free-draining soils and warm, dry summers. All the vineyard work is done by hand, including harvesting.
Each vintage, Rafa makes two cuvées from the sandy, granitic soils of the Val do Bibei: Louro and As Sortes. When conditions are right, he will also make three single-vineyard bottlings: Sorte Antiga, Sorte Souto, and Sorte O Soro.
Louro is crafted from younger vines but carefully selected from plots that produce age-worthy wines. Fermented with indigenous yeast and aged on its lees in neutral 30HL French oak foudres, Louro showcases Rafa’s talent at balancing the grape’s minerality with the richness and texture of the elevage. Up to 10% of the blend in Louro will be Treixadura, a variety that can be found co-planted in Rafa’s sortes.
As Sortes takes the selection process one step further by employing grapes from vines between 35 and 92 years old from sortes situated in a natural amphitheater, fermenting them with indigenous yeasts and aging them in 500-liter French oak barrels. For many years this was the benchmark wine of Valdeorras (and arguably Spain’s premier white wine) until it was unseated by Rafa’s newest cuvées, Sorte Antiga, Sorte Souto, and Sorte O Soro.
Sorte Antiga comes from Rafa’s oldest vineyard plot. These vines are nearing 100 years old, and Rafa has noticed something peculiar about this site that warrants a separate bottling when the vintage conditions are right. Godello has small berries and thick skins that ripen late in the season and usually after the rest of the grape reaches maturity. Whether it is the vines’ age, the massale selection, or its specific terroir, Antiga’s grapes tend to ripen completely and evenly. As a result, this cuvée is fermented on its skins and only pressed after the primary fermentation.
Sorte Souto comes from a tiny 0.58ha parcel of vines planted in a small hollow and surrounded by chestnut trees. It only sees a few hours of direct sunlight each summer, so the grapes do not ripen until well into October, if not the first few weeks of November. This late harvest wine is fermented separately from Rafa’s other cuvées because the indigenous yeasts from this site are inefficient. The fermentation stops naturally around 11º resulting in a style of wine not dissimilar to a fruity Kabinett or rich Spätlese.
Sorte O Soro is the culmination of Rafa’s pioneering work in the Val do Bibei. Originating from a single .47 hectare plot of 40-year-old vines and farmed biodynamically, Sorte O Soro is the Les Clos or the Clos Ste Hune of Valdeorras. A natural yeast fermentation is followed by aging for 7 months in new 500 L French oak barrels. When tasting the 2011 Sorte O Soro, Luis Gutierrez called it “one of the most exciting whites currently produced in the country.”Close