Spanish white wine. What does this say to you? I go right back to memories of a bright yellow syrup, heavily sulphured to stop it refermenting, that was sold as “Spanish Sauternes” in the late 1960s. Fast forward to the late 1970s and 1980s when a few fresh, crisp, if slightly neutral dry whites started to emerge from Spain. One notable early example was Torres’ Catalan Viña Sol and it’s still going strong.
In the 1990s, racy, dry whites made from Albariño grapes grown in Rías Baixas on the north-western coast of Spain became increasingly fashionable, first in Spain and then abroad. The tart, rather Sauvignon Blanc-like whites of Rueda followed, many of them made from the local Verdejo grape. But I have a new enthusiasm – complete, beautifully balanced fine whites from the local Godello grape grown inland of Rías Baixas, particularly in its homeland, Valdeorras. These are dry, dense wines that have both fruit and acidity and can improve in bottle for many years. In the 1970s, the variety was almost extinct, so there are few really old vines. However, cuttings were taken from such vines as remained by locals including, most notably, Horacio Fernández, and the first varietal Godello wine of the modern era was released only in the mid-1980s by the local Godeval co-op.
The biggest private owner of Godello vineyards is probably the family company, Valdesil. They used to be big landowners but ceded many vineyards and then bought them back once they opened their own Valdeorras winery in the early 1990s. Today, Guillermo Prada of Valdesil and family own about 50 hectares, all in small lots. As throughout Galicia, there is a tradition of keeping small plots which may be allocated on the owner’s death by family members drawing lots (or sorte in Galician) from a hat.
Valdesil make Godellos at four different quality levels. The basic Montenovo is made in tank without much fuss, whereas the Valdesil Sobre Lías has a deeper flavour, thanks to being enriched by prolonged lees contact. Pezas da Portela and, from the oldest vines of all, Pedrouzos, are single vineyard wines.
Such is the quality of this rescued grape variety, it has attracted significant attention. Spain’s most prominent flying winemaker, Telmo Rodríguez, produces his version, Gaba do Xil, named after the river Sil on whose banks many Godello vineyards are located.
Perhaps the most high-profile incomer has been Rafael Palacios, 41, youngest brother of Alvaro Palacios, who put the equally steep and mineral-laden vineyards of Priorat in Catalunya on the map in the 1990s with his stratospherically priced single vineyard, L’Ermita. With his nephew, Ricardo Perez Palacios, Alvaro has developed the admirable Descendientes de J Palacios, named after his father and Ricardo’s grandfather, which makes fine, terroir-influenced reds from the local Mencia grape in Bierzo, just east of Valdeorras.
The Palacios family’s original winery is Palacios Remondo in what was the unfashionable lowest, warmest part of Rioja, Rioja Baja, where Alvaro is now making delicious reds from the local Garnacha grape. Unsurprisingly, after wine studies in France and experience in Australia, Rafael (Rafa) came back to the family Rioja estate in 1994. He found himself fascinated by white wine production. The Placet white rioja he launched in 1997, three years before his father died, signalled a sea change in the reputation of this wine style.
At about the same time, he first encountered a Guitán Valdeorras at a wine show in Madrid. “I found Atlantic influence, minerality, volume and real character – more depth than other local grapes such as Treixadura,” Rafa told me. He started off working with Valdesil but by 2004 had begun to buy little plots of well-situated vines and launched his own Godello called As Sortes (with a nod to the hat-drawn lots). I was so impressed, I included it in a 2006 tasting I was asked to organise to demonstrate the new Spanish wines to the British wine trade.
Today, Rafa Palacios owns 22.5 hectares (note that half) of vineyards in 26 different plots of Godello vines between 17 and 92 years old on granite (in preference to the limestone and schist that dominates much of Valdeorras), with heavy, sandy topsoils mainly of quartz and mica. However, the distinguishing feature of Rafael Palacios Valdeorras is not just the vineyards so painstakingly acquired, but the maniacal gleam in his eye which translates into almost obsessive winemaking detail.
His basic Bolo wines, named after a local village, may be made in stainless steel using selected yeast (he is wary of the WAM yeast currently sold to many Spanish white wine producers), but even the Louro bottling, which can be found for less than £15 a bottle in the UK, is fermented in special 3,000-litre foudres (“round not oval because it means the lees are not as deep”) made from Norman oak (“it is unusually neutral because Normandy is so cold and the wide grain means it is not so oxidative”). Then each of the 500-litre barrels in which his top wines are made has an individual, water-cooling system and computer-controlled thermostat.
Over dinner at Lutyens, organised by UK importer and Spanish specialist Indigo Wine, Rafa showed the 2011 vintage of each Bolo – Louro do Bolo, As Sortes, Sorte O Soro from the first vineyard he bought, and even a late harvest medium-sweet wine from the 43-year-old vines in the Sorte dos Santos vineyard. We also saw the 2009, 2007, and 2005 As Sortes that is just coming into its own. The sheer class of the 2011 vintage was clear (2010 was a bit too cool). I urge you to buy some. There is no hurry to drink it.
My only criticism is that all these wines are very good and differ less in quality than in price – but that could easily be said to be a plus point.
So what does Rafael Palacios like to drink when not tasting his own wines? “I like champagne and Riesling, but I have a little problem with acid and my stomach,” he says.
See tasting notes on JancisRobinson.com
Jancis’s Valdeorras picks
• Rafael Palacios, Bolo 2011
• Rafael Palacios, Louro do Bolo 2011, 2009. From The Solent Cellar, Berry Bros and Bottle Apostle
• Rafael Palacios, As Sortes 2011, 2009, 2005. From The Sampler
• Valdesil 2009
• Valdesil, Sobre Lías 2008
• Valdesil, Pezas da Portela 2009, 2008
• Virxen de Galir, G del Galir Lías 2007
• A Tapada, Guitán 2007
• Telmo Rodriguez, Gaba do Xil 2007
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