Portfolio update: Welcoming Raul Perez

Portfolio update: Welcoming Raul Perez

Monday 11th February 2019
by Mark Dearing

Despite the freezing darkness and the rain lashing against my windscreen, the notoriously wet winter conditions around Santiago de Compostela could do nothing to dampen my spirits.

It was early, and I was en route to Bierzo to meet Raul Perez at his winery in Valtuille del Abajo. There I would hop from my rental car in to Raul’s 4x4 Shogun and together we would traverse the mountains around Bierzo for the day, variously jumping out to look at special plots and dive in to cold cellars to taste his latest wines. I was on my own pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, but rather than a waypoint, Bierzo was the destination.

It was hard not to feel a little nervous, for all references to Raul Perez and his influence on the Spanish wine scene over the past decade routinely accede to superlatives. To his legions of fans, both consumers and fellow winemakers, he is a real visionary, cut from maverick cloth, whose determination has revolutionised the way the world looks at Spanish wine. To others, he is wild, unpredictable and impossible to get a handle on. Both are right.

First rising to prominence as the winemaker at his family estate Castro Ventosa, in 2004 he branched out on his own and now maintains a dizzying array of projects in Bierzo and further afield in Rias Baixas, Ribeira Sacra, and the Douro with Dirk Niepoort. One of his most exciting projects is particularly far-flung. It is a collaboration in South Africa with Swartland-icon Eben Sadie; producing two barrels of Monastrell that are famously hard to track down. In fact, it is near-impossible to keep track of all the labels with which Raul Perez is involved. He thinks it is close to 100. Under the Bodegas Y Vinedos Raul Perez brand comes the Ultreia project, La Vizcaina de Vinos and the as-yet unreleased micro-production “Raul Perez” labels, all in Bierzo. In Ribeira Sacra, two wines are produced in partnership with Bodegas Guimaro: El Pecado and La Penitencia; both have quickly attained cult status. Sketch Albarino comes from Rias Baixas and is named after his favourite London restaurant. Rarely are more than 900 bottles of any of these three wines released. It’s evident that Raul’s restlessness has yielded some breath-taking wines, many of which are one-offs never to be seen again. He embraces the unconventional, wherever it occurs naturally: the Ultreia cellar for example has a particular strain of yeast in the atmosphere, which enables a flor to develop and insulate the wines, red and white, without the need for sulphur or technology.

Both the La Vizcaina and Ultreia cellars are crammed to the rafters with barrels that contain either the next-big-thing, or purely experimental wines, in the truest sense of the word. And after a day of standing in windy, rainy vineyards and tasting hundreds of barrel samples, feeling a little daunted, it’s clear that this process is always revising itself, continuously changing, born from a deep connection with this part of the world. As we crisscrossed the vineyards and learnt of their intricate complexities and striking differences, it was hard to shake the feeling that Bierzo is still a region largely untapped by producers, as the great vineyards of the Northern Rhone or Burgundy once were too. He knows this, and Perez’s roguish appearance and death-defying driving techniques are punctuated by moments of startling clarity and sense of purpose that extend far beyond his own importance.

One of his proudest achievements, he tells me, is being able to counsel and lend space to an array of brilliant young producers who have turned to him for inspiration over the years. He admits that his cellar has become a trampoline for the next generation of Bierzo and Galician producers. Despite his family’s presence in the region for generations, the current era began he says, in 1999. This was the year that Alvaro Palacios of Priorat came to Bierzo and asked him, while winemaker at Castro Ventosa, if together they could experiment and use a corner of the Ventosa cellar to vinify a small parcel they had found. An enduring friendship has continued between Raul Perez and Alvaro and Riccardo Palacios, and today these two producers have raised the bar and become flagbearers for Bierzo. In fact, Perez believes so resolutely in the region’s potential that this year he intends to donate vines from El Rapolao, one his top vineyards, to a couple of younger growers so that they can enjoy the spoils too. In his words, “I think it is important that we share El Rapolao for they are the hardest and most expensive grapes to find. We need to go forward together and present the best that Bierzo has to offer.”

It is this philosophical approach, combined with the means and reputation to do things his way, that makes Raul Perez a wine producer quite unlike any other. He is a legend in his own right but bursting with the candour and ambition of a young upstart. Justerini & Brooks is delighted to be representing the Raul Perez stable exclusively in the UK as of January 2019.