No sooner had I opened a bottle of the Descendientes de J. Palacios 2006 Petalos than Eric Asimov of the New York Times had published an article on the wines of Spain's Bierzo region. While I'll still stake claim to this "discovery" as my own, the word is out. Bierzo is chic; so chic in fact that the New York Times is raving about it. And if Petalos was not quite good enough to crack the top ten of Asimov's list, then how how good must those in his top ten be? This wine was easily the best Spanish wine I've had--though all my Spanish purchases have been in the under $20 range--and also has to be one of the best quality to price ratio purchases I've made.
I actually "discovered" Bierzo browsing through the Wines of the Times archives. Yes, once again Eric Aimov got there first, as he typically does when it comes to interesting wines from Old World regions. The distributor of Palacios' wines, the Rare Wine Company, can give you a pretty good idea about what is different about Bierzo. The images on their website with the caption "an extraordinary terroir" offer a pithy summary. The indigenous varietal of Bierzo is Mencía, a grape that is often compared to both Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Well, if you tell me that Cab Franc's Spanish cousin is in the bottle labeled Bierzo, then that's something I'll have to try. With the added factor that Bierzo's Mencía is grown from century old bush vines on steep hillsides, Bierzo became a must-try.
My first attempt, the 2006 Cuatro Paso Bierzo, was a partial success. It was unique, but ultimately lackluster. The 2006 Petalos, though, was an absolute blockbuster in comparison. When I think budget-friendly Spanish wines, two "R" words come to mind: ripe and rustic. Typically ripeness and rusticity are on the high end of the scale. But not so with the Petalos. It's a modern, polished wine that maintains a balance between ripe, concentrated fruit flavors and secondary flavors. The bouquet consists of slightly rustic berries, dry or dusty mountain vegetation, and just a little meat and spice in the background. There's not too much going on, but what's there is captivating and the wine is also still relatively young to have loads of complexity. The flavors are immensely concentrated, as one would expect from old vines, but it's more of a concentration of minerality than fruit. Though the wine gained weight and roundness as it was decanted, I still had the impression of drinking pulversized rocks. The wine ended with a long, slatey finish fueled by copious, yet soft tannins and mouth-watering acidity. I suspect that oak aging helped to round everything out; but whatever oak influence is there has integrated itself well. Perhaps most impressively, this wine was highly concentrated without carrying around the typical baggage of jammy fruit and high alcohol.
My only complaint might be that I never found the floral aromas suggested by the name Petalos. But who can really complain about a well-made wine with just a hint of attractice rusticity that oozes character? Probably the most comparable wine I've tasted is the Bedford Thompson 2000 Cabernet Franc, though this was not a typical Cab Franc based on my past experience. Both wines were made from grapes grown in hilly, mountainous regions, had similar degrees of concentration, and showed a definite dusty underbrush character. One might also compare Bierzo Mencía to old vine Grenache or Zinfandel because of the intensity and structure of the wine. The 2006 Petalos, though, really defies pure comparison because it seems to have a little bit more terroir to it and a little less over the top imbalance than similar analogs.
The 2006 might be a bit hard to find, but the 2007 vintage of Petalos is readily available now--I've already picked up a few bottles of the current vintage. I could see this as a broadly appealing wine that has something to offer to such disparate groups as Zinfandel fanatics and "terroiristes."
Price: $18 from Winelibrary