Stops on a Wine Geek Road Trip:
I blame it on the fact that I grew up in Texas. By which I mean, at some point it occurred to me that driving from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of France’s greatest wine regions, to Piedmont, one of Italy’s greatest wine regions, would be only a slightly longer trip than driving from Houston to Dallas. (Not to mention that at the end I’d be in Piedmont, a more appealing place than Dallas.) After that, the mental dominoes fell into place: What if I flew to Europe and hit the road, visiting five iconic wineries, in five great wine regions, in five different countries, in five days—the Priorat in Spain, Châteauneuf, Piedmont, Germany’s Mosel and finally Austria’s Wachau. I’d visit five legendary wineries, and I’d also have the pleasure of founding an entirely new pursuit—extreme wine tourism—in the process.
Wine Road Trip Mile 0: Spain
My starting point was Alvaro Palacios’s eponymous winery in Spain’s Priorat. The Priorat, about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Barcelona, is a steep, severe place that produces some of Spain’s most sought-after red wines. People have grown grapes here for hundreds of years, but the region only recently came to prominence.
Palacios was one of the small group of winemakers that recognized the Priorat’s potential back in the 1980s, and he is now its most famous producer. His top wine, one of Spain’s greatest reds, is called L’Ermita. The grapes come from a single, old, steep vineyard in the shadow of a 16th-century hermitage (it’s still in use; apparently, there’s even a waiting list to be the resident hermit). L’Ermita is a stunning expression of Grenache, a grape that reaches a pinnacle in the Priorat. “It’s one of the few grapes that can transform heat and aridity into something vibrant and refreshing,” Palacios said.
As I walked that morning in L’Ermita’s vineyard, there was certainly no lack of heat and aridity. With each step, I crunched through gravelly schist, kicking up red and brown dust; the sun was fierce. Palacios farms L’Ermita with mules, as the slope is too steep for tractors. As I hiked back up the slope, sweating, I felt fortunate not to have their job.
Palacios’s winery is a spare, modernist structure, its big glass windows looking past the town of Gratallops to hills scored by the terraces of old vineyards. We tasted a number of his wines, ending with the 2009 and 2010 L’Ermitas, which cost roughly $800 a bottle. The ’09, from a warm year, was a study in power, with immense tannins under its dark fruit; the ’10 was even better—extravagantly aromatic, perfectly balanced. They were both wines to sit with and ponder; wines for long, lingering, unhurried reflection. Instead, I checked my watch. “Uh-oh,” I said. “I’m sorry, Alvaro. I’ve got to get out of here!”