Raul Perez on growing a village

In Bierzo, Raul Perez has fostered a community that’s helping to drive forward the region as one of the country’s most exciting places for winemaking – and allowing him to delve even deeper into the terroir, parcel by parcel

Words by Fintan Kerr In partnership with Justerini & Brooks

raul perez surveys his Bierzo vineyard

It’s impossible to talk about the evolution of ‘The New Spain’ without talking about the influence that Raul Perez has had, not just through his own projects but also via the time he has taken to mentor fellow winemakers in Spain; so many of them have found inspiration at his table. While Perez is involved in projects across the world, the majority of his time is spent at home in the charming town of Valtuille de Abajo, Bierzo. It’s here, aged 22, that Perez first took over his family’s winery.

The rugged, mountainous terrain of Bierzo is situated in Castilla y Leon, bordering Valdeorras to the west, with its vineyards mostly following the path of the river Sil and its tributaries. The climate has more in common with neighbouring Galicia than with other famous regions of Castilla y Leon, with most vineyards planted upwards of 500m above sea level and benefiting from the cooling breezes of the nearby Atlantic Ocean. ‘Nurturing the land and allowing the land to express itself is the priority. Everything else follows on from that,’ says Perez.

Raul Perez Bierzo vineyards ploughed by horse

Perez’s own holdings in the region cover around 42ha of vineyards, split between numerous parcels. ‘We believe in minimal intervention and transparency. That starts in the vineyard,’ he explains. ‘We’re looking to showcase the unique characteristics of each parcel.’ This thinking and the momentum it inspired lit the spark that has led to Spain’s most complex classification, with Bierzo’s individual villages, lieu-dits and vineyards allowed to be named on labels since the 2017 vintage.

Everything is picked by hand, parcel by parcel. ‘All our vineyards are different and have very different harvest dates. It requires a big team and around 40-45 days to complete the harvest,’ he says. Bierzo is famously the heartland of the Mencia grape variety within Spain, but Perez’s wines are often field-blends with differing proportions of Alicante Bouschet, Palomino, Bastarda, Malvasia, Godello and Dona Blanca blended in. ‘Old vines are key; they have a depth and consistency that’s hard to replicate. We’re fortunate here that many of our vineyards are over 60 years old.’

raul perez grapes after harvest

Harvests usually start earlier than many in the region to preserve the natural acidity, followed by long, slow macerations, which can last anywhere from two to five months, with indigenous yeasts the catalyst. The soft, grainy tannins of Mencia are slowly extracted and old barrels or foudres are common in the winery to allow the wine itself to shine. Such is the commitment to allowing nature to work her magic, that temperature control isn’t employed, even in warm years. ‘All these elements are part of the vintage; why would we want to hide it? Sometimes we will ferment at 20°C and sometimes at 30°C. It depends on the year.’

barrels in the cellar at Raul Perez winery

The wines are stunning. Ultreia Saint Jacques is sourced from various vineyards across Valtuille de Abajo and is a contender for one of the best-value wines from Spain with its peppery, bramble fruit and cooling herbal notes. Ultreia de Valtuille is produced from old vines in Las Villegas, a plot at high altitude on sandy soil and could be considered the flagship wine of the range with its effortless elegance and bright fruit. Las Gundiñas, Rapalao, Poulosa and La Vitoriana are all projects that explore different parcels of wines and different soil types, each with their own signature personality and style. Two Godellos (Godello and Claudina) round out the portfolio, with the latter ageing under a layer of flor yeast to preserve the freshness of the grape and rely less on So2 additions. Its purity of fruit and persistent acidity are quite astonishing. Not only that but these wines are age-worthy, too. ‘I can’t talk about decades yet as we are just beginning, but we recently opened wines from 2004 that were drinking beautifully,’ says Perez.

You might find Perez’s name associated with wines across the world thanks to his globetrotting consultancy work. From Dirk Niepoort in Portugal to Eben Sadie in South Africa, Raul Perez has been involved with high-profile projects and collaborated on remarkable wines in a number of countries and very different climates. In Spain, he also produces wine in Ribeira Sacra under Castro Candaz, as well as a world-class Albariño, Sketch, in Rias Baixas; both are projects he works on with Rodrigo Mendez, a firm friend as well as business partner.

Raul perez holding glass of red wine

It’s plain to see that curiosity and generosity of spirit come naturally to Perez. Comparisons of Bierzo’s new appellation system are of course made with Burgundy, but those ideas focus almost entirely on the land. For Perez, it’s not quite so simple. ‘The people make the difference,’ says Perez. ‘Growing a village isn’t just about the soil, it’s about your neighbours and helping one another to make great wine. We’re friends here.’

The wines of Raul Perez are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks