When we arrived in Bierzo the vineyards could only be seen through a curtain of incessant rain. A fog hung above the rolling hills and old vines dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see, lending whole scene a sort of ancient, haunting beauty.
We were here to visit the region’s most talented and prolific winemaker, Raul Perez. An exceptionally kind and generous man, Raul is also a genuine encyclopaedia on his native Bierzo. As he took us into the first of three wineries we would visit that day—Bodegas Castro Ventosa– he gave us a history lesson on the Perez family and its centuries-old connection to this land.
Bierzo has about 5.000 hectares under vine and 6.000 viticulturists. This is a region where a 1-hectare parcel is considered a big vineyard, and is often owned by 50 to 60 different people. Naturally, this high fragmentation has made it difficult for big companies to purchase vast amounts of land in Bierzo. On the other hand, in the last 40 years Bierzo has lost around 60% of its land under vine, most of it abandoned by people seeking better lives in cities or more profitable forms of agriculture. In the 1950s large portions were replanted with the high-yielding Palomino, usually sold to Galicia.
So it is easy to see why for Raul, working in Bierzo is more than a job or family legacy– it is a necessary effort preserve the region’s tradition and defend its reputation. The Perez family has been involved in wine there since at least 1750. That’s the date of a will, which contains a few parcels that are still in the family today. Originally grape growers, they began to make wine in the last century. Today Bodegas Castro Ventosa, which Raul owns with his two brothers, is the biggest privately-owned bodega in Bierzo. They own 75 hectares, from which almost all of their grapes are sourced.
The Castro Ventosa bodega is split into two parts: one for the young wines (or ‘Jovenes’), fermented in stainless steel and 100% destemmed, and another for the top wines which are fermented in foudres, where he uses 50-100% whole bunches. All wines are fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged in used barrels, but the most neutral ones are kept for the top wines. The reds are mostly Mencía blended with varying amounts of Alicante Bouschet (used to add acidity), and a bit of Merenzao (aka Bastarda). In fact Raul pointed out that a defining characteristic of Bierzo is that there are no single-variety vineyards—all are planted with at least 5 or 6 different grapes, including white varieties such as Palomino, Dona Blanca and Godello.
According to Raul there is no other region in the world with a higher proportion of old vines– about 80% the vineyards were planted shortly after phyloxera, from about 1880 to 1936, and old vineyards tend to be cheaper. Raul’s own vines average 80 to 90 years of age (Cepas Centenarias for example, is made with 100-year-old plus vines).
As the afternoon darkened, we moved on to the next two wineries to taste a dizzying amount of cuvees from barrel, mostly from his personal project: Bodegas y Viñedos Raul Perez. These ranged from very personal projects such as the La Vizcaina single vineyard wines, to village wines such as Ultreia de Valtuille. Even though Raul makes wines in many different styles, a common thread is that they tend to be perfumed, powerful and structured, while also extremely elegant.
In the last winery we tasted wines he makes in other appellations and some ongoing experiments. There was a 100% Palomino, skin-contact Dona Blanca fermenting in amphora, barrels of red wines that had developed flor, others without sulphur, and the same wines at different stages of maturation. While some of us occasionally lost track, Raul kept guiding us through them with equal parts child-like enthusiasm and thoughtful insight.
We finished the night in the best possible way: raiding Raul’s cellar before sitting down for a delicious dinner at his home, cooked by his own mother.
We left Bierzo for Galicia the next morning to continue our trip. But every time we mentioned Raul to other winemakers, the general reaction was the same as our own: enthusiastic remarks the quality of his wines, his endless energy, and how incredible that someone so talented and well-regarded was also such a humble, genuinely good person.