Spanish-style Albariño is crisp, noted for bright acidity, with strong aromatics of peaches and melons. It’s a wine to reach for on a hot, sunny afternoon.
STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
Great winemakers bring a few common characteristics to the job: keen sensory perception, an affinity for chemistry, a strong work ethic. Victor Palencia, founder of Palencia Wine Company in Walla Walla, has all that, plus a friendly, even humble demeanor.
Each of those traits are essential when you consider this up-and-comer’s job titles: winemaker for his own labels, Palencia and Vino La Monarcha, as well as for Jones of Washington; and director of winemaking and operations for J&S Crushing, a custom-crush facility that annually produces around 1.5 million cases of wine for its clients. Since 2013, eight of Victor’s wines have been included in The Seattle Times’ annual Top 50 Wines list. Currently working on his 16th vintage, he looks like a busy man speeding through life while making a lot of great wine.
But here’s the thing – Victor Palencia is not yet 33 years old. Think about that math for a minute. He has been making wine for fully half of his life. Of his 16 vintages, he couldn’t even legally taste five. He learned his craft by heightening other senses – smelling a wine’s bouquet, carefully observing color and density. His red wines are outstanding, but his white wines are luminous, and one of his best is Albariño, an obscure Spanish grape with bright, summery appeal that launched his trajectory. Since it was first released in 2013, Palencia Albariño has been turning heads and cementing its maker’s place among Washington’s hottest winemakers.
Victor grew up in Prosser, the heart of Washington’s wine country. At the age of 13, he followed his father into the apple orchards and vineyards where he worked. That early exposure to the wine industry hooked him, and his curiosity pulled him from the vineyard to the winemaking facility at Willow Crest Winery, where founder David Minick recognized Victor’s early aptitude and let him help with the crush and fermentation, encouraging him to learn more skills. By the age of 16, Victor was entrusted with the keys to the winery.
But he couldn’t taste the product. As an underage employee in a bonded winemaking facility, that just wasn’t an option. Nor was it an option after high school, when he enrolled in Walla Walla Community College’s enology program, where many of his classmates were retirees training for a second career. That was in 2003. By 2005, Victor had earned his degree and returned to work at Willow Crest. And in 2006, on Victor’s 21st birthday, Minick handed him a business card with the title “Winemaker.” In 2007, Victor joined J&S Crushing in Mattawa.
Since he opened Palencia Wine Company in 2012, Victor has made another 6,000 cases for his own labels. His first releases for Palencia included some standards – a rose, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. Tucked into the line-up was Albariño, a wine he had never heard of until tasting it at a restaurant near his home in Richland.
“The exciting thing about having a winery is exploring new varieties,” he says. His 2013 Albariño excited critics, as well. It was ranked seventh in The Seattle Times’ top 50 wines of 2014. The following year, Palencia’s 2014 Albariño landed at number four on the list, and the 2015 vintage ranked ninth — and took home the Best of Show medal at the Cascadia Wine Competition, establishing Victor Palencia as a savant in crafting white wines.
Albariño originates in the Galicia region of Spain, and is also grown in Portugal’s Vinho Verde, where it’s known as Alvarinho. Historically used in blends, Albarino began appearing as a varietal in the mid-1980s, and today makes up the lion’s share of plantings in the Rias Baixas DO, where the cool, wet climate and granite soils create ideal conditions for white wine grapes. Spanish-style Albariño is crisp, noted for bright acidity, with strong aromatics of peaches and melons. It’s a wine to reach for on a hot, sunny afternoon.
Palencia Albariño has all of that, plus an elegance that Victor elicits from the Ancient Lakes terroir, where he sources the fruit. “It was a vision,” he smiles, remembering that first taste of an unknown wine. “I immediately thought of the Ancient Lakes area, because of the mineral characteristics.”
Established as an AVA in 2012, Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley covers 162,762 total acres, stretching east from the Columbia River gorge across the Quincy Basin. The land is high desert. Sagebrush covers unplanted acres. Potatoes grow here. Rainfall is sparse, averaging six inches per year. A mere 1,608 acres are planted to vineyards. But the relatively cool climate, combined with the natural minerals in the soil, mean that, as in Galicia, white wine grapes thrive.
Victor sources his fruit from two sites owned by Milbrandt Vineyards — Evergreen and Spanish Castle — both managed by Ryan Flanagan. The vines are planted on nutrient-starved soils that cover deposits of caliche loaded with calcium carbonate. That gives the grapes the rich minerality Victor prizes, complementing a good backbone of acidity. “Intense heat tends to ripen the acid out of grapes, but we’re cooler here, so we can get to full ripeness at the end of the season,” Ryan says. “We don’t have any frost issues here, so we’re able to maintain that acidity.” He typically harvests the Albariño near the end of October.
Making Albariño is an intense process, Victor says, requiring detailed preparation before the first grape is crushed. “White wines are extremely intimidating to a winemaker. The flaws are so easy to detect. They’re very unforgiving. I build myself up for harvest every year, mentally and emotionally. I cry a little bit sometimes.”
The biggest challenge might be bringing in the fruit before it loses its characteristic acidity. Even though Albariño matures later than other grapes, the heat at Ancient Lakes can still ripen it quickly, so Victor monitors the flavors and chemistry closely, both in the vineyard and after harvest. He ferments the fruit in Hungarian oak for a month, then moves it directly into stainless steel, before bottling in December. The result is an expressive silkiness that lingers on the palate, while maintaining a clean, food-friendly approachability.
“I’m a little greedy,” Victor says of his winemaking style when crafting Albariño. “I want texture and body like a buttered Chardonnay, but without the butter. I want the aromatics of a Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, but without all that sweet stuff. And I want the crispness of Chardonnay, but without the over-edginess that you can get with a highly structured Chardonnay.”
Ancient Lakes is very different from Galicia, and while it might sound like he’s trying to get the best of both worlds into one bottle, Victor’s goal is simply to create an Albariño distinct from the wines of Spain. “It’s that love and respect for the land,” he explains. “Instead of fighting it and trying to get it to do something like other regions, you work with the land and enjoy what it gives you. My philosophy is to find these areas that reflect what I’m trying to achieve. If you have to work too hard to find those characteristics, you’re probably in the wrong spot.”
Victor smiles. “It’s another chance for Washington to brand itself. With Albariño, you’ll have Galicia, and you’ll have Ancient Lakes. It’s a global bout.”
Anne Sampson writes about wine, and the people who create it, from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Pacific Northwest.