In the wine world, the name Raúl Pérez is synonymous with “the new Spain,” a movement to refocus attention on growers beyond big labels and blockbuster regions. A prolific winegrower and winemaker in Bierzo, in the northwest of Castilla y León, Pérez has been at the forefront of a generation of winemakers working to reorient the meaning of contemporary Spanish wine to the work done in the vineyard. “He makes my job easy,” says Miles White, co-owner of Graft, a wine shop and bar in Uptown Charleston, South Carolina. “He’s so conscious of farming and the land and what he has in front of him.”
Graft’s White and co-owner Femi Oyediran, both sommeliers with deep résumés in hospitality, met while working at the Charleston Grill a decade ago. They stock wines that range from classic producers to new-wave growers; this summer, the two found themselves pivoting curious customers toward Pérez’s entry-level label, Ultreia Saint Jacques. Part of a larger line from Ultreia, whose name is a Latin term that means “forward” and was a salutation among pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, the Saint Jacques is built on a base of mencía blended with trousseau (called bastardo in Spain) and garnacha tintorera. It undergoes whole-cluster fermentation and an extended maceration, after which it’s aged in cement and foudre. Pérez practices organic agriculture in the vineyards where his family has been present for more than three centuries, and his wines are low-intervention but “squeaky clean,” as White describes them.
Though he works his own vines, Pérez has become famous for championing and buying grapes from small farmers whose fruit might otherwise end up at co-ops, or whose productions might be too small to make it to an international market. “He’s been able to give opportunity to a lot of growers as he expands his reach,” says Oyediran. “He’s done a great deal for the region in terms of reinvigorating production, and making sure it’s on the map.” Pérez has also become known for his regular collaborations with winemakers outside of Bierzo, working in Ribeira Sacra, Rías Baixas, Portugal and beyond.
Though Pérez’s trailblazing may be common knowledge in nerdier circles, his work can be a fresh discovery for those who haven’t spent a ton of time exploring Spain. “If anyone is shopping in our Rhône section, his [Ultreia Saint Jacques] is such an easy segue from syrah,” says White. According to Oyediran, Pérez is an excellent example of a producer that has figured out how to balance scaling up while maintaining his original vision. “Despite the fact that Raúl Pérez is positioned as a revolutionary winemaker, he makes a good amount of wine,” he says. “The Saint Jacques production is not small, but the quality is outstanding.”
For White and Oyediran, hospitality in a retail environment begins with the philosophy of making people feel comfortable enough to be confident stating their desire for affordability. At $22, the Saint Jacques is a gateway to Pérez, whose wines can creep toward $100. It’s also a wine that, White insists, works great with a chill, and with or without food. Oyediran takes its flexibility even further: “This is a wine where you can pull the cork and just let life happen.”
Bodegas y Viñedos Raúl Pérez Ultreia Saint Jacques 2018
Made by: Raúl Pérez
Region: Bierzo in Castilla y León
What it tastes like: “This is like the Northern Rhône meets Beaujolais. It’s a super approachable wine that brings in a lot of elements of earth, and is a great introduction to a different set of flavors that aren’t just red and black fruits. It’s a little grittier,” says White.
Why it matters: “Pérez does an incredible job of supporting his small neighbors that might not have the reach he does,” says White, “and honestly, the affordability is insane.”
Where to buy: $22 at Graft