Subtract traditional Rioja from the equation, and Spain isn’t exactly the land of elegant red wines. Spain’s tintos are usually concentrated and bullish, with size and power outmuscling finesse.
That’s not so in Bierzo, a small, historic wine region in northwest Spain that sits smack on the path of El Camino de Santiago (St. James’s Way), the most famous of Christian pilgrimages.
For more than a decade, Bierzo has been on a hot streak. The fuel for this fire has been Mencía, a grape once believed to be related to Cabernet Franc. When vinified properly, it delivers wines with purity of fruit, fine structure, balance and good-to-great value. Paired with robust foods like spicy stews or grilled meats, Mencía distinguishes itself as one of Spain’s top red grapes.
The Way to Bierzo
First settled by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, and later a center for wine-fond Cistercian monks, Bierzo is now in the second decade of its renaissance. The region has gone from forgotten and unknown to a place that lovers of Spanish red wines should explore with ferocity.
About 75 percent of Bierzo’s winegrapes are Mencía, with the remainder being Palomino, Godello, Doña Blanca, Garnacha Tintorera and Malvasía. The region boasts more than 5,000 acres of Mencía, an estimated 80 percent of which are considered “old vines,” planted at least 50 years ago.
Bierzo is a fraction of the size of name-brand Spanish wine regions like Rioja, Ribera del Duero, La Mancha and the Penedès. But blessed with its bounty of old Mencía vines, the area has seen its fortunes change much like the Priorat in Catalonia, another former Roman stronghold that fell out of favor due to neglect and the phylloxera plague of the 19th century.
In the Priorat, a band of modern-thinking winemakers and wineries that are making fine wines from old vines has led its resurgence. Much the same thing is happening in Bierzo, but on a smaller scale. Leaders of the Bierzo movement include Descendientes de J. Palacios, founded in 1998 by the renowned Alvaro Palacios and his nephew, Ricardo Pérez. Also influential are Dominio de Tares, Losada Vinos de Finca, Bodegas Peique, Pittacum, Raúl Pérez’s Castro Ventosa (no relation to Ricardo), Bodega del Abad, Gancedo, Godelia, Luna Beberide and Vinos de Arganza, among others.
If this doesn’t sound like a huge cross-section of wineries, it’s because not that many producers are making high-quality wine from Bierzo’s 7,500 acres of mostly unirrigated bush vines. Still, after two visits to the region, in 2006 and 2014, I’m unabashedly fond of Mencía from Bierzo. The area holds 77 registered wineries, although only about half are truly commercial and serious about exporting.
Shaped like a horseshoe that faces mostly south, Bierzo is a compilation of small valleys surrounded by mountains. Located on the border of where Castilla y León meets Galicia, Bierzo is higher in elevation and cooler than north-central Spain’s hotter regions. That’s a key element in Bierzo’s terroir, with schist-based hillsides thrown in for good measure.
A good Bierzo Mencía exhibits power, but the minerality and structure are palpable.
“There are three factors that define Bierzo,” said Amancio Fernández, winemaker at Losada, in May 2014, as we stood amid 60-year-old stumpy vines and wished “buen camino!” to trekkers on The Way. “First, it’s the Mencía, which you can only find here and in a few parts of Galicia,” said Fernández. “Second is the climate. We are somewhat of a mountain region, with milder temperatures that allow for slow ripening. Third is our soil. Many vineyards are planted on a base of clay, where rain water in the winter and spring is absorbed deep into the ground and held like a sponge, which eliminates the need to irrigate.
“This is what gives the wines volume and mouthfeel. In addition to the clay, you often find schisty slate, which is where that distinct mineral quality comes from.”
What Fernández said rings true. A good Bierzo Mencía exhibits power, but the minerality and structure are palpable, as is the balance between acidity and tannins. Bierzo wines, due to their fitness, also age well.
“Mencía is so versatile,” said Alfredo Marqués, technical director at Pittacum, during that same spring 2014 visit. “A lot has to do with the variety itself. Like Cabernet Franc, to which Mencía may or may not be related, you can get racy wines or fuller-bodied wines. But we always get the fresh acidity and fine tannins. You should never struggle to drink a Bierzo wine, whether it’s a baby or 10 years old.”
“You should never struggle to drink a Bierzo wine, whether it’s a baby or 10 years old.” —Alfredo Marqués
I did struggle to keep up with Raúl Pérez, a stocky dynamo of a winemaker with a penchant for dangerous driving and picking up speeding tickets. A member of the family that makes wines under the Castro Ventosa label, which has existed since the 18th century and is Bierzo’s oldest continuously operating winery, Pérez produces offerings under his own name from pretty much any weird or hidden spot in Bierzo he can find.
Pérez, a darling of the sommelier set, has but one rule in making his increasingly popular, high-priced wines: whatever goes into a barrel is fermented in whole clusters to add tension.
“My wines are heavy metal,” he said.
Dominio de Tares 2011 Cepas Viejas; $52, 94 points. Exemplary old-vine Mencía with blackberry, leather, herb, toast, mineral and lemon-peel aromas. Flavors of ripe berries, toasty oak, licorice and citrus zest finish long and deep. Drink through 2021. Editors’ Choice.
Raúl Pérez 2010 Ultreia de Valtuille; $113, 92 points.
Oaky and lemony on the nose, then fresh and mildly astringent on the palate. Licorice, herb and background berry flavors are woody and fiery on the finish. Drink through 2025. Ole Imports. Cellar Selection.
Descendientes de J. Palacios 2011 Villa de Corullón; $50, 92 points. Ripe aromas of prune, raisin, fig and berry precede flavors of black fruits, wild herbs, dried red plum and chocolate. Drink through 2018. Rare Wine Company.
Luna Beberide 2012 Finca La Cuesta; $22, 91 points. Aromas of earth, roots, herbs, dried cheese, tobacco and black fruits set up a chunky palate with blackberry and raspberry flavors. Oaky vanilla notes come before an ephemeral finish. Drink through 2017. Grapes of Spain.
Losada 2011 Mencía; $25, 92 points. Aromas of dark fruits, graphite and toast are potent. Blackberry, cassis and lemony oak create a good flavor profile, while the finish tastes of licorice and peppery spices. Drink through 2018. Classical Wines.
Gancedo 2012 Mencía; $25, 91 points. Oaky on the nose, with raspberry and plum aromas. Blackberry, raspberry, spice, resiny oak and salty flavors finish muscular but fresh. Drink through 2017. Quality Wines of Spain.
Abad Dom Bueno 2012 Mencía; $24, 89 points. Airing reveals ripe blackberry and graphite aromas. This is jammy and woody; flavors of salty black fruits are backed by additional barrel influences on a spicy finish. Drink through 2017. Frontier Wine Imports.
Estefania 2013 Tilenus; $15, 88 points. Aromas of spice, red plum and cherry precede a fruity, approachable palate with straightforward cherry and plum flavors. Drink now. Classic Wines.