Top Wines of Bierzo
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, where size and power outmuscle finesse.
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.
Over the last 15 years, 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, superb structure, fine balance, versatility at the table and good-to-excellent value.
Bluntly stated: Bierzo is arguably Spain’s most exciting wine region, where you can trade in the country’s big-bodied, sometimes fiercely tannic Tempranillos and Garnachas for wines with exotic aromas, alluring flavor profiles and undeniable style.
First cultivated by the Romans 2,000 years ago, and later a settling spot for wine-fond Cistercian monks, Bierzo is currently in the second decade of its renaissance. The region has gone from forgotten or completely unknown to the place that lovers of Spanish red wines should explore with ferocity.
A fraction of the size of name-brand Spanish wine regions like Rioja, Ribera del Duero, La Mancha and the Penedès, Bierzo, blessed with a bounty of old Mencía vines, has seen its fortunes change much like the Priorat in Catalonia.
Another former Roman stronghold that fell out of favor because of neglect and the 19th century’s phylloxera plague, the Priorat benefitted from modern-thinking winemakers and wineries with an eye toward making fine wines from old vines.
In May, amid blue skies and balmy temperatures that bathed sprouting vineyards in ideal conditions, I visited most of the wineries that have been driving Bierzo’s revitalization. That included the movement’s leader, Descendientes de J. Palacios, founded in the late 1990s by the renowned Alvaro Palacios and his nephew, Ricardo Pérez.
Also on the itinerary were leading producers like Dominio de Tares, Losada, Bodegas Peique, Pittacum, Raúl Pérez (no relation to Ricardo), Castro Ventosa, Bodega del Abad, Gancedo, Godelia and Luna Beberide, among others.
If this doesn’t sound like a broad cross-section, it’s because there aren’t that many producers making high-quality wine from Bierzo’s 4,500 acres of mostly unirrigated bush vines. Still, I came away impressed with much of what I tasted. About 80% of the grapes here are Mencía, with the remainder being Godello and Doña Blanca, a pair of white varieties.
Of the more than 3,000 acres of Mencía in the region, an estimated 80% are considered to be “old vines,” planted at least 50 years ago. There are 74 registered wineries in the region, 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 mineral-rich schist hillsides thrown in for good measure.
“There are three factors that define Bierzo,” says Amancio Fernández, winemaker at Losada, as we stand amid 60-year-old stumpy vines and wish trekkers buen camino. Losada specializes in fuller-bodied wines braced by can’t-miss minerality.
“First, it’s the Mencía, which you can only find here and in a few parts of Galicia,” says Fernández. “Second is the climate. We are somewhat of a mountain region, with milder temperatures that allow for slow ripening. Third is our soils. 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 says rings true. A good Bierzo Mencía exhibits power that may come across a bit oaky when young, but the minerality and structure are palpable, as is the balance between acidity and tannins.
Bierzo wines, due to their fitness, also age well. From recent blind tastings of Bierzo reds, I came across wines from 2008 and 2009, a cold and hot vintage, respectively, that barely seemed more mature than wines from 2011 and 2012.
For example, Pittacum’s 2009 Aurea, made in a winery built more than 300 years ago, is on the ripe side, as might be expected given the vintage’s warm conditions, but it’s entirely balanced.
“Mencía is so versatile,” says Alfredo Marqués, technical director at Pittacum. “A lot has to do with the variety itself. Like Cabernet Franc, which Mencía may be related to, although nobody knows for sure, 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.”
I did struggle to keep up with Raúl Pérez, a stocky dynamo of a winemaker with a penchant for dangerous driving and 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 one rule in making his increasingly popular wines: whatever goes into a barrel is fermented in whole clusters to add tension.
One of his personal bottlings, the 2010 Ultreia de Valtuille, is a prime example of how whole-cluster wines can differ from those made from individually separated berries. It’s sinewy, mildly astringent and fiery on the finish, but should age well over the next 10 years.
“My wines are heavy metal; Castro Ventosa’s wines are more Bach,” says Pérez as we taste numerous barrel samples.
When that’s finished, we pile back into his truck for a white-knuckle ride back toward Villafranca del Bierzo, one of the nicest towns in a region where all roads lead to Mencía.
94 Dominio de Tares 2011 Cepas Viejas. 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. Opici Wines. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $52
93 Bodega del Abad 2011 Carracedo. Asphalt, char and dark-berry aromas introduce a layered, rich and lively palate, with toasty flavors of black fruits, baking spices and licorice. Drink through 2020. Frontier Wine Imports. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14% Price: $78
93 Pittacum 2009 Aurea. Ripe, rooty aromas and hints of blackberry, cedar and marzipan lead to robust flavors of black fruits and fig that finish fresh and proportional. Drink through 2020. Aveniù Brands. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.5% Price: $52
92 Paixar 2011 Mencía. Jammy raspberry and blackberry aromas come with pastry notes and some woodspice. Flavors of toast, blackberry and pepper finish with balance and length. Drink through 2020. Grapes of Spain.
abv: 14% Price: $69
92 Descendientes de J. Palacios 2011 Villa de Corullón. 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.
abv: 15% Price: $50
92 Raúl Pérez 2010 Ultreia de Valtuille. 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.
abv: 13.5% Price: $113
92 Losada 2011 Mencía. Aromas of dark fruits, graphite and toast are potent. Blackberry, cassis and lemony oak create a fine flavor profile, while the finish tastes of licorice and peppery spices. Drink through 2018. Classical Wines.
abv: 13.5% Price: $25
91 Gancedo 2012 Mencía. Oaky and young 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.
abv: 14% Price: $25
91 Godelia 2011 Selección. Dense, roasted, earthy aromas of berry fruits and leather set up an oaky palate with loamy dark-fruit flavors that finish smooth. Drink through 2018. Europvin USA.
abv: 15% Price: $45
91 Luna Beberide 2011 Finca La Cuesta. Black-fruit aromas, minerality and violet scents usher in flavors of blackberry, licorice and baking spices that finish ripe and toasty. Drink through 2018. Grapes of Spain.
abv: 14% Price: $22
90 Alvarez de Toledo 2010 Roble. This well-made everyday Bierzo features fresh acidity. Berry, baking spice and toasty flavors finish with graphite, blackberry and cassis notes. Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. Best Buy.
abv: 13.5% Price: $14
90 Encanto 2011 Roble. Raspberry and boysenberry aromas come in front of a crisp palate. Quick-hitting flavors of red-berry fruits finish zesty, with a note of pie cherry. Vinamericas Selections. Best Buy.
abv: 13% Price: $13
The Bierzo region’s cuisine is hearty fare, with meats, starches and vegetables almost always on the table. But Mencía, with its vivid fruit, punchy acidity, firm tannins and overriding elegance, is the perfect wine to accent—or even tame—the robust foods favored by the locals.
Should you get as far as Bierzo while hiking The Way (El Camino de Santiago), or if you’re venturing into the region to check out its wines, vineyards and wineries, indulge in some of the following local dishes, ideally at the following restaurants.
The Dish: Botillo del Bierzo, a pimentón-laden mix of various pork parts stuffed into a skin-based lining, then smoked and cured.
The Spot: La Moncloa de San Lázaro (Cacabelos)
The Dish: Chuletón de Buey, a Fred Flintstone-sized T-bone taken from an ox. It’s cooked rare unless you demand otherwise. The meat is purple, the fat along the edges is thick and yellow, and the texture and flavors are amazing.
The Spot: Mesón El Reloj (Camponaraya)
The Dish: Chuletillas de Cordero (pictured), liberally salted lamb chops grilled over vine shoots.
The Spot: Mesón Don Nacho (Villafranca del Bierzo)
- 1The Way to Bierzo
- 2Bierzo Defined
- 3A Mixed Case of Top-Scoring Bierzo Mencía
- 4What to Eat with Mencía