The Wines from Bierzo: Red Jewels in Green Spain

Buying a wine from an unfamiliar place, made from an unfamiliar grape, may be somewhat daunting. But, when it is red, from Bierzo in Spain, and made from Mencía, it is absolutely worth taking a leap of faith. You won’t be disappointed!

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Northwestern Spain is often called ‘Green Spain’, due to its cooler climate and Atlantic influence. Bierzo is a small, remote wine region in Castilla Y Léon. This small wine-producing region of 3800 hectares is split between more than 4000 growers — which gives you an idea of how tiny the individual holdings are.

It is a beautiful region in a raw, rugged way, with vineyards planted on incredibly steep hillside slopes at up to 2500 feet above sea level.

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Bierzo red wines are made from the Mencía grape. Traditionally these wines were light and fruity. However, over the past decade a revolution in quality and international acclaim has been happening. One of the pioneers is Álvaro Palacios (of Priorat fame) and his nephew Ricardo Pérez, who cultivate very old Mencía bush vines biodynamically. Together, with other like-minded producers, they have completely awakened the potential for great wine production in Bierzo.

Mencía, has often been likened to Cabernet Franc. Indeed, there was a time when it was believed that they might be the same variety. However, DNA fingerprinting has firmly established that they are not the same variety.

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So what do the wines taste like?

Wines made from low yielding hillside vines are dark in color. Aromas and flavors are a medley of fresh red, black and blue berries, with a distinctive raspberry and floral note. They are refreshing, with good structure, but supple tannin and modest alcohol. The wines are extremely versatile at the table, given the brightness of the fruit and the refreshing acidity levels. Most of the wines you find in the United States do spend some time in oak before release. However, I have tasted one or two delightful unoaked wines that really showcase the purity of Mencía fruit.

Bierzo is not an easy or cheap place to make wine. Between the topography and small size of the vineyards, everything has to be done manually. So you cannot expect to find mass-produced wines for under $10. That said, while there are certainly expensive wines, most of the wines sell for between $15 and $25. And they are absolutely delicious.

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Ones that I have enjoyed include:

2006 El Castro de Valtuille, Mencía Joven, Bierzo, $14 – Dark, intense and ripe fruit aromas and flavors yet lively and refreshing. Smooth and very well balanced.

2007 La Mano Mencía Roble, Bierzo, $15 – Vibrant ripe fruit, mulberry, blueberry, raspberry with spicy vanilla notes. Great value.

2008 Luna Beberide, Mencía, Bierzo , $17 – Vibrant, youthful and a great unoaked expression of Mencía

2007 Cuatro Pasos, Bierzo, $14.99 – From 80 year old vines, intense layers of bright fruit and subtle well-integrated oak notes of vanilla and toast.

2007 Descendientes de José Palacios, Pétalos, Bierzo $19.99 – Also from very old bush vines. Complex layers of ripe fruit with lovely toasty, smoky, earthy notes. Great depth and structure.

2005 Abad Dom Bueno Roble Bierzo $17.99 – Intense nose of ripe berries, violets and smoke. Quite full-bodied and rich, but retains the Bierzo elegance.

2003 Tilenus Crianza, Bierzo, $25 – Layers of aromas and flavors. Smooth, elegant and full of juicy ripe fruit. Very good structure and texture.

2004 Casar de Burbia, Bierzo, $17 – Inviting lively, ripe fruit on the nose with some spice. Smooth and elegant across the palate. Well-balanced.

2005 Dominio de Tares Mencía Baltos, $15 – Intense nose of ripe fruit with floral and mineral notes. Mixed fresh berry flavors, supple tannins and long finish.

2006 Pazo de Arribi Mencía Bierzo, $15 – From 30+ year old vines, this is a delightful wine, brimming with ripe berry fruit with overtones of mocha, vanilla and toast

Until next week, if you have not yet tried Mencía from Bierzo – give it a try!

• Also see this podcast on Pétalos from Bierzo at ¡Klink!

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

(Images: ¡Klink! The Virtual Wine Bar; Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX))

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Drinks, Spain, Wine

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.