In a winemaking nation as diverse, historic, and singular as Spain—where native grapes thrive and international varieties find intriguing new expressions—there is a vinous discovery waiting over each mountain and meseta, hillside and river valley (not to mention beach, volcano, and desert!). The result? A wide range of wines for all kinds of palates, not to mention a veritable treasure trove of ancient regions ripe for rediscovery by the curious wine lover.
Enter northern Spain’s Bierzo DO, whose trajectory from nearly forgotten to insider favorite is helping to reshape the discussion and appreciation of the country’s inimitable, diverse reds. Located on the border of Galicia and Castile y León, Bierzo was planted to the vine by the Romans, who had come in search of gold, and was subsequently maintained throughout the Middle Ages by the wine-loving Cistercian Monks; the area is also a famous stop along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. And while Spain is acclaimed worldwide for its rich, muscular reds—with the iconic offerings of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, and Toro earning their fair share of accolades—another side to Spanish red wine is cultivated in this unique region. . . and it’s fast become a favorite of sommeliers.
Mencía, Bierzo’s undisputed star variety, is taking the stage alongside its more widely-known red grape counterparts. Elegant, expressive, and age-worthy, this native grape draws favorable comparisons to Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc, and thrives in Bierzo’s terroir: a mountainous stretch separating cool, wet Green Spain from the hot, dry Meseta which makes up the country’s center. Here, a moderate climate mixes the humidity and rainfall of Galicia with the aridity and abundant sunlight of Castile. Schist, slate, and quartzite soils add a marked backbone of minerality, while the overall climate allows for slow, gentle ripening of the grapes.
In the last two decades, intrepid vignerons have returned to Bierzo, bringing with them forward-thinking winemaking practices, a healthy dash of creativity, and an understanding of wine lovers’ thirst for soulful, food-friendly, and balanced reds. Floral, often earthy and spicy, and exploding with layers of red and black fruit, Bierzo’s classic Mencía-driven reds are all about finesse and complexity.
Curious to try for yourself and see what the wine world is buzzing about? Here are a few recommendations from some of Bierzo’s most beloved producers.
Bodegas Raul Perez Ultreia St. Jacques 2018
Born into a winemaking family, Raul Perez grew up among the vines of northwestern Spain, where his family is the steward of Bierzo’s largest Mencía plantings. Perez’s Ultreia St. Jacques is an elegant Mencía-dominant red showing floral and savory notes, structured red fruit, and secondary notes of smoky mineral and coffee bean. Curious? Order your bottle here!
Alvarez de Toledo Roble Mencía 2015
With roots in the region dating back to the fifteenth century, the Alvarez de Toledo family’s winemaking tradition is deeply interwoven into the history of Bierzo—with some vineyard sites even being older than 100 years. Their red wine, a 100% Mencía, sees ten months of aging in small French and American oak barrels, and shows as fruit-forward, velvety and full-framed on the palate, with support from vibrant acidity and firm tannins. Coming in at #8 on Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Buys of 2018, you can order a bottle to taste here.
Descendientes de J. Palacios Corullon 2017
Spain’s top expert on biodynamic viticulture, winemaker Ricardo Perez hand harvests this Mencía from 60-100 year old vineyard sites on steep slopes around the village of Corullon, aging the wine in French oak. Incredibly well-integrated flavors and structure show a balance of fruit and non-fruit notes ranging from berries to violets, resin to cinnamon. Available for order here, this wine is nuanced and elegant.
Madai Origen Mencía 2017
The work of the Amigo brothers—who returned to their native Bierzo to add a new chapter to the story of their grandparents’ vineyards—the Madai Origin Mencía is exquisitely aromatic and shows vibrant, crunchy red fruit, notes of liquorice, and smooth tannins. Ready to taste? You can order a bottle here.