|Where and What on the Winelist: Bierzo’s Mencia
Bierzo. It’s in northwest Spain, inland a bit from Rias Baixas. It’s one of those re-discovered Spanish regions, like Toro or, if you go back to the 90s, Priorat. And like Priorat, its best vineyards are on the hillsides, with slatey soils making for great drainage and concentrated wines. The flatter valley vineyards tend toward quartz and clay. It also had lots of old vine vineyards lying untapped, a vestige of the old days, when the area was on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The area was officially recognized as a DO in 1989.
Surprisingly, perhaps, not Tempranillo or Garnacha (Grenache). While many of Spain’s regions focus on these two grapes (the former often under an alternate name, like Cencibel or Tinta de Toro), Bierzo has a distinctive local variety, Mencia.
It’s fruity, aromatic, and a bit higher in acidity than those other two. In the lesser vineyards, that means fruity, often simple wines, but when vineyard conditions promote greater concentration and structure, some really exciting wines can result. Plum, cherry, and spice (more pipe tobacco or cocoa than pepper) aromas are typical, sometimes supported by meaty or mineral touches. More powerful examples often show a trace of licorice as well.
Most producers have held back on new French oak, which is in keeping with the grape’s lift of acidity and relatively mild tannins. The temptation to apply more oak does come into play with more expensive bottling (most producers here make wines at several price points), so often the cheaper wines capture the grape’s character more clearly than the flagship wines. Find the price-to-style ratio that works best for you and your guests.
Red wines that aren’t about power and oak are always handy to have around. Bierzo wines, with their aromatic, red fruit character, medium body, and lift of acidity, are flexible food wines able to stand up to meats, but not overwhelming alongside some fish dishes. Prices range from budget to relatively high, so there are lots of places for this, from four-tops having a mix of foods to budget-level for large parties having a mix of foods. It also avoids a lot of guest prejudices, owing to its unfamiliarity, making a wine that both Cab and Pinot drinkers can agree on. You can also trade on its status as Spain’s up-and-coming new region.
One of the leaders in the region, as in elsewhere in Spain, is Alvaro Palacios. After helping make Priorat famous and re-developing his family’s Rioja property, Palacios turned his attention to Bierzo, which he has likened to Burgundy. It was apparently a close call: had Palacios decided differently, Bierzo could be old hat today, and I’d be writing about Priorat as the up-and-comer. Palacios’s winery in Bierzo is called Descendientes de José Palacios after his father; nephew Ricardo Perez is his partner in the project, which got started in 1998. They now make seven different wines. The two that are readily available in the US are the high-end, old vine Corullón and the more affordable Pétalos del Bierzo; both are great values and much more affordable compared to Palacios’s older properties.
Dominio de Tares got started a year or so after Palacios by a group of young locals. They are now a relatively large producer for the region, making more than 40,000 cases each year. Their Bembibre is the flagship wine. In descending price order are the Exaltos, the Baltos, and the Albares; the latter two are well-priced for glass pours, and the whole range is quite reasonable; I guess if you don’t have the Palacios name behind you, you can’t demand as much.
Other Recommended Producers (All three produce wines well-priced for by-the-glass service):