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August 13, 2022

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Spanish mountain freshness appeases summer heat

Whites are light and reds are weighty. That perception prevails around the wine world. But there are exceptions. Chardonnay, Viognier and some other white varieties can make exceptionally concentrated and powerful wines; while Pinot Noir, Bardolino and a few other red grapes can make stylishly light and delicate wines. There also exist a select few red wines that live in both worlds.

The Nebbiolo grape in the great Barolo and Barberesco wines of Piedmont are intriguingly light in color with good freshness but also intense with substantial tannins. Another grape that makes red wines with finesse and power is the Mencia grape of Spain.

Native to the Iberian peninsula, Mencia is a violet-blue colored, thick-skinned grape. For most of the 20th century, the Mencia grape was believed to be a descendant of Cabernet Franc because it made pale and fragrant red wines with Cab Franc-like aromas.

DNA profiling at the Technical University of Madrid disproved this and proved that Mencia was genetically identical to the Jaen variety cultivated in Portugal with both grapes being a cross between the two Portuguese grapes Alfrocheiro and Patorra. Even though its birthplace was most likely Portugal, one region in the northwest of Spain has adopted the grape and made it into something truly special.

Bierzo DO

Perched in the rugged mountainous western reaches of the Castilla y Leon region in the north of Spain, Bierzo is a harsh and mountainous region with a cool continental climate that’s perfect for viticulture. The Sil River separates the region into two sub-zones, the elevated Bierzo Alto that features mineral rich terraced vineyards and the more sprawling and verdant Bierzo Bajo plain.

The ancient Romans are credited with bringing vines to this harsh and inaccessible region but at the time their main focus was exploiting the land’s coal, iron and especially gold resources. The Romans had far more hospitable territories to cultivate vines but as in all their conquered lands they built roads and plated vines. The transplanted vines thrived in the mineral-rich soils, and in the ensuring centuries winemaking by Catholic monks continued despite incessant invasions by the Visigoths, Suevi and Moors.

In the ninth century the remains of Saint James were discovered interred in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and as a result Bierzo became a popular destination for holy pilgrims. Many local vintners believe Mencia likely arrived with one of these pilgrims.

For much of the 20th century, the Mencia wines of Bierzo were mostly light and undistinguished wines that were only suitable for daily drinking. They failed to meet the loftier standards of fine restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona and required for export. They were anonymous wines only appreciated by locals. Then something unexpected happened.

A small cadre of highly-regarded Spanish winemakers from other regions discovered a trove of some of Spain’s oldest vines. They intuitively knew that the low-yield, high-quality fruit from these old vines had the potential to make wines to rival the more acclaimed Ribera del Duero DO and Toro DO wines. Their foresight gave birth to some of Spain’s most exciting red wines.

The best Mencia wines from Bierzo come from mineral-rich 500-650-meter high hillside vineyards that feature excellent diurnal temperature differences. These conditions lead to a longer and more gradual ripening season that results in grapes with optimal ripeness that still retain freshness. Mencia wines, especially those that spend time in oak, are quite age-worthy.

Mencia Crianza wines from Bierzo must be aged for a minimum of two years, with at least six months in oak barrels. Reserva wines must age at least 12 months in oak barrels and 24 months in bottle. Despite considerable aging these wines still retain the signature high acidity of the grape.

All good Mencia wines from Bierzo are fresh, exuberant and structured wines. Top examples of Mencia wines commonly feature abundant red fruit, plum, black cherry wildflower, herbs, licorice and intriguing earthy aromas and flavors. These qualities, along with their solid acidity, also make them perfect summer reds.

Mencia wines from Bierzo remain largely undiscovered in China. Despite this, a few of the best producers have wines available in Shanghai. Alvaro Palacios wines are exceptional, however due to their fame I find them over-priced and recommend readers instead try the wines of Godelia, including the beautiful Seleccion Mencia Bierzo. Other recommended producers include Martin Codax, Guimaro, Raul Perez and Godelia.

Because of their bright acidity and headiness, Mencia wines from Bierzo are best served slightly chilled or about 15 degrees Celsius. Approachable when young, better examples of Mencia wines can be cellared for a decade or longer. Recommended vintages include 2020, 2019, 2018, 2016, 2015 2014, 2012, 2011 and 2010.

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