The signature red grape of Bierzo, the mencia, is practically unknown Philippines wine supplier Manila wine shop discusses wine by the grape variety Mencia.

December 14, 2010

Discovering the big red wines of Bierzo

Every once in a while an unfamiliar wine region rises and demands attention. Suddenly, that region and its wines begin to wallpaper your mind like a new hit tune, so that you cant get them out of your head. Most recently, Ive been hearing the song of the red wines of Bierzo.
Bierzo? Absolutely. Its a small, ancient region in the northwestern corner of Castilla y Leon, almost on the eastern border of Galicia, which is due north of Portugal on the Atlantic coast. Most wine drinkers, I suspect, have never heard of Bierzo, but word is getting around. And if you get the opportunity to taste a good bottle, with its haunting, exotic wildflower, licorice and fruit flavors, you cant help but remember it.
Spain has offered up more than a few big new things in the last 20 years. Though it had more acres of vineyards planted than any other country, only Rioja and sherry registered on the consciousness of the world. Years of repressive government kept the wine industry antiquated. But reform and greater economic freedom in the 1980s brought investment and innovation and Spain is now a leader in modern winemaking. Think of the regions and wines that have become noteworthy in the last two decades: Ribera del Duero, albarino from Galicia, verdejo from Rueda, Txakoli from the Basque region, Penedes, Toro, Jumilla and Priorat.
Bierzo is now on that list, and judging by the Dining section wine panels tasting, it deserves the spotlight. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Roger Kugler, sommelier at Suba, a Spanish restaurant on the Lower East Side, and Gerald Marzorati, an assistant managing editor of The New York Times with an interest in Spanish wines.
We sampled 16 bottles, fewer than our usual 25, because those were all we could find. Its an indication, partly, of how few producers in Bierzo are marketing their wines to the world. Indeed, those 16 bottles came from just nine producers, with one, Descendientes de J. Palacios, accounting for five of them.
If you have been following Spanish wines, Palacios may be a familiar name. Alvaro Palacios was among the pioneers who brought the Priorat region to international attention in the late 1980s. In 1999, he and his nephew Ricardo Perez Palacios established Descendientes de J. Palacios in Bierzo, hoping to achieve a full range of successful wines.
It was a formidable challenge. The leading red grapes traditionally planted in Priorat, garnacha and carinena, were somewhat familiar to wine drinkers outside of Spain as grenache and carignane. But the signature red grape of Bierzo, the mencia, is practically unknown. In a business that relies on familiarity for its marketing, this was a serious disadvantage.
To their credit, new Bierzo producers like Palacios and Dominio de Tares, which was founded in 2000 and produced three of our 16 bottles, stuck with the mencia grape instead of replacing it with fashionable varietals like merlot or syrah. Indeed, these producers acquired mencia vineyards, planted on steep hillsides, that were 40, 50 even 100 years old.
The beauty of these old-vine vineyards is apparent in wines like our No. 1 bottle from Palacios, a 2002 from a single vineyard, Fontelas, in Corullon. This was clearly an ambitious bottle, with plenty of toasty oak flavors. Yet the fruit, mineral and floral aromas and flavors were intense enough to stand up to the oak, and the wine had both power and harmony. It also had a price tag, $99, that made it the most expensive bottle in our lineup. It should improve with a few years of aging.
Our No. 2 wine, a 2003 Vega Montan from Bodegas Adria, was also our best value at $16. This was an earthy, floral wine with complex, balanced flavors that really allow you to appreciate the quality of the mencia grape. Two other inexpensive wines also finished high on our list, a 2003 from Pago de Valdoneje for $11 and a 2003 Pucho for $14.
Why did we prefer these wines to some others, like the 01 Villa de Corullon from Palacios, the 02 Bembibre from Dominio de Tares for $45, our No. 9 wine, and an 02 Paixar for $90, which did not make our cut? To varying degrees, both of these ambitious wines sacrificed some of the qualities that make Bierzo distinctive in favor of oaky vanilla flavors that could come from anywhere.
In ancient regions all over the world, this tension between distinctive wines and geographically indistinguishable wines screams out as producers aim for the international market. Its a matter both of style and of economics. Do you make wines that emphasize the singular qualities of a particular region and its grapes, and hope that the world will admire them? Or do you aim to make wines in styles with a track record of popularity?
Its easy to understand the economic impetus for choosing the popular path. Yet in Bierzo, I think, its more complicated than that. As in southern Italy, where nobody really knows the limits of what can be done with the aglianico grape, producers are exploring the potential of the mencia. Its appeal as an easygoing wine is evident; these wines will go with a wide range of hearty foods.
But what happens when you employ modern techniques in the vineyard and the cellar in an effort to produce wines worthy of aging? Can you still tease out elements that will make these wines supreme expressions of Bierzo rather than some generic super-Spanish wines? With the Fontelas, we guessed yes. With some of the other big wines, we were less certain.
Nonetheless, I have to give the Bierzo producers the benefit of the doubt. They are giving the world mencia, and they ought to be congratulated for that. It could so easily have been syrah, again. TASTING REPORT: INTRODUCING THE FLAVORS OF THE MENCIA GRAPE


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