Discover the elegance of Mencía
We’re often asked which country is our favorite for wine. For me, it’s Spain. I’ve honestly been trying not to blog too much about Spain so I don’t blatantly show my bias. That stops today. We’re heading to northwest Spain. In particular, the wine regions of Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, where we find the incredible black grape variety—Mencía.
I’d always appreciated the few Mencías I'd tried in the past; however, it was during my visit to Spain last July when I really became a fan of this varietal. In every wine bar or wine shop I visited, I’d explain my love for Canary Island wines and ask for recommendations of other Spanish wine regions that don’t carry the name Rioja, Priorat, or Ribera del Duro. [This is not because I don't love regions, I do, but they are easier to find here in the states.] Over and over again, the recommendation was to drink Mencía from Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra. So that’s what I did, and that’s what I’ve continued to do whenever I find them here in DFW.
Why am I such a big fan?
You're about to find out!
Administratively, Bierzo is part of Castilla y Leon. However, it is on the western border of the state, and the wines often have more in common with the wines of the administrative state of Galicia because of the climate.
The Romans founded the city Bergidum, which later became Bierzo. With them, came grapevines and winemaking. Years later, the Cistercian monks arrived and continued the cultivation of vineyards. Yet, despite all of this wine history, Bierzo only became an official Denominación de Origen (DO), which is explained below, in 1989.
© Kelly Mitchell
In the late 90s, a small group of predominately young winemakers and growers arrived and reinvigorated the region.
The soil is comprised of well-drained slate, quartzite, and granite.
Another reason to love this region is that roughly 80% of the vines in Bierzo are at least 60 years old. Many of them are over 100 years old. Old vines produce delicious, concentrated fruit.
The classic wines of Bierzo were 12-13% ABV, but now there are wines with 14-14.5% ABV.
Fun side note: the Romans used hydraulic power to dig the largest open-pit gold mine in their entire empire in Las Médulas mountains. This site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Las Médulas © UNESCO
Ribeira Sacra, Spain
Ribeira Sacra is located in the eastern border of the administrative state of Galicia. The name, Ribeira Sacra, translates to “sacred river.”
Like Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra is an ancient wine region with Roman ties. The Romans built steep slate terraces above the rivers Síl and Miño, and those terraces are still used today. Some of those slopes surpass 50 degrees!
The soil is mainly comprised of granite, schist, and slate.
Altitude, aspect, soil, and climate are all desirable aspects for winemaking, and Ribeira Sacra has it all. Yet, Ribeira Sacra didn’t become a DO until 1996.
Classic Ribeiras are light in alcohol (12%-12.5% ABV). You can now find higher alcohol versions.
Mountains divide Spain into distinct natural regions. The north and northwest coast are cut off and have a moderate maritime climate. Because of their proximity to the Atlantic, Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra are cooler and wetter than the rest of Spain. Cooler climates result in retention of acidity and floral notes, which are wonderful things for a red wine.
Mencía can produce graceful red wines with naturally high acidity and primary flavors of cherry, pomegranate, blackberry, licorice, earth, flowery herbs, pepper, and slate.
As stated above, the wines can range from low (12% ABV) to high (14.5% ABV). I tend to prefer the 12%-13.5% ABV range, but I’ve also enjoyed higher ones.
Tannins are generally medium to medium plus.
In both Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo, wines made from Mencía can also include small amounts of other local varietals in the blend.
As a comparison, if you enjoy Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, then this Mencía
is your jam.
Mencía is known as Jaen in Portugal
Spanish wine law
We haven't touched on this yet so now is as good as a time as ever to cover Spanish wine law.
Under the Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP), you will see the following terms: Denominación de Origin (DO); Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa); and Vinos de Pago (VP).
In 2018, there were 68 DOs. These areas are generally very large and include different terrains and conditions. Yet, the wines of a particular DO must meet certain minimum quality standards as well as specifications including grape varieties and viticulture.
There are currently only two DOCas—Rioja and Priorat. However, Priorat uses the Catalan terminology of Denominacio d’Origen Qualifacada (DOQ).
VPs apply on to single estates with impeccable reputations. In 2018, there were only 17 VPs. These estates grow their own grapes, which must be vinified and matured on the estate.
Outside of the DOP system are regions known as Vino de la Tierra (VdIT). There are a some affordable and exciting wines being made under the VdIT labels, which are less restrictive on protocols.
Wines we tried for educational purposes . . .
Raúl Pérez, Ultreia, Bierzo, 2014, Skurnik Wines & Spirits, $62
This dry wine was medium plus bodied with medium acidity. Aromas and flavors of eucalyptus, cranberry, pomegranate, earth, vegetal, tobacco, and black pepper. The alcohol was 13.5% ABV and the tannins were medium plus. The finish was medium plus.
Remember the name, Raúl Pérez. He is a legend in Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra. When I was in Madrid last year, I was in a wonderful wine shop and the owner said that Raúl Pérez was his favorite winemaker. After drinking his wines and researching him, I can see why.
Envínate, Lousas, Viña de Aldea, 2018, Jose Pastor Selections, $42
This dry wine was medium bodied and medium plus acidity. The wine showcased strawberries, cherries, mint, green bell pepper, cedar, and wet stones. The tannins were medium and the alcohol was 12.5% ABV. The finish was medium plus.
We’ve already posted about our love for Envínate’s wines in our Canary Islands post. They are sooooo good.
Godelia, Mencía, Bierzo, Europvin USA, $20
This dry wine showed a lot of age on the nose and palate. Cooked blackberry, prune, black pepper, violet, cloves, nutmeg, and leather were all evident. The alcohol was 14.5% ABV and it showed. The acidity, tannins, and body were all medium plus. The finish was medium minus.
Don’t let the price of the first two wines fool you. Mencía from Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra generally runs between $18- $25. We splurged on the Envínate and Raúl Pérez wines because of how much we love both producers. Sometimes, you need to treat yo self.
The quality coming out of these two regions is phenomenal. Restaurants, bars, and wine shops are all taking notice, which is great because these wines are now more readily available. What’s not to love about: old vines; cool climate; elevation; young winemakers and growers; medium bodied, high acid, and aromatic wines; and affordable prices?
These are the types of wines that we get excited about and want to drink daily. And it’s our pleasure to share this insight with you so that, hopefully, you too become excited about these wines.