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A Distinctive Spanish Variety: Mencía
By Jim Clarke
Jun 14, 2016
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For the winedrinker beginning to explore Spain, it can often feel like every Spanish red grape is actually just Tempranillo by another name, be it Cencibel, Tinta del País, or Ull de Llebre.  “Green Spain’s” Mencía, however, is definitely its own thing.  Found in Galicia and León, Mencía’s character varies.  It’s certainly capable of making big, dark, powerful wines, but does Spain need more of those?  Ribera del Duero, Toro, and even many Riojas are already doing the same with Tempranillo and its aliases, and other regions amp up the power as well -- Priorat, for example.  Mencía is at its most intriguing when it doesn’t try so hard, and allows aromatics and freshness to dominate.

Bierzo was the first region to put Mencía in the international spotlight.  The region was “rediscovered” in the 1990s in much the same way Priorat was at the end of the 1980s, and in some cases by the same families -- Alvaro Palacios, for one.  What the new producers of Bierzo came for was old vines (at least fifty years old, and sometimes exceeding one hundred) vines planted just as the area recovered from the ravages of phylloxera.  Treated properly, these vines are capable of producing intense wines; in the hands of co-ops who worked the area for much of the twentieth century, they produced something more innocuous, largely due to high yields and overproduction.

Essentially a single, large, broad valley opening westward toward Galicia, Bierzo is home to a dense patchwork of small vineyard parcels; at Descendientes de José Palacios, for example, they source from 40 hectares of vineyard , but that is divided among 220 plots scattered across the region.  The Napoleonic Code (and its prohibition of unequal inheritances to offspring) has had its impact here just as in Burgundy, divvying up the land over centuries among more and more farmers.  The best sites are not on the valley floor, but on the hillsides, where better drainage, exposures, and poor, slate soils all serve to aid concentration.  The clay soils on the valley floor are too fertile, and when vines planted in them are not tended properly, they can encourage high yields that lead to high alcohol, flabby renditions of Mencía.

Winemakers in Bierzo talk of Atlantic and Mediterranean vintages (Mediterranean may be a stretch, given the distances involved; perhaps continental would be more appropriate?).  Ricardo Perez, winemaker at Descendientes de José Palacios (and Alvaro Palacios’s nephew), says these two types alternate in 3-4 year cycles, and lead to contrasting styles of wine.  The Mediterranean vintages are hotter and drier, whereas in the Atlantic years, cooler, more humid air blows in from the west.  In the former, it seems to me, one sees very good wines, but wines that show power, dark fruit and earth, albeit at the cost of varietal character -- the wines often come across as more “international” in style.  Atlantic vintages, in theory, give winemakers a chance to make wines in which Mencía shows more individuality.

Not all producers are taking advantage of that.  The investment that has come to the valley apparently includes in many cases a substantial budget for oak barrels, and many wines show a dark fruit and chocolate character.  The top wines are often concentrated enough to bear it; Pittacum’s Aurea, made from a single plot of 109-year-old vines, sees 14 months in new French oak, and while deep and dense, it steers clear of heaviness.  In many cases, however, a producer’s lower tier wine may see more restrained oak use and allow the grape to shine more; the elegance of Pittacum’s eponymous wine, which is a sourced from 150 separate parcels, would be a good example, seeing just 8 months in oak, and of that only one-third is new. 

Raul Perez’s wines would be another example; he uses mostly older and/or larger barrels to mitigate the obvious signs of new oak.  Whole cluster fermentation helps add structure and preserve or bring out the herbal aspects of Mencía; look for his Ultreia and Vico wines, each of which focus on a different sub-zone of Bierzo.

As one moves further toward the west coast, Mencía’s character becomes more apparent.  One sees the first signs of it in Valdeorras, just over the border into Galicia.  Slate soils predominate still, as evinced by the material utilized for the rooftops of the traditional houses, but a network of narrower river valleys don’t warm as readily as the broader Bierzo valley.  Most of the region is focused not on Mencía at all, but on Godello, an exciting indigenous white, but the reds that are made tend to show a change of character after the dark fruited wines of Bierzo.  Valdesil’s Valderroa 2013, for example, is red-fruited and floral, and generous on the nose; its finish is fresh, with a pleasant herbal or spicy note.  Their higher-end Carballo, only made in select vintages, keeps to a less extracted, red plum and leather nose, despite the name, which actually means “oak” in the local dialect.

The distinctive side of Mencía really comes into focus when one moves into the Ribeira Sacra, a network of two river valleys, the Sil and the Miño.  The vineyards are among the most dramatic in the world, terraced slate slopes that plunge into the rivers below.  The region’s 1,200 hectares are farmed by about 3,000 growers.  In principle, there’s huge potential for growth; one can see many terraces where ancient vineyards have become overgrown by local brush, but the cost of re-establishing workable vineyards in such a difficult environment is too high to be profitable in most cases.  One producer, Algueira, has spent thirty-five years recuperating vineyards, but owner Fernando González Riviero points out, “In Rueda they can plant 20,000 vines in one day; here, we can plant three.”

As in Valdeorras, red fruit and floral aromatics come through in the best of these wines, often with a more pronounced herbal or spice note.  Many of the wines are not 100% Mencía, but include other indigenous varieties like Merenzao, Sousón, and Caiño Tinto.  In the context of articulating Mencía’s character, it might seem inappropriate to make the comparison, but Algueira’s Mencía 2011 seemed almost Burgundian after a few years in the bottle (2015 is the current release); nonetheless, far better to draw comparison to such a distinctive region than to say Mencía tastes like everything else.  It doesn’t have to, and when it doesn’t, that’s when it’s at its most distinct.