Dismissed by many in Spain as a region suited only to producing bulk wine, Bierzo is poised to become one of Spain's leading wine regions. The landscape, the focus on indigenous grapes, and the personalities involved convince me that still-obscure Bierzo is destined for the big time. Among the personalities I've got in mind here are members of the Palacios family, making the comparison between Bierzo and Priorat--another region that has recently risen from obscurity to fame--almost inevitable. Even to mention Bierzo in the same breath with Priorat (which has become a new darling to wealthy collectors) may raise some eyebrows. But, ultimately, I believe that Bierzo may turn out to make even greater wine than Priorat.
This is largely because Mencia, the region's primary grape, delivers incredible complexity at a lower alcohol level than one typically finds in Priorat wines. Mencia ripens early, by mid-September, and is well suited to the maritime climate of Bierzo where autumn rains are normal. Although its DNA has not been mapped entirely, Mencia is definitely not related to Cabernet Franc, despite speculation to the contrary. Local inhabitants believe that since Bierzo has always been an important stop on the pilgrimage route from northern Europe to Santiago de Compostella, pilgrims brought Mencia vines with them from elsewhere. However no documentation supports the local speculation. Oscar Alegre, Palacios' export director in Bierzo, believes that the 'diversity of clones' (they have 9 different clones in a one-acre vineyard) indicates that the grape variety has been in the region for centuries.
The red wines from Bierzo (there are also some terrific whites made from the Godello grape, but more about that in a future column) run the gamut from light and fruity to deep and concentrated, in part because of the diversity of soil types and vineyard locations. Unlike the monotonous schist of Priorat, Bierzo has a variety of soils ranging from rugged stony well-drained sites to more fertile spots. Bierzo produces wines from Mencia with uncommon complexity, including young vines. At the fruity and forward end of the spectrum, these wines are engaging because of their low tannins and lovely 'not just fruit' complexity. At the richer end of the spectrum, the best wines are beautifully balanced and silky, with an exotic earthiness and minerality. And, importantly, they are capable of combining expressiveness with restraint.
Priorat is famous for its remoteness, and yet, by comparison, Bierzo makes look accessible. Villages in the region can seem seemed mired in the 19th century, with their communal bread baking ovens and communal pools for washing clothes. Fields are still plowed by horses guided by a dog. Unlike Priorat, which is close to Barcelona, Bierzo is in the middle of nowhere, in northwestern Spain on the border of Galicia and Castilla y León. To get there you drive an hour and a half west from León across the plains, the Maseta of Castilla y León, enter the hills and mountains that surround the region, and pass one seemingly deserted hamlet after another. The sight of stone houses and slate roofs presage the kind of terrain and soil awaiting you in the vineyards.
Almost as rugged as Priorat, Bierzo is a similarly forgotten area where everything is done by hand and where a bunch of 30-somethings have invaded to reinvigorate the area. Mencia is rarely grown outside of Bierzo, unlike Garnacha and Cariñena, which are planted in Priorat and widely grown throughout the Mediterranean. It is capable of making terrific wine on its own, and in contrast to the wines of Priorat, often loses some of its appealing character when blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
As with any 'newly discovered' wine region these days, winemakers here must resist the temptation to over-extract the grapes, over-work the winemaking and over-shadow the wine with oak. It's difficult to show restraint anywhere these days, when fashion in wine favors power and muscle, but since Mencia shows more character at lower levels of alcohol, winemakers in Bierzo should theoretically have an easier time remembering to match the winemaking techniques to what the grapes can realistically deliver.
The region received its DO (Denominación Origen, or official recognition from the Spanish wine authorities) only in 1989. By 2000, there were still only about 20 wineries in the region, but today there are 50 with plans for another 10 to open within the next two years, according to the Consejo Regulador (the regulatory body) of Bierzo.
The region encompasses about 9,000 acres, which makes it about twice the size of Priorat (Napa Valley, by comparison, has about 50,000 acres under vine). Bierzo is cultivated by about 4,200 growers, which means that the average holding is just over two acres. With such fragmentation, cooperatives have not surprisingly played an enormous role in the area, and were largely responsible for the preservation of the old vineyards. Without the co-ops, it would not have been economically feasible for many farmers to make wine, and their old vines and vineyards would have been abandoned.
This fragmentation also explains the paucity of large estates In Bierzo. Buying large vineyards is difficult because of the local tradition of how land was divided among the heirs at death. In an extension of the Napoleonic code, each parcel--not just the entire estate--was divided among all of the heirs. The result is thousands of parcels, many of which are barely an acre in size. This custom results in the Herculean task of negotiating with 30 or 40 individuals if one wishes to put together a reasonable sized vineyard, especially sincemany of whom are absentee owners as descendants leave the area. The task is made even more daunting by a cultural factor: selling land is widely regarded as a shameful act bespeaking financial desperation
The region received a boost in 1999 when Alvaro Palacios, one of the 'founding five' of Priorat and considered one of Spain's most talented and visionary winemakers, teamed up with his nephew, Ricardo Pérez, to form Descendientes de J. Palacios. The Palacios name in Spain is comparable to Gaja or Antinori in Italy. When he does something new, people immediately taken notice. Although there are many leading producers in Bierzo--Castro Ventosa, Dominio de Tares and Luna Beberide to name a few--Xoan Cannes, one of Spain's most prominent sommeliers says, 'Palacios is Bierzo.'
Palacios and the other quality producers in Bierzo are focusing on the export market because, as Oscar Alegre says, 'nobody in Spain thinks quality wine comes from here.' How wrong they are.
Founded only in 2000, Dominio de Tares was started by a group of young individuals from Bierzo, only one of whom, Amancio Fernandez, a highly acclaimed winemaker, was previously involved in wine. Despite the seeming lack of experience, they have become one of the region's leading producers. Their focus is on making wine from old vine Mencia grown high in the hills. Producing 500,000 bottles annually from 200 acres (75 acres of their own vineyards, and 125 acres leased), they are one of the largest in the region. Pedro Gonzalez replaced Fernandez as technical director (winemaker) two years ago.
Dominio de Tares, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Albares' 2005 ($11, Classical Wines): This 100% unoaked Mencia, made especially for the U.S. market, is a terrific buy. With lovely aromatics, fruit and little tannin, it has a Beaujolais-like style and sensibility, but with more substance. 88
Dominio de Tares, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Baltos' 2005 ($15, Classical Wines): Made from slightly older vines and aged briefly in American and French oak barriques, the Baltos is a more muscular version of Dominio de Tares's Albares. The oak doesn't dominate; rather it imparts an attractive creaminess that balances the mild tannic structure. It's another good value. 89
Dominio de Tares, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Exaltos' 2004 ($27, Classical Wines): Bigger still than either the Albares or Baltos bottlings from Dominio de Tares, the Exaltos has attractive rusticity to boot. At this stage, the American oak is still apparent and the wine would benefit with another year or so of age to allow it to come together. 87
Dominio de Tares, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Bembibre' 2003 ($46, Classical Wines): Made from 60+ year-old vines, this big and juicy wine is remarkably well balanced for a product of the scorching 2003 vintage. Nuances of tar, meaty overtones and black fruit are combined in this exotically flavored wine that is terrific to drink now. 90
Dominio de Tares, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Bembibre' 2004 ($46, Classical Wines): Brighter with better uplifting acidity than the 2003 Bembibre, the 2004 is nonetheless more awkward at this young stage. A captivating smoky, earthy nose mixed with tar and pepper in the finish suggests it will evolve nicely, and even after just 30 minutes in the glass, it softens. Give it a few more years to settle down. 91
Dominio de Tares, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Tares P3' 2003 ($78, Classical Wines): The P3, from a single plot of 100-year-old vines, has gorgeous aromas of minerals and black fruit. Plush and powerful, it's nonetheless a graceful wine. The heat of the vintage probably explains a slightly stewed character to the fruit, but it still retains brightness in the finish. 90
Dominio de Tares, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Tares P3' 2004 ($78, Classical Wines): Fresher with better balance that the 2003 P3, the 2004 P3 is a real success. It has the same alluring nose and delivers the same combination of power and plushness, but without a hint of over extraction or over ripeness. 93
Although many of the wines from Luna Beberide are not entitled to the Bierzo DO because of the inclusion of non-allowed grapes (Cabernet, Merlot and Tempranillo), the Luna family is a major reason the area is experiencing a renaissance. No article about Bierzo would be complete without highlighting their fundamental contributions.
Bernardo Luna founded the winery in the mid 1980s before Bierzo received its DO. He saw an opportunity and bought almost 200 acres--a vast amount by Bierzo standards--when a local cooperative went bankrupt. His neighbors thought he was crazy, but in retrospect, he was clairvoyant because Luna Beberide, one of the largest private vineyard owners in the area, now is a leading producer. Luna initially included international varieties in his wines because, much like producers in Priorat, he was apprehensive that the indigenous Mencia was up to the job. Over time and with more experience with Mencia, Luna Beberide realized it is more than up to the task, and has been reducing the amount of Cabernet and Merlot in the blend.
Luna Beberide, (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Tierras de Luna' 2003 ($30, Grapes of Spain): Inclusion of Cabernet and Merlot in this blend gives the wine a slightly New Worldish style, but the rich complexity imparted by Mencia comes through loud and clear. Good power and remarkable acidity and lift--considering the number of flabby wines from 2003--equals an excellent choice for hearty fare this fall. 88
Luna Beberide, (Castilla y León, Spain) Reserva 2003 ($50, Grapes of Spain): The exotic complexity of Mencia is more apparent in this blend. Attractive creamy oak is still evident, which is not surprising since the wine spent 2+ years in barrel. Polished, with good structure, this wine needs another year or two to come together. 89
Luna Beberide, (Castilla y León, Spain) Reserva 2004 ($60, Grapes of Spain): Don't miss this wine when it reaches our shores. A wonderfully balanced combination of exotic smoky elements, bright fruit, a patina of oak and fine structure makes this wine a delight to taste, and more importantly, to drink. 93
Founded only in 2000 by Mariano Garcia (the former winemaker at Vega Sicilia) and Bernardo Luna, and now run by their sons, Alberto and Eduardo Garcia and Alejandro Luna, Paixar has quickly found a world-wide following. The vineyards--some owned and others leased--for Paixar (pronounced PIE-shar) explain the extraordinary quality and finesse of the wine. Situated at about 2,700 feet and composed predominately of slate, they are home to 80 to 100 year-old Mencia vines. The current annual production is a measly 9,000 bottles, but the wines are well worth a search.
Paixar, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 2001 ($70, Grapes of Spain): It's not often that a producer's early wines from a new area are so outstanding. Usually it takes time to discern the quirks of the vineyards and area. But the 2001 Paixar has it all. Powerful, but not overdone--a mere 13.5% alcohol--it delivers layers of mineral-infused nuances seamlessly intertwined with succulent black cherry-like flavor. Secondary fruit flavors are just starting to peek out from the fine supple tannins indicating that this wine will continue to evolve beautifully. It's exotic without being flamboyant or out of place. If this is the kind of wine they make from the start, watch out. 98
Paixar, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 2003 ($70, Grapes of Spain): The 2003 Paixar has remarkable class especially considering the difficulties making wine across Europe in that hot dry year. It retains the uncanny combination of polish and power without being over-extracted or overdone. The family resemblance to the 2001 is clear. 95
Paixar, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 2004 ($70, Grapes of Spain): Paixar's hallmark of elegance combined with intensity is readily apparent in the 2004 vintage. Slightly fresher than the 2003, its minerality and succulence is sustained throughout an incredible finish. Polished fine tannins lend structure without being intrusive. Despite spending 16 months in new French oak barrels, this is not an 'oaky' wine. Beautifully integrated, the multitude of flavors slide together effortlessly and last seemingly forever. 96
Ricardo Pérez, like so many travelers before him, stopped in Bierzo on his way to somewhere else. When he saw the vast expanse of old vineyards he called his uncle and urged him to invest, according to Alegre. The locals thought Palacios was crazy when he embraced the Mencia grape and opted not to plant Cabernet and Merlot as he had done in Priorat. But he saw lots of small plots of old vine Mencia, had learned how well old vine Garnacha and Cariñena performed in Priorat, and decided to go with the indigenous grape. Unlike in Priorat, Palacios purchased vineyards in Bierzo early and now owns over 80 acres in the village of Corullón--and manages another 37 acres--all of which he farms biodynamically. Alegre believes, 'biodynamic farming helps to express the site' and Palacios' wines--both in Priorat and Bierzo--are all about the uniqueness of the site.
Wines from this producer are handled with scientific rigor. The fruit from 40+ different parcels is vinified and aged separately to understand the different character imparted to the grapes by different plots. The emphasis, like that of Dominio de Tares, is on high altitude sites--2,500 to 3,000 feet. Alegre believes the grapes from high altitude vineyards produce wines with added complexity without losing the silky component for which Mencia is famous.
Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) 'Pétalos del Bierzo' 2006 ($23, The Rare Wine Company): Made from purchased grapes grown in villages neighboring Corullón as well as from Palacios' vineyards, this has a rich combination of floral notes and stony minerality supported by fine tannins. It carries the 14% alcohol effortlessly. A wonderful introduction to the Palacios style of Bierzo, it's a terrific value. 90
Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) Villa de Corullón 2004 ($50, The Rare Wine Company): Despite packing lots of power, the Villa Corullón retains its elegance and class. Made entirely from estate grapes grown in vineyards scattered throughout the village, it has added spice and minerality complemented by freshness of fruit. Slightly tarry elements appear in the finish. Still young and tightly wound, it needs a few years to unfold. 92
Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) San Martín 2005 ($100, The Rare Wine Company): With an annual production of less than 2,000 bottles, Palacios' 'single vineyard wines' are tough to find. Technically not sourced from a single vineyard, but rather several parcels all located on the San Martín hill, this wine is silky and plush with a fabulous nose of violets and spice. Layers of minerality that persist into the finish and impeccable balance reinforce the initial impression that this is a great wine. 94
Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) Moncerbal 2005 ($100, The Rare Wine Company): From a higher perch with rockier soil, the Moncerbal comes across as more of a 'mountain' wine than the San Martín. Cherry-like flavors fight through firm, pure minerality. Its hard edge, apparent at this stage, needs time to soften and allow its true complexity to shine. Judging from a glorious and beautifully developed 2001 Moncerbal tasted at this same time, I would cellar this wine for at least another five years. This wine and the San Martín offer dramatic example of the importance of vineyard site even in this small area. 91
Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) Las Lamas 2005 ($140, The Rare Wine Company): Not yet bottled, this barrel sample marries the best of the Moncerbal and the San Martín. Floral aromas grab your attention and then a fabulous combination of a silky richness surrounding a mineral core holds it. Despite its extraordinary power and length, it retains a fascinating delicacy in the finish. 97
Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) La Faraona 2005 ($160, The Rare Wine Company): La Faraona is a single vineyard of just over one acre, and the highest in the village of Corullón. Minerals and a core of ripe sweet ripe balance the firm tannins that give it a clear 'mountain' character. Yet the underlying opulence and silkiness of the wine comes through. 95
As these tasting notes reflect, Palacios' wines have a family resemblance, but they are all clearly different. They have the same body, wear different clothes, so to speak. None of them are overdone, over alcoholic, or over-the-top. Nor will they be described as having a New World or international style. Palacios is not looking for 'another international over-toasted wine,' according to Alegre. 'To lose the sense of place is such a pity.' These wines clearly have a sense of place, and the place is going to become very famous before long. Mark my words.