One of the most fashionable wine regions in Spain is causing a stir with an unusual native Iberian grape, winning plaudits from wine critics and wine lovers across the globe for its unusual flavour.
The region in question is Bierzo, a remote inland mountainous area in northern Spain between Santiago de Compostella and Burgos, a well travelled route for pilgrims for centuries on the Camino de Santiago. The Bercianos have been growing the little-known red mencia grape since the late 19th century, but it is only now gaining a following.
The excitement today revolves around the rediscovery of semi-abandoned plots of old mencia vines in Bierzo. New passionate young producers are starting to convert the fruits of these old low-yielding vines to some amazing new wave mencias – and the quality has soared.
Speculation that mencia was the same grape as cabernet franc or graciano has been ruled out by grape geneticists. It has been discovered through DNA that mencia in Bierzo is actually the same as the Portuguese jaen du dao grape; most likely brought by pilgrims returning from the Santiago de Compostela area near northern Portugal.
So what does mencia taste like? It is an aromatic variety, with a bouquet of crushed raspberries and cherries – similar to cabernet franc. It has a medium bodied palate with lots of natural acidity, which reminds me of pinot noir to taste – but it is much, much more minerally than a pinot with steelier tannins. One retailer describes his mencia as having “sapid mouthwatering ink/blood notes” – I can see what he means.
Two styles of mencia exist in Bierzo. The highest vineyard slopes have granite and schist soils which produce a more minerally style, while the lower alluvial clay and stone valleys along the river Sil produce an earthier, riper, style.
It is a tough grape to get a balance with thanks to its fiercely high acidity, high alcohol and steely tannins. Some producers tend to over oak mencia – losing its delicacy in the process – but top producers here such as Losada and Palacios in Bierzo, as well as Abadia da Cova in neighbouring Ribeira Sacra, have created fabulously fresh delicious examples.
Losada Vinos de Finca seem to be achieving the most success in terms of drinkability. This ultra modern winery, set up by four youthful Bierzans in 2004, is producing balanced ripe examples. I enjoyed Losada’s El Pajaro in particular which was voted one of the top 100 best-value wines in the world by Wine and Spirit Magazine last year.
There are 9,000 hectares of mencia in Spain. Bierzo region produces the best examples, as growers here seem to be able to coax weightier styles out of the grape, but it is also found in neighbouring regions of north-west Spain: Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras as well as in Galacia and Catalunya.
Watch out for mencia. It is unlikely to be found in supermarkets, but do ask your local wine merchant to stock it. The cheapest I have found it is at Oddbins at under £8. Whenever I have served mencia in tastings, it has always scored highly. With its vibrant acidity it makes a perfect red to serve with grilled meats, charcuterie or even haggis.
Cuatro Pasos 2010 Martin Codax
(£10.99, Lockett Bros, North Berwick)
An old vine mencia, made by a large Galician winery. This wine is named after some bear footprints found in Bierzo’s high vineyards. Morello cherry and raspberry notes, vivid fresh with an oak undertone.
El Pajaro Rojo 2011 Losada Vinos de Finca
(£12.49, www.berkmann.co.uk; www.winesearcher.com)
This is Losada’s second wine, but more approachable in price and drinkability than their premium wine. It’s a beautifully ripe, voluptuous mencia with a fabulous freshness and vitality made by a young team. Star Buy
Petalos 2010 Alvaro
(£13.99 each for 2, or £15.99, Majestic Wine; WoodWinters; Berry Bros & Rudd; Luvians)
Palacios is one of Bierzo’s pioneers. After working in Rioja and Priorat in Spain and at Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux, Alvaro now focuses on Bierzo crafting a refreshing light mencia from slate terraces.
Mencia Ecologico 2010 Abadia da Cova
(£12.99, L’Art du Vin, Dunfermline; www.lescaves.co.uk)
Juicy, fresh, unoaked, primary example of mencia, not as spicy as Bierzo’s examples. Winemaker Jose Manuel Moure makes a very vibrant raspberry toned, minerally mencia grown on very steep loamy soils using traditional organic viticultural methods.