The story of Bierzo rekindles an intriguing debate in the world of wine: what makes a previously unknown wine region famous? There are obviously a few threshold criteria: a basic level of quality, a certain critical recognition. However, these don’t seem sufficient to drive a region into the limelight. In the end, fame seems to be elusive, even when vast swathes of sommeliers highlight the charms and qualities of a particular place (as happened with Bierzo). Sometimes this is just not enough. The question remains: why did Bierzo fail to reach the heights it supposedly had the potential to reach.
I don’t have a researched answer, but my suspicion is that the region failed to brand itself sufficiently. Priorat, the latest hot region of Spain (as of a couple decades ago), gained its reputation because producers like Alvaro Palacios not only made great wines, but built a cult reputation for them. Now Palacios’ top wine, L’Hermita, sells for $900 in the province. Something pushed Priorat over the edge of recognition so that it could attain cult status. Bierzo, on the other hand, despite having excellent quality wines, could never get that far.
The Bierzo wines can be of outstanding quality, with a climate that sits between the cooler climate of Galicia and the hot robust climate of Ribera del Duero. The unique grape Mencia is the base of the most important red wines of the region, and it has a unique character in the region sitting somewhere between Pinot Noir and Syrah. The grape is grown on slate and granite soil, and I think these are wines with terroir and unique personality. Now, many cheap Mencia based wines can be pretty thin and uninteresting, but examples like this particular bottle produce wines of depth, intensity and character. You have to know what to look for in the land of Bierzo, which could perhaps be another reason it never hit the big time – perhaps it either needs more high quality wines at low prices, or simply move completely towards quality and eschew cheap and boring wines. Of course, Priorat’s Palacios also built a winery here in Bierzo with his nephew, and along with a number of new producers (such as Paixar and Dominio de Tares), is pushing Mencia as an outstanding high quality red grape. I wonder if this handful of producers is enough for the region, however. I think Bierzo needs to make a greater commitment to quality and branding in order to achieve that next level of recognition.
This wonderful Mencia based wine is one of their top offerings, and displays a surprising level of concentration and elegance. While there was a noticeable oak component on the nose with coffee and chocolate, there was also clean black berry fruit, pepper and underbrush. The palate was fantastic, with some gamey notes, pepper, and very bright acidity. The crushed blackberry fruit ran over a wonderful rocky component. Tasting the wine, I can understand why Mencia hasn’t caught on in the world of the average wine consumer. While it is absolutely lovely, it is also not typical, and perhaps even challenging to appreciate. In any case, this is a great red wine that has challenged and awoken my very jaded palate at a time when I’ve found so many red wines very very dull. And that, I say, is a reason to be excited.
$50 at Marquis Wine Cellar
I’d also note that Jake over at Cherries and Clay wrote up another Mencia based wine from de Tares that sounded quite delicious – check it out.