Back to the Future
How new is “new”? How old is “old”? Truth is, the accuracy of the terms depend on their context. In the hyper-connected world of today, the line between new and old gets blurry. New is always happening. Everything is therefore old. The question, What’s new? can only accurately be answered: Everything and nothing.
In the wine world things should be more straightforward, especially when talking about countries and regions. I mean, we have both Old World and New World demarcations. So you simply drop any wine area in question into the proper bucket. Tuscany = Italy = Old World = old country = old wine culture. Easy peasy.
Of course, that line of reasoning collapses into so much semantic dust when you have new wine industries arising in very old wine territories. The wines were referenced by Pliny the Elder. The vines were some of the world’s oldest. But the region wasn’t given official recognition until 1989, with production of serious, acclaim-worthy tintos not happening for at least a decade following that. Welcome to Bierzo, Spain, one of the Old World’s newest wine regions.
“This is a relatively unknown appellation, but not new,” confirms Isidro Fernández Bello, General Manager and Oenologist at the highly acclaimed Casar de Burbia winery. “We have been growing grapes for over 2,000 years. Our strength comes from the small family wineries that have limited marketing capability. However, a generation of young oenologists is turning el Bierzo into one of the top five Spanish appellations in terms of quality, showing that the quality of our wines is not just a fad.”
As an Old World wine-producing nation, Spain is somewhat unique. Planted with more hectares of vines than any other country, it ranks third in terms of wine produced. This is due, in part, to large expanses of old, low-yielding vines. Unlike some other Old World countries whose vinous lineage stretches back over the course of centuries, the Spanish wine industry didn’t really kick into gear until the mid-1900s. Sure, sherry had established itself, particularly amongst the Brits (who referred to it as “sack”), but it wasn’t until phylloxera laid waste to the vineyards of France that Spanish wines (particularly those of Rioja), started gaining traction as French winemakers hopped the Pyrenees in search of pristine vineyards. (They also brought with them the technique of aging wines in 225 litre oak barricas, which was enthusiastically embraced by Spanish producers). The sparkling cava industry also starting experiencing growth at this time.
However, whatever gains had been made since then were effectively halted via a combination of the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the reign of Francisco Franco. With a few exceptions, it was only after Franco’s death in 1975 that real development in the industry began, and wines from regions like Ribera del Duero, Toro, Rías Baixas and Priorat became well-known and internationally acclaimed. It’s now time for those of Bierzo to solidify their reputation.
As with most of Spain’s top-quality table wine regions, the hills and valleys of Bierzo are located in the northern section of the country, approximately equidistant from the northeast tip of Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean, in the Castile-León region. Ana de Andrés, of Bierzo’s Bodegas Peique, offers a good summation of what, from a winemaker’s perspective, makes the area unique.
“Our landscape is hilly, with many microclimates, with different exposures, soils, altitudes … we have many tiny little plots scattered around Valtuille, our village. This rugged landscape makes each individual vineyard very different from the next one.”
Indeed, from the Otero and Toral de los Vados overlook you can see the towns of Parandones and Valtuille, with the expanse from the overlook to Valtuille being home to the highest concentration of vineyards in Bierzo. Though the vineyard plots are all more or less at the same altitude, varying by 50 metres or so, they are situated on differing exposures and experience the impact of the sun and winds differently. The soil composition also varies, with the mineral content increasing as you move higher up. Both the hillsides and valleys sport vineyards, but Luis Peique, Bodegas Peique’s manager of the winery and vineyards, is convinced that elevation is one of the secrets to the best quality fruit. “A stamp of identity of El Bierzo wines is the marked acidity that gives them a natural, amazing freshness,” Peique reveals, adding that vines grown at higher altitudes have a longer ripening period which, in turn, impacts the acid structure in the fruit and in the final wine.
Most of these vineyards are less than a hectare in size and have historically been family owned. Each family made wine for local consumption, so the notion of producing wines for export is a relatively recent phenomenon. Credit for putting Bierzo on the map is largely conceded to Álvaro Palacios who, along with nephew Ricardo Pérez, founded Descendientes de J. Palacios in 1998. Having been instrumental in revolutionizing winemaking in Priorat, as well as reanimating his family winery in Rioja, Palacios was attracted not only to the beauty of the region, but of the most important indigenous black grape variety: Mencía.
Once thought to be related to Cabernet Franc, Mencía has been subsequently found to be the same grape as Portugal’s Jaen variety (though there still may be room for argument here, depending on which authority you side with). In any case, most Bierzo winemakers have embraced this variety, in spite of the fact that non-native strains are being experimented with.
“We are focused on our native grape varieties,” confirms de Andrés. “They are perfectly adapted to our soil and climate. We don’t have any reason to import foreign varieties to plant here when we have our own grape: Mencía.” Though she is quick to point out that other native black grapes, Garnacha Tintorera for example, are not being abandoned, there’s something about Mencía that is as individual as the distinctive vineyard sites where it grows.
“The Mencía grape produces very aromatic wines with a strong mineral character; a character that can be stronger or less pronounced depending on the soil in which it is planted,” she reveals. De Andrés also points out that many of the Bierzo wines — particularly those produced around Valtuille — are crafted from vines that are over 50 years old. In fact, these are the youngest vines the winery uses. Others come in at over 90 years.
Bello sums up the Mencía style as follows: “They are elegant wines; creamy, fruity (raspberry and cherry), and floral (roses). If I had to single one thing out, I would say that Mencía is chameleon-like. When young, there is a maximum expression of fruit and floral notes. But with aging, the terroir comes out, with citric undertones from the mineral plots, and ferruginous [iron-like] notes from clay soils.”
Red wines made from this dark grape tend to be what most of the region’s winemakers are focusing on, but blancos (and rosados) are being made as well. The star grape for the majority of the white wines is once again a native … and once again, relatively unknown (at least on these shores). Say hello to Godello.
Bello chuckles when he calls Godello the Great White Hope. “I sincerely think it will be recognized worldwide,” he says, “and, in the future, it might be even more widely-known than Mencía.”
“Godello is also very interesting in terms of organoleptic profile,” de Andrés opines when the conversation switches from red to white wines. “As with other native grape varieties from the northwest of Spain, it is fresh and full at the same time, which is an unusual combination. Aromatically, I would say it is mainly mineral, with retama, lavender, hinojo [fennel] and all these herbal aromas. For me, it also has some nuances of Reineta apple, the typical apple variety here in Bierzo — it even has its own appellation. It is difficult to compare to foreign grape varieties, but definitively it has something in common with all the white grape varieties found in the northwest, including Albariño, Loureiro and Treixadura. Godello needs the fresh climate of El Bierzo to grow. It is a great variety for wines that you drink while still young, as they have lively acidity and good balance.”
Bello feels that trying to compare Godello to international varieties is a zero-sum game. (“Comparisons are odious, as we say in Spain.”) However, he concedes that a well-made wine, from fruit sourced from high altitude, mineral rich vineyards, reminds him of “some of [his] favourite winemaking regions outside Spain, which are in Burgundy, namely Montrachet.” Indeed, debates have been quietly raging in some rather lofty oenophilic circles over the “Burgundy-ness” of Godello wines. But as I’m sure both Bello and de Andrés would agree, debates of this sort are rather pointless. Try a Godello and compare for yourself, if you must.
While more wines from Bierzo are finding their way to international markets, most garnering overwhelmingly favourable reviews, the region’s wineries still face something of an uphill battle for recognition. It’s somewhat ironic that the things that make their wines so unique are the same things that make them a bit of a tough sell outside of the world populated by true cork dorks.
First, you have a fairly obscure region. Second, you have fairly obscure grape varieties. Third, 50 to 100-year-old vines certainly produce intense, concentrated fruit; what they don’t produce are high yields. Add to that labour intensive harvesting and what you end up with is low quantities of high-priced product. This isn’t to say that you can’t find sub $20 bottles, but the region’s top contenders can easily hit $40 and go as high as $100. To real bottle snobs, this sort of equates to a fair amount of cash for not much cachet. Then there’s the obvious issue: it’s Spain. And for Bierzo, the economic crisis hit at a very inopportune moment.
“I think the problem for our wine region is that the crisis started right when our wines were becoming recognized here at home as well as in foreign markets,” reckons de Andrés. “From my point of view, the higher priced wines are the ones affected the most by the poor economy … Our region in general makes high priced wines.”
Bello puts a different — and perhaps more positive — spin on the situation, noting that the necessity of having to target the export market has forced the area’s wineries to become more dynamic and international in the way they market.
Bierzo’s winemakers for the most part seem to be very aware of the challenges ahead. They are also determined to stay authentic, meaning they will continue to craft their wines from Mencía, Godello and other regional varieties. As most of the wineries are fairly small, it should come as no surprise, then, that Bodegas Pieque, Casar de Burbia and others, have grouped themselves together to form the Autóctona del Bierzo in order to increase their collective marketing clout and have launched an ambitious promotional campaign entitled Authentic Bierzo. And both Bello and de Andrés report that their respective wineries are moving ahead with some exciting new projects, all the while embracing and expanding on the region’s authenticity and vinous history.
Like the 100-year-old Mencía vines discovered and brought back to productivity by the winemakers of Bierzo, the region’s wines await discovery by a broader wine loving public. If you’re the type that generally plays it safe, runs with the crowd and waits for something to become mainstream before you accept it, you’re likely not going to favour Mencía over Merlot. However, if you have a sense of adventure, like to make new personal discoveries, and are into wines that are unique, complex and, well, authentic, there’s a little place in northwest Spain that has just what you’re looking for.
Bierzo tasting notes
Bodegas Peique Godello 2013 ($19)
Vine age: 15 years. Aging: Five months stainless steel. Bright, fragrant, floral aromas with ripe peach, melon, citrus and white flower blossom segue to equally lively mineral-tinged, citrus/melon/tropical fruit flavours and surprisingly intense final notes. Shows equal parts fun and finesse.
Casar de Burbia Godello 2013 ($19)
Intense aromas suggesting vanilla bean, acacia, peach, fennel, almond, nutmeg, and underlying tropical fruit. Full-bodied and ripe, with lively citrus, melon, almond, and vanilla notes. Well-balanced with a long, crisp finish.
As Casar de Burbia’s Isidro Fernández Bello points out, the Mencía grape is chameleon-like, and it’s aroma and flavour profile can vary depending on where it’s grown, vine age, and the vinification and maturation regime used. However, as the notes below indicate, certain elements seem to appear in almost all Mencía wines: floral notes, mineral/graphite, and dark fruit being the most common elements.
Bodegas Peique Mencía 2013 ($16)
Vine age: 55 years. Aging: Two months in stainless steel; two months in bottle. Very forward with intense, grapy notes as well as rose petal, licorice, mild spice and some banana notes hinting at some carbonic maceration. Medium-bodied, with floral/blueberry flavours and a restrained earthy/meaty quality. Lively fruit with mineral notes on the finish.
Bodegas Peique Tinto Mencía 2012 ($16)
Vine age: 55 years. Aging: Two months in stainless steel; two months in bottle. Less overtly grapey than the 2013, but still lots of fruity/floral aromas along with some bell pepper and anise. Pomegranate, dried herbs (thyme/rosemary), and dark chocolate on the palate.
Bodegas Peique Ramón Valle 2013 ($19)
Vine age: 55 years. Aging: Seven months in oak; three months in bottle. Dedicated to grandfather Ramón Valle. Aged in a combination of French, Russian and American oak, this wine shows dried herbs, anise, tobacco, cranberry, spice and rhubarb on the nose. Ripe, rich and savoury in the mouth with bing cherry and dried cranberry flavours and a long, mildly smoky end notes.
Bodegas Peique Viñedos Viejos 2010 ($26)
Vine age: 70+ years. Aging: 12 months in oak; 12 months in bottle. Complex aromas of wet slate, tar, loam/root, bell pepper, cedar, balsamic and ripe black cherry. Full-flavoured with peppery, graphite, dried herbs, black olive and a hint of fennel/basil as the wine tails off.
Bodegas Peique Selección Familiar ($52)
Vine age: 90+ years. Aging: 18 months in oak; 15 months in bottle. This wine offers up an inviting aromatic profile. Cherry liqueur, violet, sandalwood, vanilla and mocha can all be detected, along with an interesting whiff of gunflint. Broad-textured, supple and chewy in the mouth, with nicely integrated tannins, it’s flavours suggest black raspberry, tobacco, mild iodine and the usual tarry/mineral elements. The finish is long and smooth with traces of vanilla. Maturing beautifully, this wine should continue to develop over the next decade.
Casar de Burbia Mencía 2010 ($20)
From fruit sourced from the Finca Valdepiñeiro estate between 400 and 600 meters above sea level and given eight months aging in American oak. Smoky, earthy, black raspberry and currant on the nose with additional aromas of leather, tar, graphite, and vanilla adding complexity. Dense and chewy with flavours suggesting chocolate, black cherry, and vanilla, with a distinct savoury/mineral finish.
Casar de Burbia Tebaida 2008 ($37)
The fruit for this wine is sourced from 100-year-old Mencía vines cultivated on three separate estates at over 700 meters above sea level, and aged a minimum of 16 months in French oak. Floral notes of violets and rose petal give way to dried herbs, dark, smoky plum, blueberry, and mint. Full, intense, mildly tannic dark berry fruit, with currant/blueberry preserve flavours and distinctive mineral notes as the long finish fades. Should easily mature for another five to seven years, if not beyond.
Casar de Burbia Tebaida Nemesio 2010 ($40)
Named after family patriarch Nemesio Fernandez Bruña, this limited edition wine, sourced from century-old Mencía vines grown in clay-rich soil, opens with characteristic floral scents that intermingle with those of bright red fruit, cedar, tobacco, pencil shavings, tar, smoke, and thyme. Very intensely flavoured, with dark fruit and the slate/mineral nuances that seem to pop up in almost every Mencía-based wine. Moderately tannic with balanced acidity, the wine is nonetheless smooth and polished with the potential to age well over the next decade.
Casar de Burbia Tebaida No. 5 2008 ($50)
The fruit for this wine is harvested from “Plot No.5” vineyard. Planted in 1903 and situated up to 900 meters above sea level, the vineyard’s soil is rich in iron, slate, and molybdenum. Mince meat, black cherry, sweet dark plum, eucalyptus, anise, charcoal, and a touch of coconut on the nose from aging in French oak barrels. Powerful and concentrated, with layers of dense black fruit, it sports a considerable tannic grip along with balancing acidity, it will reward another three to five years in the cellar, and should mature gracefully over the next 15 to even 20 years.
Bodegas y Viñedos Godelia Mencía 2009 ($21)
Juicy, plummy, jammy fruit, evident toasty oak with cedar/sandalwood and white pepper overtones in the aroma. Smooth, silky and polished with some toasty oak, ripe black cherry fruit flavours and hints of mocha. More of what I would call an “international” style, it’s definitely Spanish, almost reminiscent of Rioja.