A challenge to the reign in Spain
Much of the fun of wine is exploring selections from unfamiliar regions, made with unfamiliar grapes. One region worth exploring is Bierzo in northwestern Spain, which produces stylish and elegant red wines from a grape called mencia.
Officially, Bierzo is a fairly new wine region, having been granted status as a Denominacion de Origen, or DO, in 1989. (DO is roughly equivalent to Appellation d'Origine Controllee in France or, much less precisely, American Viticultural Area status in the United States.) The official recognition came after some adventurous winemakers found old-vine plantings in an area known for producing innocuous plonk and began improving viticulture and winemaking practices to produce good-quality wines.
Bierzo made a brief run at challenging Priorat, in eastern Spain near Barcelona, as the country's hot new wine region. But Priorat prevailed as the market favorite, perhaps because its main red grape, garnacha (also known as grenache), is more familiar or because its inky, dense, heavy and high-alcohol wines hold more appeal for American wine writers, importers and consumers. Bierzo's wines feature moderate alcohol (usually around 13 to 13.5 percent) and enough acidity to balance a wide variety of foods. They are not blockbusters, but they are food-friendly, and because they haven't caught on, they tend to be good values.
Part of Bierzo's push for recognition was spurred by the widespread belief that mencia was related to the better-known cabernet franc. But the idea has been debunked by ampelographers, the forensic detectives of the wine world. That might not have been so bad -- cab franc is not exactly a darling of wine lovers -- but mencia had been denied a familiar association on which to build its reputation. So it has struggled to achieve recognition on its own merits.
The mencia wines of Bierzo do not fit our common conception of Spanish reds. The region is in the northwestern corner of Castilla y Leon, near Galicia, where the terrain becomes lush and green and the climate is influenced by the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean.
Instead of arid, dry climes, Bierzo offers lush, verdant mountains. The region is near the end of the Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and its wines share an affinity with those of the Galician area of Ribeira Sacra, near the Portuguese border, which also are made with mencia.
One way to explore the potential of this region is to taste the wines of Luna Beberide. Though it's a young estate, established in 1987, the winery's mencia vineyards average 60 years in age. They are splayed on steep, south-facing slopes at moderately high altitudes, a combination that allows the grapes to ripen while maintaining fresh acidity. Luna Beberide wines are imported by Aurelio Cabestrero under his Lorton-based Grapes of Spain label and are distributed nationwide.
The basic Luna Beberide Mencia Bierzo 2007 is dark purple, with appealing berry flavors laced with smoke and earth. The single-vineyard Finca la Cuesta is bigger and more intense. Produced with native yeasts, it gives a pure expression of the terroir and a clear representation of Bierzo's style.
But the Luna Beberide line does not stop there. The Luna family planted Bordeaux grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon and merlot, when they founded the estate, and those grapes find their way into the winery's top blends, with mencia as the base. Because of the interloper grapes, the wines are labeled Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Leon rather than Bierzo. Though pricey at $50, these wines show the region's potential with international grape varieties in the hands of a skilled winemaker.