Spain in the News

From Wine News: October/November 2007
By Gerry Dawes

"Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra Showing World-class Terroir in Northwestern Spain with the Astonishing Mencía Grape"

Several trips to northwestern Spain in the past five years have convinced me that the concept of terroir or sense of place, married to native grape varieties in these areas is like one of those ice men in a glacier. It has always been there, but needed some sunlight to melt the glacier so the ice man could come out. In both Bierzo, at the gates of Galicia in León province (Castilla y León), and in Ribera Sacra in Galicia’s Ourense and Lugo provinces, the native mencía grape, grown in precariously steep vineyards and often clinging to treacherous schist- or slate-strewn hillsides and Roman-style terraces (the Romans were making wine here 2,000 years ago!), is responsible for some of Spain’s most intriguing and delicious terroir-laced red wines. After tasting through more than fifty wines on five trips to these regions in the past two years, it is evident to this writer that wines made from the mencía grape on those stony well-drained soils–combined with a unique mix of altitude (some vineyards are more than 2.500 feet above sea level, sunlight and rainfall in these two isolated northern Spanish regions–have the potential to rival the best in Europe.

This despite a preponderance of popular new age cellar-driven wine making techniques that threaten to obscure both the glorious freshness of the mencía fruit and the haunting mineral flavors for which many French vintners would give their right arm. Some wineries here strive to make copycat, hot-country “market styles” of wine that rely on overripe fruit, high alcohol and aggressive new oak, which often overwhelms the grape flavors and the graphite-like mineral tones. But, in many wines for the best vineyards, the marriage of mencía and terroir has enough personality that sometimes, but not always, it actually has the character to stand up to such abuse. When vintners back off and don’t try to produce ersatz Priorat or Ribera del Duero, the charm of the sweet red-and-black raspberry-currant fruit married to the masculinity of somewhat rustic, garrigues-like country flavors and a strain of graphite-like mineral flavors (Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Priorat all have this in common) creates a haunting palate profile that calls the drinker back for sip-after-sip. Explaining why his tasting panel preferred some of these lighter, more balanced styles of Bierzo to several of the rock-star wines such as Corullon, Dominio de Tares Bembibre and Paixar, The New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote (NYT, Oct. 16, 2006), “. . . these ambitious wines sacrificed some of the qualities that make Bierzo distinctive in favor of oaky vanilla flavors that could have come from anywhere.”

Though mencía is grown in the Galician denominaciones de origen Valdeorras and Monterrei, where predominately white wines, especially those made from the potentially spectacular native godello, rule (see Galician Gold, Wine News, March/April/May 2007), this surprising red wine grape is having its greatest impact in Bierzo, located some 250 miles northwest of Madrid, and emerging Ribeira Sacra, another some 70 miles to the west. By far the more important of these two is Bierzo, which was not even a blip on the Spanish wine radar screen less than a decade ago (even for Spaniards). But, in just the past half dozen years the region has achieved meteoric growth, vaulting from obscurity to critical acclaim with such wines as the richly flavored Descendientes de J. Palacios (Priorat’s Álvaro Palacios and his cousin, Ricardo Pérez) wines from the old vines vineyards of Corullón; a range of Domino de Tares wines, made until recently by a former Ribera del Duero enologist; and Paixar, made by the sons of Mariano García, the former winemaker of Vega Sicilia and Spain’s top winemaker, also from the Ribera del Duero area. (García also has a hand in Luna Beberide, another highly rated Bierzo area wine that produces a young Bierzo Mencía, a Luna Beberide Tinto and Tierras de Luna, the last two cabernet sauvignon-merlot-tempranillo blends, which, because those grape varieties are not authorized in Bierzo, carry the Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León designation.

These higher profile Bierzo wines have had growing success in the United States, which had become Bierzo’s most important export market. Many others have come in their wake, including the highly-regarded Tilenus, Castro Ventoso, Pittacum, Pucho, Peique, Cuatro Pasos (a wine from Martín Codaz of Rías Baixas Albariño fame), Casar de Burbia and Vega Montán, which The New York Times rated their top value Bierzo selection. Both Tilenus and Castro Ventoso, as well as the newly inaugurated Bodega Cabildo de Salas are all made by Raúl Pérez, a young rising star winemaker who is a cousin of Ricardo Pérez of Descendientes de J. Palacios.

In late April 2002, I had just finished an extensive tasting tour of Galicia’s Rías Baixas, where the native albariño grape is responsible for in some of Spain’s top native mono-varietal white wines. On my way east out of Galicia by car, I wanted to indulge my curiosity for wines made from indigenous Spanish grapes by stopping to sample more wines from regions that rely almost exclusively on Spanish native varieties. Along the way I planned stops to taste the bright, fruity, raspberry-colored mencía-based red wines in Ribeira Sacra and in Bierzo, where star winemaker Álvaro Palacios (of Priorat and La Rioja fame) and his cousin, Ricardo Pérez were beginning to draw serious attention.

On May 1, Europe’s Labor Day, I stumbled onto a country wine fair in Cacabelos, an important stopover on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and the key town of the Bierzo denominación de origen. Cacabelos is surrounded by vineyards and every year at this time they hold a fine country wine fair in the Plaza del Vendimiador, where a monumental statue of a grape picking family–father, mother, daughter and son–pays homage to the people who harvest the fruit for Bierzo wines. Set up in the streets around the statute were some twenty tented booths where, for a modest fee, visitors could sample the region’s wines. On a stage performers dressed in colorful regional costumes were dancing to sound of bagpipes (the folk instrument of choice here and in neighboring Galicia) and at several food stands were women boiling up and snipping octopus into small pieces, which they sprinkled with olive oil, sea salt, and Spanish pimentón, Spain’s supernal paprika. Even though Bierzo in Castilla-León is beyond the boundaries of Galicia, it has an distinct Galician air that goes beyond the pulpo a la gallega (octopus Galician style), the most popular dish at the Cacabelos wine fair, and the Celtic-origen Galician bagpipes to which the dancers where artfully twirling on the stage.

I soon waded into tasting booth-by-booth mencía-based wines with the producers themselves. Most were works-in-progress, but others were eye-opening in their potential and almost all of them–even the more rustic examples–showed an intriguing raspberry and black raspberry richness laced with an undeniable terroir, a sense of place, soil, and climate. The first wines I tasted from Bodegas Estefania–Tilenus, Pagos de Posada and Pieros–were somewhat overly lashed with new oak, though these richly fruited, but well balanced, mineral-laced mencía-base red wines were a memorable first brush with the potential of Bierzo. Other wines that stood out as I made my way through nearly a dozen tasting booths were Castro Ventoso and Val de Paixarines. Most of these wines were still young and the bodegas where they were produced were just beginning to make the transition to making wines for outside markets, so a number of them exhibited the harsh new oak character that comes with new and transition wineries, who generally have to start their operations with a barrel room full of new oak. Nevertheless, beneath that oak curtain, the raw material–intensely colored, richly flavored, absolutely delicious red wine–augured well for the production of wines of such quality that they could make Bierzo the most exciting emerging Spanish region since Priorat. In fact, these wines reminded me of another such visit in1988, to Priorat, then an isolated, obscure, Mediterranean wine region, where I tasted some often crudely made, at best very rustic wines, whose promise not even poor technique could obliterate. Ironically, it was Álvaro Palacios, who arrived in Priorat with a gang of five winemakers in 1989 and helped elevate that region’s indigenous garnacha- and cariñena-based wines to world-class status. A decade later as an internationally-known Spanish wine star, Palacios would propel Bierzo to the global wine world’s attention with wines made from the ancient vineyards at a place called Corullon.

That day in Bierzo in May 2002 would turn out to be one of the greatest epiphanies I have experienced in more than thirty years of traveling in Spanish wine country. I would go on from tasting at the wine fair to lunch with the three of the principals of Dominio de Tares: Partner Mario Rico, the winemaker Amancio Fernández, and General Manager Fermín Uria. The Dominio de Tares wines, including an excellent godello white, were more polished and sophisticated than many of the wines at the feria, but the reds–Cepas Viejas (old vines), P.3 (from a 100-year old vineyard)– showed the same richness of wild black fruit and mineral tones. (Since then their wines have become a big success in the United States and, along with the wines of Palacios, are a major reason that Bierzo wines are held in such high esteem here.)

In a Wine News article in 2003, I chronicled how later that afternoon at dusk and in misting rain, Ricardo Pérez, the winemaker at Descendientes de J. Palacios, in a vintage four-by-four drove me from Vilafranca del Bierzo a few kilometers beyond the village of Corullón to see his spectacular, albeit somewhat nerve-wracking high altitude vineyards. He first showed me an impossibly steep hillside where an old vines vineyard seemed to be clinging to the hillside for dear life, then he drove me along a narrow, rain-slick, slate-strewn, hillside vineyard road that cut through another impossibly steep vineyard and had me hanging on for dear life. After a torturous few hundred yards down that a trail barely wide enough for the vehicle, we reached the soon-to-be-celebrated Moncerbal vineyard, where old vines mencía grows on that magical slate soil.

This incredible combination of soil and grape, coupled with the high altitude and Atlantic climate and brought to fruition by the winemaking savvy of Álvaro Palacios and family produce wines that have put Bierzo firmly on the map of high quality Spanish wine producing regions in the few intervening years since I first visited. I have been back to Moncerbal twice times since 2002, once when the Palacios’ celebrated mule was working the sharply slanting vineyards high above the road. They claim the mule is brought over from Priorat, where it is used to working on such steep hillsides, because it the only practical way to work these vineyards, where footing can be treacherous, especially when it is raining, as I found as I was taking photographs that misty day while try to maintain my footing on the slick shards of slate. (On my third trip, I visited the vineyard solo in a rental car–a mistake whose first clue should have been my companion’s frantic insistence on bailing out and letting me negotiate the road alone.)

After visiting the vineyards that May Day, Ricardo and I tasted his lush rich, mineral-laced wines, which were a revelation that ratified the promise I had seen in the other Bierzo wines I had tasted earlier at the Cacabelos wine fair. In the Palacios cellars in Vilafranca del Bierzo, itself a fine old Camino de Santiago town with a daily procession of Santiago de Compostela-bound pilgrims, we tasted the sweet, rich, terroir-imbued, still tannic wines of the Moncerbal vineyard where we had just been. Then came the stunning, rare La Faraona and Las Lamas, both of which could stand alongside the best of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa Valley or anywhere else.

I would finish the memorable first day, by having dinner with Alejandro Luna, owner of Luna Berberide, and winemaker Gregory Pérez of Luna Beberide, who with the great Mariano García (former winemaker at Vega Sicilia and owner of Bodegas Mauro) as consultant showed yet another facet of the wine quality possible in Bierzo. We drank another fine Bierzo mencía and the Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León-designated on-D.O. Luna de Beberide Reserva Tinto, one of the best tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon-merlot blends in Spain.

Mariano García and his sons, Alberto and Eduardo, are also making their own Bierzo, the very highly regarded Paixar, from the village of Dragontes, another high altitude spot near the border of Lugo, one of the four provinces of Galicia. Mariano is enthusiastic about the prospects for making great wines in Bierzo. “From these high altitude, hillside, broken slate vineyards of Bierzo, it is possible to make wines with great style and personality. There is seeing an explosion of quality wines from Bierzo and emerging single vineyard pagos comparable to the great northern Rhone valley cru vineyards in Hermitage and Côte Rôtie.”

With two of the top winemakers in Spain, Mariano García (and his sons), Álvaro Palacios (along with cousin Ricardo Pérez), and Domino de Tares (whose top-quality wines are readily available here) already making serious inroads with American wine aficionados and, given the quality of the wines I have tasted during three trips, the future of Bierzo looks bright indeed. The other name we will be hearing a lot about in years to come is the aforementioned Raúl Pérez who makes several palate-catching wines and is also the consulting enologist to several wineries in Galicia, including the top-notch Ribeira Sacra wine, Alguiera, which was due to arrive in the U.S. in October. [See below])

Ribeira Sacra, “Vinos del Cielo” (The Wines of Heaven) reads a sign overlooking a heaven’s view of perhaps the most strikingly dramatic and stunningly beautiful wine region in the world (from a writer fresh off a trip to Portugal’s Douro River Valley, this is not hyperbole). The Ribeira Sacra Vinos del Cielo sign is also a tie-in to the origin of the region’s name, which comes from the profusion of ancient sacred (sacra) monasteries and churches in this region. Some are more than a thousand years old and several are Romanesque churches founded in the 12th and 13th centuries by Burgundian Cisterican monks, who were the “Johnny Grapevines” (instead of Appleseeds) of their epoch. They established vineyards all around France, Spain, and Germany, many of which are still the basis for some of the world’s most famous wines (Clos de Vougeout, Beaumes de Venise and Vega Sicilia to name a few).

“Heavenly” Ribeira Sacra is the land of mencía par excellence, but two other preferred minority varieties, brancellao and merenzao; some beefy garnacha tintorera; two other obscure red grapes; and a sextet of Galician white varieties, the most promising of which is the superb godello, are all grown here. Ribeira Sacra, a snake-shaped denominación de origen with 3,000 acres terraced along the spectacular slate-strewn hillsides of the dammed-up Miño (flowing north-to-south) and Sil (flowing east-to-west) river valleys. Ribeira Sacra is shared by the Galician provinces of Lugo in the north and Orense in the south and divided into five subzones: northernmost Chantada and Ribeiras do Miño along the Miño, Amandi and Quiroga-Bibei along the Sil (all four in Lugo province) and Ribieras do Sil (along the Orense portion of the Sil).

More than five years ago, I began visiting Ribeira Sacra, still practically unknown in this country. I found single row terraces of old vines mencía (with some garnacha tintorera and the white grapes, albariño and godello), growing on incredibly steep slate hillsides first planted by the Romans that plunge precipitously down to the dammed-up Sil and Minho rivers, making for some of the most spectacularly beautiful vineyards in the world (surpassing even the beauty of the Douro and Germany’s Moselle wine growing regions). These vineyards are so steep that steel railings have been placed at strategic points to allow the grapes to be hauled up and some, like a Cividade, are so precipitously steep and isolated that they can only be reached by boats, on which the grapes are placed during harvest to transport to the winery.

On that first visit, I was immediately awestruck by the region’s magical landscape and after a number of tastings and a few dozen bottles that I drank during meals in Galicia; I found some of the same promising black ruby-red, raspberry-flavored fruit and mineral elements in these mencía-based wines as those in Bierzo. I loved the fact that Ribeira Sacra reds were fresh, light (some only 12% to 12.5% alcohol, a welcome relief in this epoch), deliciously fruity and laced with the same graphite-slate mineral characteristics as the wines of Bierzo and Priorat. (For the “there is no such thing as mineral terroir current wisdom,” those mineral tastes are getting into these wines somehow, because all three regions have the same Galician food and in tastings in the region, I tried a number of wines that were pleasurable, even fascinating because of their raspberry and red currant flavors and distinct mineral stamp, but few them were more than quaffable, rustic country wines. I felt too many of the wines were way too unsophisticated, not well made and often obviously overproduced, a fact underscored by Adegas Alguiera’s Fernando González, when he showed me heavily laden vines from one of the multitude of small minifundia grower vineyards that sell their grapes to the larger Ribeira Sacra wineries and to others outside the region. However, as 50-something former banker-turned-bodeguero, González has shown--with the winemaking expertise of the peripatetic, talented Raúl Pérez to bring out the best in his wines–that these small, old vine plots, with careful vineyard practices, reduced yields and a good winemaker can produce world-class wines practically overnight. This is relatively easily achievable and means that there can be quantitative and qualitative quantum leap in the wines of Ribeira Sacra within a very short period of time.

In early August 2007, José Manuel Rodríguez, President of the Consejo Regulador (regulatory council) of Ribeira Sacra took me to Pradio, a new, but very isolated hill country winery overlooking the spot where the Sil River pours out of its “throat” (Gargantuas del Sil) into the Minho River, which flows down past Ourense and becomes Galicia’s southern border with Portugal. Twenties-something owner, Xavier Seone Novelle, who owns a whole hamlet where he renovated some old houses and built a winery, hotel and facilities for mountain tourists, poured his Pradio 2006 carbonic maceration red wine along with some of his mother’s excellent tapas. It was evident from the first sip, that at least at this winery, something was changing in the right direction in Ribera Sacra. Pradio was deliciously fruity, moderate in alcohol and had seen no wood except the trees around the property. That night with tapas at O Grelo restaurant, just down the road from the hilltop Parador de Turismo where I was staying in the Ribeira Sacra capital of Monforte de Lemos, José Manuel Rodríguez tasted me through his own wines, the juicy, complex Décima 2006 and the Décima 2005 (a year he says was espectacular for his wine), both of which were delicious and full flavored, neither of which topped 12.2% alcohol! Then he served an unusual and unusually good Décima 2006 tinto that was delicious, silky, easy drinking blend of mencía, garnacha tintoera (30%) and godello (10%), the white grape. The garnacha tintorera boosted the alcohol level to 13.5%, but that is low by today’s standards. I now had tasted four superb wines from two small producers. Were there more good Ribeira Sacra wines where those came from?

A day later, after having toured some incredible mencía vineyards with Fernando González (and almost having a heart attack when I peered out the window of a van too large for the cliffside vineyard road we were on and saw a vineyard 100-feet below me, at the bottom of a sheer drop!), we returned to Alguiera, where Raúl Pérez, fresh off a flying enologist run from Bierzo in his Mini-Cooper, had just arrived. Pérez led me through an eye-opening lineup of wines ranging from the Alguiera 2006, which should be superb with bottle age, back to the 2001, one of the best Mencía-based wines I had ever tasted, certainly the best Ribeira Sacra wine perhaps ever made. As if to underscore that where there is smoke, there’s fire, as we were drinking the wines with some tapas from Alguiera’s own small restaurant, José Manuel Rodríguez showed up with Dona Das Penas owner Antonio Lombardía, who produced a bottle of juicy, white peach- and honeysuckle-flavored, mineral-laced Alma Larga Godello 2006, which clearly showed that Ribeira Sacra was capable of producing a world class white as well. (In a previous Wine News article, I wrote about the quality of Abadia da Cova’s godello-albariño white wine blends.). The next morning, at the Parador of Monforte de Lemos, Antonio Lombardía brought me his Verdes Matas Mencía 2006, which despite just having been bottled and marked by new oak, showed excellent potential with rich, sweet red raspberry and red currant fruit, mineral flavors and just 12.5%.

On earlier trips to Ribeira Sacra, I had seen glimpses of future greatness in the meager production of José Manuel Rodríguez’s Décima and in Alguiera, Viña Cazoga and Abadía da Cova, which had been on the market for some time, but had seemed to have lost focus under the interventionist wine making market urgings of their former American importer. Others such as, Peza do Rei, Rectoral de Amandi, Cividade, Ponte da Boga, Os Cipreses and Vía Romana, showed promise, and some were delicious with food, but in general they lacked finesse and needed to lower their yields. But now, after the remarkable tasting at Alguiera and the tastings of Décima, Pradio and Pena Das Donas, I had seen the future of Ribeira Sacra come together in just two days.

And, there are other very promising wines now entering the American market, such as D. Ventura Viña Caneiro, in which the great Gerardo Méndez of Rías Baixas’s Do Ferreiro Albariño has a hand; the unusual, but exotic and intriguing (are you ready for cherry and chestnut wood, instead of oak?) Enológica Thémera; and a trio of wines–Lacima, Lapena and Lalama–from Priorat husband-wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier, Jr. (Clos Mogador). With Pérez-Barbier, what I fear is not invasion of the “L”s; it is the Priorat invasion, which I hope does not bring in its wake Mediterranean climate style wines with 14% - 15% alcohol levels. I am not alone in this, Andre Tamers, President of De Maison Selections and the importer of D. Ventura Viña Caneiro, believes fervently in the future of Ribeira Sacra and is also down on attempts to “Prioratize” this Atlantic climate wines. Tamers thinks these types of wines in Bierzo are suffering from the overzealous use of new oak and “completely overhyped.”

“Bierzo is really more like Beaujolais,” he says, “Ribeira Sacra has the potential to be the new Burgundy.”

My prediction is that within two to three years, this region will suddenly vault onto the wine stage to join the new Spanish red wine chorus line that already includes Bierzo, Priorat, Toro and Jumilla, but Ribeira Sacra, if it stays true to its own regional style, will be the lightest stepping dancer in the line and may find an important market as the antidote to the beefy 14% to 16% alcohol wines that seem to be dominate today. The challenge will be to maintain the lovely raspberry, red currant and light black raspberry mencía fruit, minerality and reasonable alcohol content (12.5% to 13%) that makes these wines so engaging, plus resist the temptation to submit the wines to the ubiquitous abuse of new oak, which overwhelms both the fruit and the terroir. If these first few wineries entering the American market are an indicator, they may prove to be Spain’s antidote to all the overblown “blockbuster” wines out there–an antidote which a multitude of protesting wine lovers all over the country and importers like Andre Tamers’s De Maison Selections and Alexandra Elman of Marble Hill Cellars in New York are fully ready to embrace. Maybe their bigger sibling to the East, Bierzo, will even follow Ribera Sacra’s lead and mencía may turn out to be Spain’s new great red hope by dancing to their own tune. Might I suggest “I Stop By Heaven” from Jerry Butler’s soul album, “The Iceman Cometh?”

Tasting Notes

Bierzo

With a lot of Bierzo wines, including some from the best, most vaunted old vines vineyards have elevated alcohol levels and are too often the victims of over-oaking, a serious problem in this region, as well as in many other parts of Spain. If this is your first introduction to Bierzo wines, try with the younger, fresher, un-oaked version to enjoy the delicious raspberry fruit and mineral flavors, which many producers manage to hide behind an oak curtain. In general, be leery of wines that say roble or joven roble, which often means that the wine has been in harsh new oak for 3-6 months and has been used to break new barrels for aging more important wines.

Ribeira Sacra

D. Ventura
Viña Caneiro 2006
(un-oaked, unfiltered; 14%)
$26

Deep, plumy, murky red. Pure, rustic, ripe fruit, minerals. Big, rich, loaded with fruit, but very juicy and delicious with a long, intriguing earthy minerality in the finish. Superb. 92 pts.