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The New York Times Profiles Mencia from Bierzo

"Bierzo, a New Taste of Spain"
By Eric Asimov
Published: May 31, 2006

Every once in a while an unfamiliar wine region rises and demands attention. Suddenly, that region and its wines begin to wallpaper your mind like a new hit tune, so that you can't get them out of your head. Most recently, I've been hearing the song of the red wines of Bierzo.

Bierzo? Absolutely. It's a small, ancient region in the northwestern corner of Castilla y León, almost on the eastern border of Galicia, which is due north of Portugal on the Atlantic coast. Most wine drinkers, I suspect, have never heard of Bierzo, but word is getting around. And if you get the opportunity to taste a good bottle, with its haunting, exotic wildflower, licorice and fruit flavors, you can't help but remember it.

Spain has offered up more than a few big new things in the last 20 years. Though it had more acres of vineyards planted than any other country, only Rioja and sherry registered on the consciousness of the world. Years of repressive government kept the wine industry antiquated. But reform and greater economic freedom in the 1980's brought investment and innovation and Spain is now a leader in modern winemaking. Think of the regions and wines that have become noteworthy in the last two decades: Ribera del Duero, albariño from Galicia, verdejo from Rueda, Txakoli from the Basque region, Penedès, Toro, Jumilla and Priorat.

Bierzo is now on that list, and judging by the Dining section wine panel's tasting, it deserves the spotlight. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Roger Kugler, sommelier at Suba, a Spanish restaurant on the Lower East Side, and Gerald Marzorati, an assistant managing editor of The New York Times with an interest in Spanish wines.

We sampled 16 bottles, fewer than our usual 25, because those were all we could find. It's an indication, partly, of how few producers in Bierzo are marketing their wines to the world. Indeed, those 16 bottles came from just nine producers...

The leading red grapes traditionally planted in Priorat, garnacha and cariñena, were somewhat familiar to wine drinkers outside of Spain as grenache and carignane. But the signature red grape of Bierzo, the mencía, is practically unknown. In a business that relies on familiarity for its marketing, this was a serious disadvantage.

To their credit, new Bierzo producers [have] stuck with the mencía grape instead of replacing it with fashionable varietals like merlot or syrah. Indeed, these producers acquired mencía vineyards, planted on steep hillsides, that were 40, 50 even 100 years old.

In ancient regions all over the world, this tension between distinctive wines and geographically indistinguishable wines screams out as producers aim for the international market. It's a matter both of style and of economics. Do you make wines that emphasize the singular qualities of a particular region and its grapes, and hope that the world will admire them? Or do you aim to make wines in styles with a track record of popularity?

It's easy to understand the economic impetus for choosing the popular path. Yet in Bierzo, I think, it's more complicated than that. As in southern Italy, where nobody really knows the limits of what can be done with the aglianico grape, producers are exploring the potential of the mencía. Its appeal as an easygoing wine is evident; these wines will go with a wide range of hearty foods.

But what happens when you employ modern techniques in the vineyard and the cellar in an effort to produce wines worthy of aging? Can you still tease out elements that will make these wines supreme expressions of Bierzo rather than some generic super-Spanish wines? With the Fontelas, we guessed yes. With some of the other big wines, we were less certain.

Nonetheless, I have to give the Bierzo producers the benefit of the doubt. They are giving the world mencía, and they ought to be congratulated for that. It could so easily have been syrah, again.

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