Both the wines and the place itself may be unknown to most American wine consumers but Bierzo is definitely a region worth exploring. Located up in the northwest corner of Spain’s Castile-León region, Bierzo can lay claim to a rich history that includes some 2000 years of winemaking. So why don’t we American wine drinkers know more about the place? For one thing, its mountainous region is remote and isolated. Furthermore, Bierzo’s dominant grapes, Mencia and Godello, are relatively unknown, while many of Spanish grapes we’ve learned to love--Tempranillo, most notably--do not fare well in this relatively humid part of the world. And then there is the fact that that this region (like many others) is still feeling aftershocks from the Spanish Civil War and the four decades-long dictatorship under fascist leader Francisco Franco that rocked the country during the the 20th century.
In the 1960s Bierzo’s wine industry was dominated by co-ops that were turning out mostly innocuous plonk. While a vast majority of Bierzo’s vineyards were planted at least 50 years ago, the best wineries began operations only after Franco’s death in 1975. The last couple of decades have seen an influx of younger, sophisticated vintners arriving on the scene, many of them descendants of families that have been in Bierzo for generations. Today there are some 74 registered wineries operating in Bierzo, almost all of them small and family-owned and run. Most of them produce fewer than 400,000 bottles of wine a year. Only a handful of the wineries can be considered “big” by global standards, and relatively few of the artisanal producers export their wines to the US
Bierzo’s wines tend not to fit the profile of what we imagine when we hear the words “Spanish wine,” which may be another reason why they have yet to become famous among American consumers. These wines bear little resemblance to the internationally styled, dark, heavily oaked, generally high-alcohol wines we tend to equate with Spanish reds. By contrast, Bierzo’s wines--both red and white--are apt to taste deliciously fresh, fruity, and rife with savory minerality. The best of them are stylish and well structured, and they deliver a perceptible degree of acidity that helps make them extremely food-friendly. Furthermore, the alcohol levels are relatively moderate (13-14% on average).
In some respects learning about the wines of Bierzo is simple, as there are really only two principal grape varieties to consider. On the red side, Mencia is the primary variety, accounting for approximately 80% of the region’s grapes. Alicante Bouschet (also known as Garnacha Tintorera), shows up occasionally, and Tempranillo, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are used experimentally. The indigenous white grape is Godello, with Doña Blanca a close second; experimental whites include Palomino, Malvasia, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. Experimental varieties many be used only for Crianza and Reserva wines, and may not exceed 15% of any blend. Bierzo was granted DO (Denominacion de Origen) status only as recently as 1989.
Having spent a few days in Bierzo recently as the guest of a handful of the region’s most accomplished and forward-thinking vintners, I came away deeply impressed not only by the wines themselves, but also by the beauty of the region, the unique dedication and vision of the people producing the wines, and the fascinating intersection of history and modernity here. Bierzo is a unique and exciting region to visit, especially for adventurous wine lovers who are interested in exploring a place that is still relatively untrammeled. Not that that there is a lack of foreign visitors here. On the contrary, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route has greatly boosted tourism recently, as this medieval trail has enjoyed an uptick in popularity, leading a steady stream of hikers through the Bierzo towns of Ponferrada and Villafranca. The sight of pilgrims wielding their walking sticks and bent under the weight of their backpacks has become almost as ubiquitous as the vista of the vineyards themselves.
Still, this is not yet a region catering to high-end tourism. You’ll find some excellent restaurants and a few quite nice and comfortable hotels (I’d happily go back to the Parador de Villafranca any day), but if your idea of a great wine-country visit is based on the razzle-dazzle and grandeur dished up in, say, Napa, this may not be the place for you. Life in Bierzo is much more low-key, and wine-based tourism has scarcely caught on. Indeed, should you wish to visit any of the producers here, my advice is make arrangements in advance to make sure someone will actually be at the winery to greet you (contact either the tourism office or the individual wineries you’d like to visit).
Bierzo is about a 3½-hour drive from Madrid. After leaving the urban landscape and ubiquitous super-highways behind, the road eases up into the foothills of the Aquilianos Mountains, where wide blue skies and puffy whipped-cream clouds form a dome over a landscape of fruit orchards, chestnut trees, windmills, and fields of tomatoes and red peppers. Climbing a little higher, small vineyard parcels emerge, with their low, twisted vines occasionally rambling down to the edge of the road. (Although some newer vineyards boast trellised vines, most of Bierzo’s 4,500 acres of grapes grow on un-irrigated bush vines.)
Bierzo’s main towns are Ponferrada, Camponaraya, Cacabelos, and Villafranca Del Bierzo. Each of them has its own laid-back charm, a rich and complex history, and a monument or two, but the one world-class tourist attraction the region can proudly claim as its own is Las Médulas, said to be the largest open-cast gold mine of Roman times. I highly recommend taking a break from wine tasting to visit Las Médulas (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to witness for yourself the incomparable network of labyrinths and startlingly beautiful red-earth cliffs rising up out of a forest of centuries-old chestnut trees.
In wine, as in real estate, location, location, location makes a difference. Bierzo, perched on the border where Castilla y León meets Galicia, is higher in elevation and cooler than the hot regions of North-Central Spain, and less humid than Galicia. These factors clearly influence the grapes, as do the region’s mineral-rich schist soils.
“Many vineyards are planted on a a base of clay, where rain water in the winter and spring is absorbed deep into the ground and held like a sponge, which eliminates the need to irrigate. This is what gives the wine volume and mouthfeel,” explains Antón Fonseca Fernández of Bodegas Pittacum. That palate-pleasing texture, plus significant minerality and notable freshness, are the things that most impressed me about Bierzo’s best wines.
As an informal beginners’ guide to Bierzo, here is an abbreviated list of the wineries and wines I particularly enjoyed. I’ve concentrated on producers whose wines are imported to the US, but if you visit the region you’ll quickly discover a number of other top-notch producers.
ADRIA: This long-standing estate is now being run by the third generation of the founding family. “Etapa 24,” named for the 24th stop on the Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s trail, is a yeasty, creamy white made from Godello. “Silk,” Adria’s 100% Mencia, is redolent of raspberry fruit and is characterized by, yes, a silky texture. Imported by Classical Wines.
CASAR DE BURBIA: With its 66 acres of high-elevation vineyards and beautifully made wines Casar de Burbia is one of the few Berzio wineries to attract international attention. Godello from this outstanding producer is characteristically clean and racy, with fresh pear and lemon nuances and great minerality (a steal at $20 in the US). The fragrance of violets and a rich, glossy texture are among the many attractions of “Tebaida,” made from Mencia grown on plots of stony quartz soil. “Hombros” elegantly balances the fruitiness and minerality provided by grapes from 100-year old Mencia vines. Imported by International Wine Group.
CASTRO VENTOSA: Founded in 1752 by the Perez family, who have owned it ever since, the estate now owns 75 acres of Mencia grapes, the largest holding in the Bierzo DO. The Godello wines tend to have a slightly herbal, slightly floral fragrance and fresh, bright acidity balanced by delicate fruit. Reds, especially a Mencia/Garnacha blend, are wonderfully fragrant and have complex flavors. The luscious “Cepas Centenaires” comes from pre-Phyloxera vineyards. Imported by Boutique Wine Selections.
GODELIA: 2008 was this handsome, modern winery’s first vintage. A taut, focused, mineral- accented white is made from 100% Godello grapes sourced from 80-year old vines. A floral but absolutely dry and complex rosé is especially seductive. “Viernes”--earthy, floral, youthful and lightly tannic--is a good introduction to Mencia. Imported by Europevin.
LUNA BEBERIDE: The winery was established in 1987, but its Mencia vineyards are distinguished by age--70-plus years old on average--and size: at more than 170 acres, it is huge by this region’s standards. The entry level Mencia is wonderfully fragrant, tangy and full bodied (and a great value at $17). “Finca la Cuesta” offers a terrific example of Mencia’s ability to express both force and finesse. This producer’s Godellos tend to be serious white wines that can be crisp and lively while showing good depth of flavor. Alejandro Luna, who is in charge of operations here, is one of the region’s most influential vintners. Imported by Grapes of Spain.
LUZDIVINA AMIGO: Two brothers, Miguel and Javier Angel, run this small family winery. Among their many impressive labels is Baloiro Blanco, a toothsome blend of Doña Bianca, Palomino and Godello that is seductively fragrant and fruity. “Viñademoya,” irresistible at $15, presents a touch of oak and a hint of soft tannins, but the beautiful flavors of Mencia (in this case from 100 year old vineyards) is definitely the star here. “Leiros” offers a completely different vision of Mencia, which here is dark and voluptuous, with notes of chocolate and coffee underpinning the rich, ripe fruit. Imported by Classic Wines.
MERAYO: The original Bodegas Merayo opened at the end of the Spanish Civil War, then closed in 1989, and re-opened in 2010. In the intervening years the family concentrated on tending the vineyard; today many of the vines are a century old. Merayo’s white wines often have the delicate, lacy texture and full, dynamic flavors that well-made Godella can offer. Reds range from a big, beautiful powerhouse style to fresh, berry-flavored Mencia-centric wines. Mind bogglingly low prices start at $9 in the US. Imported by David Bowler.
PEIQUE: Located in a small village that dates back to pre-Roman days, Peique’s first vintage was 1999. Charming and vibrant Peique Godello has a long, satisfying finish. Rosé, made from 100% Mencia, is full of flavor--it’s almost more a very light red wine than a rosé. Peique reds stand out for distinctive purity of fruit. “Viñedos Viejos”, made with grapes from 75-year old Mencia vines, is full and lush.
PITTACUM: Founded in the 1990s, Pittacum now turns out some of the region’s most impressive wines. The winery and tasting room are located in a historic building that was once the community winery in the ancient village of Arganza (current population: 180). Pittacum’s “Rosé of Mencia” is absolutely outstanding--perfectly balanced, exuberant, bursting with fresh, ripe fruit along with bouncy acidity, and saline minerality. “Aurea”--lush, velvety, layered and complex--is made from Mencia sourced from some of the oldest vineyards in the region (at $45 it is truly a bargain). Imported by Baron François.
ESTEFANIA: 2000 was Estefania’s first vintage. Today this classy establishment produces five top-tier wines under the Tilenus label. All five are praise-worthy wines, but if I had to choose two I’d probably go for the crisp, apple-and-spice tinged Godello, and “La Florida,” a Mencia that is garnet red, elegant, round, and satiny, with pleasing floral aromas and a persistent finish. Imported by Classic Wines.
TENOIRA GAYOSOA: Founded in 1994 on the site of a long abandoned vineyard, the Tenoira family restored the vineyard and then, a decade ago, began producing wine. The wines are sophisticated yet very approachable. The energetic Godello is smooth in texture but enlivened by and razor sharp acidity, with notes of pear and citrus. Tenoira Gayoso “Mencia en Barrica” is huge and powerful without being overextracted, while Tinto Joven is fresh and fruity, with a fleshy texture and nice raspberry and cherry fruit. Imported by the Wine Library (NJ).
VINOS VALTUILLE: This small winery is located in an ancient village that, according to one of the residents I spoke to, boasts 70 inhabitants and 10 wineries. Vinos Valtuille and its 30 acres of vineyards are owned by the García Alba family, who founded the winery in 1999, but whose ancestors worked the land and made wine here at least as far back as 1910. Marco García Alba, whose first vintage was 2000, continues to produce delicious and enticing wines such as Pago de Valdoneje Roble, a wine with intense aromas and flavors include plums, berries and other dark fruits, as well as earthy, peppery elements. Imported by Winebow.