Wine region / Country
The main factor behind this success is the area’s indigenous variety, the Mencía, a red grape producing wines that are well-structured, meaty, silky smooth and elegant - characteristics that have satisfied even the most demanding palates and help to make the future look very bright indeed.
Another important factor is its geographical situation. Located in the north-west of Castilla-León and bordering Galicia, Bierzo boasts a special microclimate. Shelter is provided by the León Mountains and the Cordillera Cantábrica which protect the area from the damp Atlantic winds, and the lack of rainfall typical of Castilla helps the grapes to ripen fully.
Wine has played an important role in the local economy for ten centuries. Monasteries and convents constructed around the pilgrims' route of the Camino de Santiago (Saint James’ Way) needed grapes and wines for both their daily consumption and for Eucharistic rites. The wines produced in El Bierzo were popular here and in the nearby regions of Galicia and Asturias for centuries until the end of the 19th century when the phylloxera blight devastated vineyards, sparking off a severe economic crisis and a migration of local people in search of work. Production eventually started up again in the mid-20th century thanks to the grafting of phylloxera-resistant American rootstock and the wine sector recovered the importance it had enjoyed previously. The important emergence of cooperatives in the 1960s was, and still is, key for the success of the local wines.
As well as its vineyards, El Bierzo is well-known for its breathtaking landscapes of valleys, rivers, and mountains peppered with the spectacular paths the monks used to walk along. Caves, reddish soil, chestnut trees and water all form part of the natural beauty of El Bierzo. It is also known for its important historic art heritage, with examples from the Romanesque, Gothic, and Mozarabic periods found around the region. And if all this weren't enough to convince you of the beauty of El Bierzo, its gastronomy also has an excellent reputation. The most famous culinary speciality is the botillo, a pork delicacy, but other delights include apples, pears, chestnuts and peppers.
Visiting the vineyards, you'll find small plots often planted on slopes between altitudes which mainly range between 450 and 800 metres. The soils are clay loam with thicker elements such as slate and quartzite in the higher plots where the soil is shallow and the subsoil is rich in minerals. The soil down in the valleys is much more fertile thanks to sediments deposited over the centuries. Gently-sloping terraces near the river rise up to eventually meet steeper vineyards at heights of over 1,000 metres where slopes can be as steep as 45%. Mechanical work on these vineyards is impossible and manual farming produces a limited yield. The brave and committed vine-growers who dare to take on the challenge of cultivating vines in such conditions have given rise to the concept of heroic viticulture.
The local climate has specific characteristics as the Sierra de los Ancares mountain range shelters the region from the Atlantic low-pressure depressions, leaving it with a continental climate with oceanic influences. Temperatures are mild with averages ranging between 3.6ºC and 23.6ºC. Rainfall is around 700mm per year and it receives over 2,000 hours of sunlight per year. There are many micro-climates in El Bierzo too as it is a mixture of river valleys and mountainous areas. This explains why maximum and average temperatures can vary significantly across the region. However, in general terms, we’re looking at a climate which combines the dampness of rainy Galicia to the west with the much drier central Spain conditions. These characteristics usually help the fruit to ripen perfectly except in areas where the humidity is too high, bringing with it a risk of fungal disease. The hours of intense sunlight and the low chance of frosts means that the grapes may ripen up to a month earlier than those in other nearby appellations.
Most vines are bush-trained, especially those on mountain-side terraces where the Mencia grape offers the most complex expressiveness. The stepped terraces means water from rain does not simply run down the mountain slope washing away soil and nutrients, but is retained in the soil around the vines. Most vines are small old ones and many winemakers run lots of small plots often separated from each other physically. The division of the land into smallholdings would appear to bring difficulties at first glance, but it is one of the reasons why large investors haven't bought out large areas of vines in El Bierzo. Most people working the land and producing wine here are truly in love with the land. They use the vines to make a living but with the utmost respect for local landscapes and traditions.
Regarding grape varieties, the king in El Bierzo is the Mencia which makes up 75% of wine production. Other top quality grapes include the Alicante Bouschet, Godello, Doña Blanca, and Palomino. Lesser known grapes which are traditional in El Bierzo and Galicia, such as the Estaladiña or the Souzao (Souson) varieties are making a comeback. Mencia is a moderately productive variety which buds and ripens relatively early. It has smallish blue-hued grapes ideally suited for making a variety of excellent red and rosé wines. It was thought to be a cousin of the Cabernet Franc for many years but recent DNA studies have shown that they are not related. Although the Alicante Bouschet is a local variety, it is used very seldom in comparison with the Mencia, making up only 2-5% of production. However, it makes for colourful wines with unique features and a high alcohol content thanks to its strong colour and thick skin among other characteristics. It is often used as a partner with other varieties to make both reds and rosés, although some single-variety wines have also surprised wine-lovers. Winemakers have made a firm commitment to recover the Godello white grape (4%), an important variety in the nearby Valdeorras appellation, which bears small and compact bunches of grapes with a yellow-green colour. It creates aromatic wines with hints of apple and is ideally suited for fermentation and ageing in barrels. The Doña Blanca (2.4%) variety, also known as the Valenciana, is quite productive and buds relatively late while the Palomino, or Listan, grape (17%) gives higher yields. The sweet and aromatic Malvasia variety is also cultivated in the region but on a much smaller scale.
All three kinds of wines are produced in the DO Bierzo appellation; whites, rosés, and, especially, reds. White wines are made with a base of Godello and Doña Blanca blended with small quantities of Palomino and Malvasia. Rosé wines are made up of 50% Mencia combined with other red or white varieties. The full range of red wines are produced here; young reds, and aged Crianzas, Reservas, and Gran Reservas. The young reds are colourful first or second year wines with 70% of Mencia. They are smooth and flavoursome thanks to their fruitiness. Crianza wines must age for at least two years, including six months in the barrel. Red wines aged for three years, with at least twelve months in wood, are called Reservas. White and rosé Reservas spend six months in the barrel and eighteen in the bottle. The Gran Reserva category is only used for red wines, which must have aged for five years, with at least eighteen months in the barrel.
The quality of El Bierzo wines just keeps on improving thanks to the amazing work of oenologists like Raúl Perez, Ricardo Pérez Palacios (Álvaro Palacios' nephew) and Alejandro Luna from the Bodegas Luna Beberide winery. They work with a determination to reduce yields and obtain better quality fruit, searching out old vines at significant altitudes in soils which, though not very productive, have interesting characteristics, such as slate-covered vineyards. A careful temperature control and the use of top quality wooden barrels help the fruit to express its terroir and the wines to reflect the image of the marvellous El Bierzo landscapes. Nowadays, El Bierzo wines are juicy and expressive, mineral and fresh wines, seducing wine-lovers with their velvety feel and intense aromas of fruit. International wine critics have fallen in love with them as the huge increase in exports shows, with the world market now making up a third of the sales of El Bierzo wines.
£13.29 91+ Parker Red Crianza wine, Bierzo Vinos Valtuille Mencia
£35.08 94-96 Parker 95 Peñín Red Crianza wine, Bierzo Descendientes de J. Palacios Mencia
£8.53 93 Peñín Young red Crianza wine, Bierzo Bodega Casar de Burbia Mencia
£15.35 93 Parker Red Crianza wine, Bierzo Raúl Pérez Viticultor Mencia
£12.86 93 Parker Young red Crianza wine, Bierzo Descendientes de J. Palacios Mencia, Alicante Bouschet
£7.68 Red Crianza wine, Bierzo Bodegas y Viñedos Luna Beberide Mencia
£27.44 95 Parker Red Crianza wine, Bierzo Bodegas y Viñedos Paixar Mencia
£7.38 Young red Crianza wine, Bierzo Bodegas Peique Mencia
£11.79 90 Parker Red Crianza wine, Bierzo Dominio de Tares Mencia
£14.24 Barrel Aged white wine, Bierzo Bodega Casar de Burbia Godello
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