It’s impossible to define a whole region after visiting for a couple of days and talking to a handful of winemakers, but here is a quick overview of what makes this a special place to make wine.
The valley has been cut out of the surrounding mountains by a couple of rivers and has formed a paradise for traditional agriculture. First there is the river flats for grazing animals, a little higher up for vegetables and apples, pears and plums. Go higher still and you’ll find chestnuts and cherries. But where are the vines? Look a little higher to the impossibly steep mountain sides and you’ll find small plots of very old vines clinging to the side of the hills. This is perfect country for traditional farming and community. The region is well known for it’s produce: potatoes, tomatoes, goat and lamb, cured meats (which are generally smoked here due to the humidity from the rivers), and all kinds of fruits and nuts.
Of course these days people do grow vines on the river flat, it is easier to make bulk wines here with machine harvesting, but it is on the mountain slopes where you’ll find the quality grapes. The mountains here are steep, some of them look almost vertical, yet there are vineyards here. How people work them is beyond me, but I do know that the help of a donkey is required. Like in Priorat, or the much closer Douro Valley, the mount sides consist of a base of slate shist with a variety of stuff over the top: clay and pebbles at the base near the river, a bit higher up it moves into limestone and quartz (I pilfered a couple of good size rocks, as only a wine geek would!) and towards the top you find slate coming to the surface. This is a generalisation, as the top of some hills have clay and no limestone etc, but it should give you an idea of the landscape.
Mencia is the grape of choice here, it has evolved over time to become at home in Bierzo and has the ability to produce some stunning wines. It produces strong, robust reds that are deeply tannic, with slightly lower acidity than what is considered normal. Yet this doesn not seem to hinder the wines aging quite well. One of the great things about mencia is that it is very approachable when young, the 2009 vintage barrel samples I looked at were ready to go and thats only 4 months after harvest. Most wine tasted at this is very young and almost doesn’t taste like wine. There are plantings of Tempranillo, Cabernet and other red grapes in the areas, for my tastes these should be left well alone.
In terms of white wine, there is a small production of Godello which shows promise. There are lots of old Palomino vines mixed in with the mencia in some vineyards, this was used in the past to bulk up production, the end result being a table wine of lower concentration and alcohol with a wishy-washy taste. Quality producers are replacing these old palomino vines with mencia.
Of course the people and their influences form a big part in the region too, and this place has had its fair share over the years. First it was the Romans, who minded the hills and river valleys for gold. Then of course there is the Camino de Stantiago (or the way of St. James if you prefer the english version). People have been walking the camino for centuries, bringing many things with them, including vines. The old story is that monks brought vine cuttings with them from northern Europe to Bierzo and planted what has become Mencia, the king of grapes for the region. Now, many have though that mencia was originally Cabernet Franc from Bordeaux, and there are similarities between the two, however genetic testing has disproved this theory. Whatever it was, I’m very thankful that they did.
Of course then there is the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s reign over the country from 1936 to 1975. The story is similar to that of many other regions that were abandoned for wine production during the Franco era: grape prices where set on weight regardless of quality, the amount of labour required to cultivate the vines in Bierzo is very high and yields were low, so many families abandoned their vineyards and went to the bigger cities to look for work in industry or offices. Those that stayed were generally older, this can still be seen now, there are very few young people walking in the streets of Villafranca del Bierzo. The younger generations came back in the summer for holidays, but that was about it.
In the late 90s younger people started looking at all these old vines (and importantly EU funds for reclaiming old varieties and vineyards) and production of quality wine was again on the agenda. Given a couple of hectares of vineyards, plus the fruit trees that are intermingled with the vines, a family is again able to sustain itself from the land. The old vineyards are being rejuvenated with quality as the driver, rather than quanity.
The region has a blossoming wine industry now and interest is high. Many in the Spanish (and global) wine press have announced El Bierzo the ‘new Priorat’. This linkage is helped by the fact that Ricardo Palacios, nephew of Alvaro Palacios, has started up a major concern here in partnership with his uncle. Generally speaking, many of the local wines are produced by Co-Ops while there is a growing interest from large wine companies.
More on the wines of Bierzo in my next post….