By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 16 October 2016
Anyone who has walked the Camino de Santiago through north-west Spain and stopped for a glass of refreshing red wine en-route – might well have been served with a Mencia.
Mencia (pronounced Men-thee-a) is the most important red grape of this part of Spain. Although the Romans and Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages grew vines here, the rise of Mencia is much more recent – it only appeared after this area was laid waste by the phylloxera louse in late C19 and then replanted. Even then, it took until the 1990’s for the grape to achieve any notoriety outside the remote north-west.
For many years Mencia was considered a grape just for rosado or unoaked light carbonic-maceration reds – like simple Beaujolais. It took two men: Alvaro Palacios, who was also responsible for the rebirth of Priorato region in late 1980’s, and his Bordeaux-trained nephew Ricardo Perez Palacios who saw the potential in Mencia and sought out old high altitude vineyards near Corullon in Bierzo, where their winery Descendientes de J Palacios is run on biodynamic principles.
Mencia’s mainstay today is certainly Bierzo region – better known in Spain for its famous coal and gold mines near Ponferrada – which were the most important mines in the whole of the Roman empire. Today on the high altitude steep slatey soils, the best Mencia are found, although other neighbouring regions of Valdeorras, Monterrei and Rias Baixas attempt to compete.
These regions share a humid wet climate, a challenge for the vine grower trying to ripen their red grapes. The best Mencia grapes hail from low yielding old vines grown on quartz and slate soils, often on tiny little plots. There are thousands of small-holders, with the average holding about 2.5 hectares, and some producers like Alvaro Palacios own 200 tiny separate steep hillside plots.
Bierzo currently has 4,000 hectares – with 55 wineries – but many of these wineries did not exist ten years ago as Bierzo has recently exploded into life. In the past the older growers just relied solely on selling to the local cooperatives.
Admittedly, Mencia is far better known in Spain, but as Galicia’s white grapes like Albarino and Godello have recently been discovered by UK winelovers – now the local Galician reds are starting to make a name for themselves over here.
Tastewise, Mencia reminds me of the sappiness of Loire Cabernet Franc with the juiciness of a Beaujolais – but famous Bierzo pioneer Alvaro Palacios prefers to describe Mencia as similar to a combination between youthful Rhone Syrah and young Burgundy. It has a delicious sappy juiciness, high acidity, minerally tones and a salty edge in the best wines which match well with fatty foods like charcuterie, coarse pate or cured meats.
The Spanish themselves serve Mencia with ‘cecina’, cured or smoked beef or ‘botillo’, pig’s intestine stuffed with pork. Why not try one of these Mencia with our own haggis? It makes a perfect combination – with Mencia’s naturally high sappy acidity and spicy matching well with our own native dish.
MENCIA TASTE TEST:
Bierzo: CUATRO PASOS MENCIA 2013 Martin Codax
(£9.99 Whole Food Markets, Giffnock; Whitmore & White)
Named after ‘Four Steps’ – the four bear prints found in Bierzo region. Despite being made from 80 year old vines, this lacks a certain depth. Light bright cherried fruit, raspberry flavours, juicy, spicy with vanilla toast from short oaking: 14%
Bierzo: EL VALIN MENCIA 2015 Vinos Guerra
(£8.99 / £9.99 Laithwaites www.laithwaites.co.uk)
A combination of old vines (45-55 years old), high altitude slatey soils and careful winemaking has made a very enticing Mencia made by keen Bierzo enthusiast Ricardo Palacios. Initially light, sappy, vibrant raspberry fruits, still taut and youthful – but it shows promise with another year in bottle to show at its best: 13.5%
Bierzo: PETALOS MENCIA 2014 Descendientes de J Palacios ***STAR BUY***
(£14.99 / £16.99 Majestic Wine)
There is something divinely sappy and juicy about this wine – it might be pricier than others but it showed real class. Perfumed floral almost ethereal bouquet, elegant strawberry fruits, well-balanced acidity, lovely length and a more-ish salty edge. This is the entry-level wine from modern-day Bierzo pioneer, Alvaro Palacios and his nephew Ricardo, from their mountainous quartz soil vineyards in Corullon: 14%
Monterrei: ALMA DE TINTA MENCIA 2014
Exactly what you would expect from an inexpensive Mencia: initially floral, juicy, red fruits – very approachable and rounded, but lacks concentration, length and depth: 13%
Valdeorras: VALDESIL VALDEORRAS MENCIA 2012 Villamartin de Valdeorras
The most mature Mencia in our tasting – showing more developed mulberry fruits, a peppery spicy edge, but with a certain rusticity and earthiness which spoils its finish: 13%
Valdeorras: GABA DO XIL MENCIA 2013 Telmo Rodriguez ***STAR BUY***
(£11.45 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Telmo Rodriguez (of Rioja & Malaga fame) has ventured into south west Spain to make whites and reds. His Mencia from Valdeorras region is an unoaked wild berried herby Mencia (which benefits from decanting) from vineyards he discovered on the high banks of the Bibei river: 12.5%
Join Rose’s Down the Danube wine tasting Edinburgh Wed 19 October £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com