In 2013 I wrote a blog post for Slow Travel Tours about the mencía grape and how it is grown in the Ribeira Sacra region of Galicia, in Northwest Spain. At that time, it was not so easy to find Ribeira Sacra wines in the United States or even in other parts of Spain. That is slowly changing, and the mencía wines from Ribeira Sacra are now finding their way into stores and restaurants outside of Galicia.
Mencía is also grown in the neighboring region of El Bierzo, in the province of Castile-Leon on the border of Galicia. These mencía wines are distributed more widely than its Galician counterparts, and can be an excellent value as well.
The interesting thing about trying mencía from these two areas is their remarkable difference. Tasting them side by side, sometimes it is hard to tell that they are two wines made of the same grape. “Ribeira Sacra wines have more minerality, more granite, less color, more fruit and floral notes, and higher acidity than those in El Bierzo,” says Adrian McManus, a good friend and my co-guide in both areas. “It is fresher in the mouth or ‘fresquisimo en boca’ as they say here. The mencía from El Bierzo has more color extraction, more alcohol, riper fruits, more wood, and more body.”
It comes down to two things: terroir and the use of oak.
As I wrote in the post about the Ribeira Sacra, their vineyards are planted on steep terraced slopes, in a more mountainous and cooler area. It is impossible to use machinery in most vineyards, so the grapes are picked by hand. Vineyards in the Bierzo region are more hilly than steep, and it is warmer than the Ribeira Sacra.
Machinery can be used which can be a help and a hindrance. The result? Wines that can be much more fruit forward than the mencía wines from the Ribeira Sacra, and sometimes, wines that don’t have the finesse and delicate structure of the wines made from those hand picked, terrace grown grapes.
Then there is the use of oak. Traditionally, winemakers in the Ribeira Sacra do not mature their wines in oak – though that is changing and some of the best winemakers are using and experimenting with oak. In El Bierzo, its the opposite – winemakers there use a lot of oak, and it comes through quite clearly in the wines from that region. I remember the first time I tried a mencía from the Bierzo producer Tilenus after spending a few days in the Ribeira Sacra. A “wow” moment of fruit and oak, it was a clear message that I was not in the Ribeira Sacra anymore! Same grape, totally different wine.
Both of these areas should be on any wine lovers travel radar – not only for the wines, but for the exceptional beauty, the food, and the areas of cultural interest. And I am happy to see that there are more wines from the two regions available, so that consumers outside of Spain can try them.
Experience the wine region of El Bierzo, and hang out with a few Bierzo winemakers, on GrapeHops A Taste of Oviedo and El Bierzo tour. 2017/18 dates soon to be announced.
Shannon Essa leads small-group tours focusing on wine, food, and local culture in Croatia, Slovenia, Northern Italy and Northern Spain & Portugal.
Discover the backstreets of Venice or the wine, craft beer, and slow food of Piedmont, Italy. In Spain, experience the rustic foods and low-key lifestyle in beautiful Galicia, the wineries along the Camino de Santiago in the Bierzo region, or the justifiably famous wine regions and local food traditions of Catalonia. See many of Croatia’s most beautiful sights and learn about the rebirth of one of Europe’s oldest wine areas. And see all this with Shannon, who loves unique and out of the way wine and food experiences.
When not in Europe, Shannon does her eating and drinking in San Diego, California.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.