On the Trail

Pilgrimage to Bierzo

SpainJoe Manekin
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While Spain boasts some undeniably great, historic bodegas producing wine of the highest quality - and at the other side of the spectrum also has a number of large scale projects churning out huge amounts of bulk wine to sell off across the Pyrenees or to bottle as private labels for supermarkets, the future for many aspiring winemakers and relatively newer wineries lies in the country's diversity of grape varieties and terroirs. There is a whole lot that has been discovered and has come to light in the past twenty years - emerging D.O.’s, nearly extinct, heirloom grape varieties, and seas of beautiful, postcard perfect vines studded with the occasional bucolic and bustling, centuries old village.

Let's take a look at Bierzo. Here is a D.O. that has been in existence for nearly 30 years, but only recently is re-emerging as a place to rival some of the country's more exalted D.O.'s for truly original $15-$40 bottles, as well as vin de garde and even 100 pointers with pricing well into the hundreds of dollars. There's also cheap and cheerful, industrially made wine as well, of course. We will focus on truly original and $15-40, but first, an orientation might be helpful.

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Bierzo is a D.O. region where most of the vines are located west of the small city of Ponferrada and extend to the Villafranca del Bierzo area. Most of the vineyards belong to the province of Leon. While we are on the outer reaches of the region of Castilla y Leon, in terms of the scenery - an abundance of streams, rivers, steep slopes dotted with a combination of Mediterranean and more continental climate trees and foliage, we are no longer in Spain's central meseta, perhaps a bit closer in appearance and culture to Galicia. The Leonese dialect spoken here is also, like Gallego, more similar to Portuguese than Spanish. Locals like their chorizo especially smokey, and the bresaola-like cecina, or dry cured beef, is another smokey special.

Two wineries have arguably shaped and influenced Bierzo, as well as our perception of Bierzo, more than any others: Descendientes de José Palacios and Raul Perez. Raul's influence spreads far beyond Bierzo, as his work in Galician D.O.'s, his early consulting in the Gredos region west of Madrid, even his collaboration with like-minded winemakers from Argentina to South Africa, have added so much to the world of wine. Descendientes was started by Ricardo Perez, whose uncle Alvaro Palacios assisted with the project in its early days, and as a strong wine personality in his own right, is up there with Raul Perez in terms of influence in the Spanish wine landscape over the past two decades.

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Corullon is the village where Ricardo's own vineyards are located, as well as where the sleek, recently finished winery stands, all the way at the top of the mountain. Bierzo happens to be an area featuring the largest concentration of very old vines, most of them Mencia, in the world. It is a grape that is somewhat moderate to low in acidity, but produces elegant wines, with tannins that aren't as strong as those of Tempranillo, and flavors that perhaps are a bit more peppery and floral, particularly so when grown at higher elevations in slate soils. That said, much of the D.O.'s vineyard land is not planted on slate, but rich, red clay soils, occasionally containing quartz. As I mentioned earlier, this is a region where Mediterranean and continental climates collide, with a bit of an Atlantic influence as well; vine stress due to drought is not an issue here thanks to plentiful rains. Reflecting this climactic crossroads, depending on orientation and location in Ricardo's vineyards, you are as likely to see Chestnut trees and wild mint as you are rosemary, thyme, and lavender.  

We (me and Andy Booth from the Spanish Table) tasted barrel samples of 2017's, a vintage which experienced the same frost issues in late April that Ribera del Duero suffered. Across the board, the wines were very good, beginning with the entry level Petalos (20% Corullon plots supplemented with purchased fruit from around Villafranca), stepping up to the more seriously structured Corullon (the 2000 vintage, their second year, was generously given to us to enjoy that night for dinner - thanks, Ricardo!) and then getting into the single vineyards. Las Lamas, which features more clay based soils, is typically richer, rounder and plumper. Another single vineyard, Moncerbal was not made in 2017, I forget if it was due to frost or hail damage. While the Faraon (a 100 point alum) was of course impressive, with its blue and purple fruits, violet notes and firm structure, it was the Val de Foz which was the most delicious right now - incredibly floral and surprisingly refined even at this early stage. Unfortunately for us, this is a wine made exclusively for Quim Vila of the Barcelona based Vila Viniteca. None for us! (though you may be able to find a bottle at their store).

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I was told by at least a few people that my appointment with Raul Perez may or may not materialize. He is a busy guy, always on the move, and from what I hear, not one to be hampered by schedules or appointments. That said I did have a late afternoon appointment with him, that we changed into an early evening one since he was busy working in the vineyards all day. Finding Raul is certainly not impossible, but a bit tricky, starting with the village you must head towards (Valtuille de Abajo, which belongs to Leon, not Valtuille de Arriba, which belongs to Ponferrada!) They are literally across the highway from each other, separated by less than a kilometer. I tried, and failed, with GPS, so I asked a couple of friendly locals where the bodega was located, caught Raul shortly after he arrived to the winery, and jumped right in to a whirlwind series of barrel tastings, probably the most eclectic and free wheeling session of barrel tasting that I can recently recall. There was the Godello Raul bought as an experiment ("too fruity, not the house style"), various Mencia based blends (Raul blends in other varieties that are often interplanted in the vineyards), Italian Pinot Noir clones that are harvested at 11.5%, fermented and then chaptalized up to 12.5%, Moscatel harvested in December of 2011 which has been ageing in the same barrel, not topped off, ever since. We went back and forth between two barrel rooms, one of them only partially roofed, where there were a number of foudres, all old barrels, a recently delivered piece of equipment which apparently caught Raul by surprise ("I'm not sure what this is doing here"). Lots of experiments that will never see the light of day - at least in commercial terms - but that nonetheless represent learning opportunities for Raul. While Raul's wines are never plentiful, we do try to carry what we can when they are available. These are wines that are always full of personality, that make you think, and now wines that for me will have an entirely new context thanks to Raul's legendary generosity with his time. If I worked a 12 hour day and then was asked if I could conduct a personal tasting of Spanish wines, I don't think I would be up for it. Pues, gracias Raul!

- Joe Manekin

Next up: Mas Bierzo over at Akilia and yet another Perez (Gregory Perez) at Mengoba.