If it is the high quality of the terroir, large portion of old vines, and individuality of the wines, which originally brought the first wave of pioneers to Bierzo, (and continue to attract others today), it is the increased diversity in winemaking, an ongoing movement away from the use of new 225l barrels, and a thoughtful reconsideration of how to farm land responsibly to produce better quality fruit, which are, once again, making Bierzo the most exciting place in Spain to craft wine. (And, of course, for us the most exciting D.O. to explore by bottle!) One person was so convinced that Bierzo was the place for him to make wine that he ventured all the way across the country, from Barcelona, to do so.
Mario Rovira did not come from a winemaking or vine growing family. He learned, he studied, he worked at La Fleur Petrus and Quintessa, and in New Zealand as well, before coming home to Spain and setting up his small winery in Ponferrada. His mother Marisol, a dentist by training, is Mario's partner in the project. Whether it's helping out in the vineyard, traveling to tastings, or in my case, showing the guy from California around and building a case for their 4.5 hectares spread across several parcels, Marisol works tirelessly to further the project and put these wines on the map. She is persuasive, but perhaps not as persuasive as her beautiful vines of Mencia, as well as the white Dona Blanca and Palomino, with stunning views of the Akilianos mountains that lend their name to the winery and their likeness to the label which Mario designed himself (his mother proudly mentions this to me). Mario does not much care for the Godello in the region, and so he sought out Mencia vines with notable plantings of these other old white varieties (some 100+ years old) interspersed among the reds. Farming is organic and carried out on a very human scale, with occasional plowing of alternating rows and a cover of wildflowers and naturally growing plants. The vineyards all have gentle to significant slopes, with soils containing sand, clay, a bit of schist and quartz - some of the old vines are literally resting along side huge quartz rocks. Slate is not as abundant here as it is in the higher elevations of Villafranca and Corullón.
As for the wines, they are notable for their subtle, even bordering on quiet, style. They are made from grapes picked earlier than anywhere else in the region, up to a month earlier, which explains the fact that it is rare for these wines to even reach 13% ABV (reds included). Marisol mentions that they make a point of starting each day of harvest as early as possible and ending at noon so that grapes are not picked once the sun is at its strongest and the heat its most intense. We have featured the village wine, San Lorenzo, in the past (both red and white) as well as the incredible 'K,' from their tiny, steep very ancient vine Palomino and Doña Blanca parcel. There is also a clarete (a rose with red and white grapes co-fermented) which at 11% is in "one bottle for you, one for me" territory. It's delicious, with the delicate red fruit flavors and hints of blood orange that a few of our favorite claretes share. Though this one is really subtle, less intense and not at all marked by barrel notes. Similar to Dominio del Aguila in Ribera del Duero, Akilia is in its early years but has quickly earned a devoted following amongst the Spanish cognoscenti; a noted Spanish writer has devoted an entire chapter to him in a new book, and sommelier Pitu Roca from the famous 3 star Michelin, and frequent San Pellegrino Top 5 restaurant Celler de Can Roca, wrote an article about the work Mario is doing at Akilia. Look out for the clarete style rose, for the linear, mineral, brilliant 'K' single vineyard white, and possibly one or two reds, arriving shortly to our shelves. I think that we are a bit ahead of market on this winery in the US; in other words, for the time being, we are selling it for cheaper than it should be given how great - and scarce - these wines are. Thank you, Marisol for a terrific visit and a fantastic lunch in Molina Seca!
Gregory Perez is from Bordeaux. He worked at Grand Puy Lacoste and then Cos d'Estournel, where he met a Spanish colleague who lured him away to help out at his Bierzo project named Luna Beberide. In fact, we have sold older vintages from this bodega that were likely made by Gregory. These days, Gregory has his own bodega, named Mengoba, in Cacabelos, which is between Villafranca (where Raul and Ricardo Perez source fruit) and Ponferrada where Akilia is located. Since I had a 4 hour drive and afternoon appointment in Rioja ahead of me, this was a shorter visit, but a very good one as Gregory always has interesting things to taste and lots of experience in Bierzo.
Like Raul Perez, Gregory believes strongly in blending other grapes with Mencia, to add interest, complexity and acidity. Garnacha tintorera (which we know as Alicante Bouschet) is a particular favorite of his. Same as with Raul, Gregory has a variety of foudres and larger barrels, as well as an amphora for his Godello orange wine. We carry the 2016 Brezo Tinto - a wine with fresh dark fruit and violet notes that shows great personality for such an inexpensive red.
There is a small solera of botas purchased from Delgado Zuleta in Sanlucar, so that Gregory has Godello ageing in Amontillado, Fino and Manzanilla barrels, 1 or 2 of which have flor on them. Perez is a Sherry fan, and his eyes seem to light up the most when I ask him about this little experiment of his. We will see if these experiments ever result in a tiny saca of sherry barrel aged Godello!
Next stop, Rioja.
- Joe Manekin