Spain offers hidden gem in mencia wines

Rows of flavor: The Bierzo region

No longer just the land of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, or tempranillo and garnacha (aka grenache), Spanish wine flavors have diversified immensely. Terrific wines are being made all over the country from a variety of grapes. More than any other area, the northwest has become a playground for those who want to try what were until recently considered esoteric varietals.

The one grape that defines the red wines of this area is mencia. Spicy with rose petals, black pepper, roasted red peppers and berrylike fruit, mencia has always reminded me a little bit of garnacha and cabernet franc — until recently it was thought to be related to, if not a carbon copy of, the latter. But, in fact, mencia is indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula. In Portugal it is known as “jaen” and can be found in the Dao region.

With the grape having been grown in Spain for centuries, there exist several old vineyards, some which were planted in the 19th century. It is found in Bierzo, the most western appellation of Castilla y Leon, and throughout Galicia. In the latter, it tends to do best in the continental climates of Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras, which are marred by cold winters and long, hot summers.

Bodegas Adria Viña Montán Mencia, 2009 (Bierzo, Spain): This 10-year-old bodega is making good and very reasonably priced wines. Made from old mencia vines, Viña Montán is fresh and spicy, with herbal undertones and plum-black cherry fruit. Suggested retail: $14

Benaza Monterrei Mencia, 2009 (Monterrei, Spain): Located on the Portuguese border, Monterrei is the smallest denominción de origen in Galicia. Winemaker and owner Álvero Bueno purchases fruit from local farmers and uses stainless steel for fermentation and a short aging period. Crisp is not a word commonly used for red wines, but it fits here. Floral and spicy with red fruits, this is a delightful red for the fall. Suggested retail: $14

Costoya Alodio Tinto, 2009 (Ribeira Sacra, Spain): Carlos Costoya took over this old property in 1995 and made improvements over time. The wine is 95 percent mencia — the remaining 5 percent comes from merenzao and brancellao, two other rare grapes that are native to Galicia — and aged in stainless steel. Composed of fruit from 30- to 40-year-old vines, this is a very elegant expression of mencia — with flavors of violet, cayenne, black pepper, plums and blackberries. Suggested retail: $15

These wines can be found through Alegria Wine and Ware, K&L Wine Merchants, Plonk Wine Merchant and The Spanish Table.

Pamela S. Busch was the founding partner of Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bars, and is a wine educator and writer.

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