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It is no secret that I am a fan of Spanish wines, as I have now been preaching the gospel for over 20 years. I have nurtured a love affair with many of the regional wines for many years now, as I have passionately extolled the virtues of the many clones of Tempranillo, and shared the knowledge that my favorite grapes, Garnacha and Carinena, were indeed Spanish from the beginning. I laid my love of life on the line for my beloved wines from Jerez, and even proclaimed to the world that Albarino, Verdejo, and especially Godello, are now to be recognized next to the world's best white wines. I used the value card to get them to listen, but the proof has always been in the glass, and I have since proudly watched as Spanish wine has assumed its rightful place on the world stage. I am known by many as a fanatic of such relatively obscure DOs as Toro and Jumilla, and I stashed away my favorite bottles of Priorato when the world was trying to figure out what those crazies were up to. As much as I love all of these brilliant wines, from many amazing regions, today I reveal my true Spanish wine soul: I cannot get enough of the black grape Mencia, and the red wines of that remote area of western Castilla y Leon and Galicia. Bierzo is indeed the heart and soul of the Mencia-producing regions, but stopping there would not do justice to the versatility of this very unique grape. Delicious wines fashioned from Mencia are being produced in the DOs Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei, Ribeiro, Valdeorras, and yes, even Rias Baixas (shhh---don't tell. Red wines are not allowed in the DO). When I visited in 1993, I did not taste a single red wine worth writing about or sharing. When I finally returned on a pilgrimage to this magnificent area in 2006, I was inundated with brilliant RED wines, from every corner of Galicia, and of course from Bierzo itself. For many years, red wines from Bierzo, and all of Galicia, were considered light and fruity, simple wines, and thus Mencia designated a simple grape, capable only of this type of wine. This was perhaps a result of phylloxera, when the vineyards were replanted in the valley floors and produced at great volumes and high yields, of course yielding a lighter style of wine. But on the very steep, slate and schist covered hillsides of this Atlantic maritime area, situated above the Rio Sil and its tributaries at elevations often over 2300 feet and sometimes up to 2800 feet above sea level, the old vines were just waiting for someone like Ricardo Perez Palacios to happen by and pay them heed. When Ricardo and his famous uncle Alvaro (Finca Dofi and L'Ermita) first produced their Corullon wine, from the village of the same name, in 1999, a few of us took notice. Under the name of Descendientes de J. Palacios, the wines have improved with every vintage, and now, in my estimation, the single vineyard designations from this bodega are some of the finest wines in the world today. When Mariano Garcia (formerly of Vega Sicilia, currently of Mauro, San Roman, and Aalto) teamed up with Bernardo Luna, of Luna Beberide, to produce Paixar from 80 to 100 year-old vines at 2700 feet, the game was on. Now his brilliant sons, Eduardo and Alberto, are in charge, along with Bernardo's son Alejandro, and Paixar continues to be one of the shining stars for the future. I am absolutely in love with this wine, and you will be too...if you can find it. Production of these wines is extremely limited, and prices continue to climb, as more serious winos are discovering the joys of Mencia, and the wines of Bierzo. Other fantastic bodegas include Dominio de Tares (I adore the Bembibre and the uber rare Pago Tres) and Casar de Burbia (Tebaida is a drink for the soul, only made in great vintages), both of which, in addition to these mentioned brilliant wines on the high end, offer very affordable value alternatives in a fresh, easy drinking style. Also watch for recent vintages of Castro Ventosa Valtuille, and Tilenus Pagos de Posada. Lest you should think they are all very expensive (like previously in Priorato, limited production combined with media attention creates instant supply and demand) some great value alternatives from Bierzo are: Petalos from Descendientes de J. Palacios, Casar de Burbia, Baltos from Dominio de Tares, and Pazo de Arribi from Bodegas Adria. So what, pray tell, is this magical grape, MENCIA? Is it Cabernet Franc, as many would have you believe? It has definitely been proven NOT to be Cab Franc by DNA fingerprinting, although some would argue that it has certain similarities. In fact, it may even be the progenitor of Cab Franc (the same grape in Portugal is called JAEN), and it has probably been planted in this area since the Romans were encamped here centuries ago. According to Oscar Alegre of Palacios, they have isolated at least nine different clones in a mere one acre plot, (which is an entire Bierzo vineyard for the Corullon project!), which would indicate hundreds of years of vineyard development. To me, what is important is not from whence Mencia came, but what it has become, or rather what it CAN be in the right hands. When working with old vines, grown in slate/schist soils, on very steep slopes, at high altitudes, harvested at low yields, in a relatively cool climate, Mencia is capable of crafting deep, dark, beautiful wines with good acidity, exotic wildflower floral tones, red, black and blue fruits, and soft, round tannins. In these conditions, in this type of climate, this grape can reach amazing complexity at lower alcohol levels, while still reaching complete phenolic ripeness, which yields sweet, ripe tannins, and yet has a perfect balance of acidity at moderate alcohol (imagine its versatility for food, and the potential to age!) The best wines are extremely supple, and show great restraint, enhancing the minerality, and exhibiting finesse and elegance. With a judicious oak treatment, they become ultimate wines of place, an embodiment of the terroir. Is there still the danger of over-extraction, over-oaking, over-the-top alcohol...of creating an international style of wine? Of course that danger is always there, yet even with big ripe fruit, these wines truly dictate a more restrained course of winemaking, or, shall we say, less human influence. Mencia grown in the greatest vineyard sites of Bierzo, is one perfect example of great wine being made in the vineyard, and great vineyard sites making truly great wine. Although the DO Bierzo is finally getting the recognition it deserves, Mencia actually is the red wine grape of choice of most of Galicia, in Northwestern Spain, as well, and it surely has turned heads in recent years, as quality red wine production in this area has blossomed. DO Bierzo had only 20 wineries in 2000, but today there are over 50. As we venture West from Castilla y Leon and cross over the Eastern border of Galicia, we follow the Rio Sil into the DO Valdeorras, a region becoming increasingly well-known for its white wines of Godello (Alvaro's younger brother Rafael is doing ground-breaking work here with his As Sortes project) but the red wines should really get more attention than they do. I have only tasted a few of note, but the varietally-labeled Mencia wine of Casal Novo from Adega O Casal has to be one of the best red wine values of this year, delicious in a fresh, very drinkable style that still exhibits all of the lovely varietal characteristics that I have now begun to crave (as described above), and by the way, while we are in Valdeorras, Casal Novo's Godello is mind blowing, too. (In Galicia, an "adega" is a bodega, or winery). In DO Ribeira Sacra, Mencia is planted, among other grapes, on 2000 year old Roman terraces ascending the steepest slopes, in one of the most remote wine regions in the world, and great things are happening. Since there is now even a paved road coming out of there, we may actually, finally, be able to taste some of these amazing wines on our shores. Seek out a bottle of the 250 cases of Dominio de Bibei Lacima, crafted by Sara Perez and her life and business partner (and father of her children), Rene Barbier, Jr, both of DOCa Priorato fame, (Clos Martinet and Clos Mogador respectively), apparently attracted to the similarly steep vineyards and equally difficult growing conditions. If that is too steep for you, check out the Peza do Rei Mencia, which is still a steal, or the newly released Finca Millara. The producers of DO Ribeiro, on the Rio Mino, with a rich history of winemaking dating back centuries at least to Roman times, and DO Monterrei, with its mere handful of wineries, both better known as white wine destinations, are so eager to show us how far they have come with their red wines, it is almost as if the beautiful white wines by which they have carved out their reputations are an afterthought, and even in DO Rias Baixas on my last visit, we tasted illicit red wines of Mencia grapes, at least two of which were outstanding. From DO Ribeiro, you might try Vina Reboreda Mencia from Bodegas Campante (or continue to enjoy Ribeiro's stunning and under-valued white wines!) From DO Monterrei, try Bodegas Ladairo. Unfortunately, Mencia is, in my opinion, often mistakenly blended with other grapes, particularly Garnacha Tintorera, Garnacha Tinta (Alicante), Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Maria Ardona (a black grape local to Valdeorras). I believe that Mencia can lose its appeal, its freshness, all of the lovely fruit and floral tones that make it special, when blended with these other grapes, especially with Merlot, which instead of softening the wine as designed, makes it less balanced and too flat, and Cabernet Sauvignon, added of course for structure, which only hardens Mencia and as a result making the wines too firm and tannic. Of course, that is only my opinion, and the Garnacha blends have existed much longer than I, so perhaps I am just a purist (who adores his pure Mencia!) I will of course continue to enjoy a fine bottle from Montsant or Priorato, a taste of Toro or Ribera del Duero, a gulp here and there of just about any DO of Spain, and a sip or two of Sherry before and after my meal. As I continue to watch with great pride and admiration the renaissance of winemaking, excuse me, wineGROWING, throughout Spain, I perhaps am most impressed by the sensibility of the wines. I learned a long time ago that wine belongs on the table, with food, and the wines from Spain almost overwhelmingly seem to have a built-in sensibility for food, a natural synchronicity, if you will, to taste good with the food that shares the same table. If this is something you have yet to experience on your own, or like me, you just cannot get enough good food and wine, then my suggestion is that you slide on into your kitchen with a great bottle of Mencia, and witness as it unfolds layer upon layer of intoxicating complexity before your very eyes...and your nose, and your mouth...until it has overtaken your senses with complete delight. Then? Cook whatever you are inspired to eat. I promise, whatever you choose, the match, the pairing, the combination of the wine and the food, will not disappoint. This grape, Mencia, grown in these conditions, in these places, and tended to lovingly by these people, yearns to be consumed with food, and as such, may be the most versatile wine in your cellar, or on your wine list. Buen provecho

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