Spain’s Noble Terroir: Bierzo

Bierzo-Location

“Authentic regional wines from grower estates, with a special emphasis on indigenous cool-climateviticulture.” This is the founding philosophy and mantra of Classical Wines, in no case better exemplified than by beautiful Bierzo in the mountains of León.

In the 1970s viticultural nobility among Spain’s wine regions was apparent, unclouded as it was by the subsequent invasion of refrigeration and irrigation technologies. Applying the most basic understanding of terroir as taught by the French, the topographical map of Spain offered tantalizing promise for elegant, mineral, fresh wines of structure and longevity. Foremost among the potential attractions was the Sil River Valley, specifically the upriver/inland stretch called Bierzo. A balance of ripeness and acidity, with adequate sunshine and rainfall, seemed a given. In spite of the total absence of local wines on the market at the time, this region became an early pilgrimage for us, years prior to the establishment of the Denominación de Origen Bierzo in 1989.

As it happens, the Romans and the religious orders of the Middle Ages had similar ideas long before. The Roman capital of Bergidum (from which Bierzo is derived) was the center of one the empire’s most intensive mining industries, and grapes became a primary crop. The monastic orders of Burgundy, accustomed to seeking isolated, high river valleys and remote mountain locations for worship and viticulture, recognized the potential of the region and established monasteries dedicated to wine production from the 11th century onwards, simultaneous to or very shortly following establishment of their monastic institutions in Burgundy and the Rhine. The remote river valleys of Atlantic/Continental Europe constituted one wine nation, the monks transporting, propagating and selecting the vitis vinifera for optimum quality in each locality.

Bierzo-LocationUpon our initial arrival in Bierzo we began work with an historic estate producing the region’s most well-known wine of the era, Valdeobispo (‘Valley of the Bishop’, existing today as a brand only). At the time, the Mencía-based reds from this producer were held in oaken uprights; we tasted intact and interesting wines that had been kept for five, ten years and longer without bottling. The potential for finesse and aging was clear. Valdeobispo 1989, made at our direction from the first official vintage of DO Bierzo, was the first Mencía and the first Bierzo to undergo malolactic fermentation with subsequent aging in eight new 225-litre barriques. It was a resounding success in the US, UK and elsewhere. In fact, the UK importer, a Master of Wine, declared it the finest red from Spain he had ever tried.

Bierzo is all the more impactful for the age of its Mencía vines. Here, the vines were simply overcropped or abandoned during the lean years, and generally not replaced with lesser, higher-yielding varieties. It was then left to the new generation to acquire the small (average less than one-hectare!) parcels and painstakingly restore them, with the promise of world-class results.

Among the finest interpreters of Mencía from Bierzo is Amancio Fernández at Losada Vinos de Finca. A leading winemaker in the region since the late 1990s, Amancio has matured his craft at Losada, the wines showing the great concentration and minerality of old-vine Mencía. The oak is elegant and never overbearing, allowing the fruit to predominate in all aspects of the wine’s enjoyment.

Author: shm

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