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On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers goes into “Green Spain” to experience Spanish wines that are not made from the familiar varieties we are used to. Tune in for more.
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I just found out that only male toads croak. Female toads are like, “Can you just calm down, say less, but really just say less?”
What’s going on, wine lovers? from the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Yes. We’re going to go to a place that’s new to you. If it’s not, it’s really cool. It’s called El Bierzo, and it’s Spanish wine, but it’s different from the other stuff that you know. It’s so good.
Wine lovers, when we think about Spain and we think about wine, I don’t know where you are, again, on your wine journey and where you are with your Spanish wine knowledge, but often when we think about Spanish wine, the first thing is Rioja.
When we’re thinking about Rioja, we’re thinking about the grape Tempranillo. The grape Tempranillo is Spain’s — well, you can say a workhorse grape, but it’s also the most planted red wine grape in the country. That’s not only evidenced by data, but it’s also evidenced by the fact that the Tempranillo grape, depending on where you are in Spain, can have different names. Although it is under different names, and although it does represent or present itself in different ways through different styles of wine that are made from this grape throughout Spain, sometimes it’s blended with other varieties — there’s also Garnacha, which is a big deal in Spain. In the province of Castilla y León, which we talked about last episode with Ribera del Duero, in its upper northwest quadrant going towards northwest Spain is a place of a wine appellation, but also just a place that is part of the Castilla y León Province.
This place, things start to change dramatically in the wine landscape and geographical, geological landscape. Here, we are beginning what’s called “Green Spain.” It’s part of the country that’s highly affected by the climate of the Atlantic Ocean. What’s really interesting is El Bierzo, which is this wine appellation — this place, it’s close to and borders the last province before you get to the Atlantic Ocean, called Galicia. It’s administratively located in Castilla y León, but it has much more in common with what’s happening in Galicia. What’s really cool about this is — I said Tempranillo is all over the place and everything like that, but as you get to Galicia, the wines begin to change. Then from Galicia, which is very close to Portugal, things are very similar there, but not really. This is an entire area where different varieties thrive. The province of Galicia, or Galicia — that name, if you take the last two letters off, is Gaelic, because this was initially — before the Romans got to this area, this was a Celtic place. It was the home of what they call a Celtic Hispano tribe called the Astyrs. I think that’s how you say it. I’m not sure.
The reason I say this is, to this day, the bagpipe is a very popular instrument in Galicia, but also in El Bierzo. The reason why I’m saying this is with the Atlantic climate to the west of El Bierzo, and the more plateau-like climate of the majority of Castilla y León, El Bierzo is an isolated place that has its own unique soil, its own unique climate, and its own unique geography separate from everything around it.
If you were to look at a geological map of El Bierzo, you would see this big green circle, and surrounding that circle is just mountains. This place is surrounded on all sides by mountains. These mountains regulate the climate and weather in this little place. It is a halfway point between what we see in the rest of Castilla y León and what we see in Galicia. It just seems so isolated, and it is.
The history here is a little bit different than isolation because when the Roman Empire got to this land, they obviously conquered this Celtic tribe. When they got into this valley surrounded by mountains, they realized there is nothing but precious metal ready to be unearthed. This area became a major mining — actually, the largest mining operation in the Roman Empire. It’s thought that this is when vines make it to this area that is now called El Bierzo.
At the time, it was a Roman — I guess it’s a Roman province or a Roman area they call it. Again, I don’t know. There’s an old Latin — I’m pretty bad at this, but it’s called Bergidum, B-E-R-G-I-D-U-M. This was the mining colony, mining area, for the Roman Empire. We’re talking silver, gold, all this stuff. Because it’s all surrounded by mountains, there’s a river that runs through this area we’ll talk about in a second. That river sometimes can have gold deposits from the alluvial displacement of the mountains still to this day.
Then after the Roman Empire, of course, here we go — ladies and gentlemen, the monks. The monks come in and they start working with — they build monasteries and they do what monks do. They find that the vines here really thrive in these soils which are primarily — because this is a mining area, the soils are primarily slate and granite. It’s here in the Middle Ages with the monks that this place really began to thrive, because we talked about this in previous episodes about wine. There are all these pilgrimage routes. Some go to Canterbury, some go to this peninsula place at the edge of northwestern Spain called Santiago de Compostela.
This place is a shrine to St. James. He’s one of the apostles. It’s thought that he’s buried here. Throughout the Middle Ages, a lot of people took a pilgrimage from wherever they were making their way towards this place in Spain that they called Finisterre, or “the end of the world,” because the Romans at that point — when you look off in this cliff, you can’t see anything. They thought this was the end of the world as they knew it.
Even though this route was initially a Roman trade route, before that, it was a route used by the Celtic people. When the Middle Ages happened, it was all about Christianity. The thing about these routes — and we’ve talked about this again in past episodes in certain wine regions — if you’re on this route, you are going to thrive because so many people are walking towards this place. Along that route was the capital city of El Bierzo called Ponferrada. It’s on the River Sil, S-I-L. That river, the name “Sil” is thought to be a very old Latin word for “humid run,” because the weather here is a little bit different.
We’re getting into what’s called “Green Spain.” There’s going to be more moisture in the air. Actually, the Sil River is a tributary of the Miño River, which when we get into Portugal, it becomes the Minho River, which is part of the Minho province. Go back to the Portugal episode. I got a whole thing on that. From the River Sil, and then the flatlands from that going up into the mountains, this is where the Bierzo wine region started to develop through the Middle Ages. From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, there was a thriving wine industry here.
Then Finisterre comes and destroys everything. Now, I said it’s isolated because it’s surrounded by mountains. Well, it took a very long time for this place to come back after Finisterre. The rest of Spain — well, especially the more popular areas, the more populated areas, the more distributed wine regions — got back a little bit sooner, but it was tough here, and it took years and years.
Usually, when these things happen, the viñerones, or wine growers, go back in and go, “OK, that was really bad. What are the grapes that really work here?” They isolated a grape called Mencía, a red wine grape. They isolated a white wine grape called Godello, and a couple of other blending varieties in Alicante Bouschet, which is a really dark-colored red wine grape. Actually, it’s one of the only red wine grapes that have red flesh. Pretty cool. Call it Teinturier.
You fast-forward to the 1960s, and this place now has co-ops. We’ve talked about co-ops in the past, and this is how this place got back to the modern world, but it wasn’t until 1989 that El Bierzo was awarded a DO, or a Spanish appellation. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that what we can experience right now from this place and wine began to happen with young winemakers coming into this place wanting to do something different and working with this old variety, but a variety that’s not Tempranillo, called Mencía. What is this Godello? What is this Alicante Bouschet? OK, we know that.
The way it works out here is that you have this place surrounded by mountains, so there’s foothills and there’s flatland. As far as vineyards go, you have Bierzo Alto, which is north, away from the river towards the more mountainous regions where just like when we talk about in Côte-Rôtie, they are highly terraced vineyards, almost carved. I’ve heard them say “woven into the mountains.” Then coming south from the foothills towards the river, you have Bierzo Bajo. The big deal with the soil here is the concentration of slate and granite. There’s clay as well, which you get more towards the south, towards the river. You’re going to get that, but the granite in the slate really, really defined this area. Isn’t this crazy? This is not like any other place that surrounds it. It’s an isolated area with a bunch of mountains, a river, and granite and slate using varieties that are not used anywhere else in Spain. This is cool. What’s even more awesome is we have these wines on our market, not as much as we’d want, but we want more.
I have to tell you guys, I’m a big fan of these wines. The wines made from El Bierzo and its surrounding areas are awesome. We can get into those in another episode but in El Bierzo, the thing is the Mencía variety, it thrives here, obviously. It’s one of those varieties that has a murky past, but it’s somehow related to an almost extinct native variety to Portugal called, I think Jaén Tinto, and is thought to have traveled from that area to El Bierzo when a group of people or somebody, or a caravan or something was coming back from that tomb pilgrimage thing back to where they came from.
The style of this wine is — I don’t know. It almost has a dual personality because the old-school style of making Mencía means a little bit lighter. If you — oh boy. I’m trying to compare it to another variety or two to give you a sense of it. It’s always tough doing this, but the savoriness and pepperiness of Cab Franc, but not as much peppermint. More on the savory side, it can be light like Tempranillo but has that savory note to it.
Also, it can be deep and dark and full-bodied because, like I said, 1989 this DO just began and there are aging requirements for this red wine because it needs some time in barrel and in bottle. There’s a crianza and there’s a reserva, but the style depends on where you’re harvesting the varieties from. Are you doing a blend with more austere sites with the more fertile sites? It depends but, no matter what, these are medium-bodied, a little bit full, but more on the medium-body side. They’re savory, they’re actually meaty. There’s a little bit of pepperiness and they’re just — there’s something about Mencía when you smell it, and it has an earthiness to it like you are not going to get anywhere else. It’s just so awesome for food. Forget about it. It’s an amazing food wine.
The other wine they grow there is a white wine grape called Godello. Godello is native to this area. Again, a very murky past. There’s connections all over the place with this grape. There’s even a connection to the grape in Hungary, which is really crazy. It makes sense because of the whole pilgrimage and stuff like that, but the beauty of Godello is they are primarily going to be very mineral-driven with good grippy fruit.
What I mean by “grippy fruit” is like the fruit is there, you can feel it on your palate, but there’s a frame to the wine. That minerality comes in and keeps it nice and clean and beautiful. They’re wonderful wines. With all that minerality, meaning very high acidity, these actually can be long-lived white wines when they’re — do we even know Godello was around, and did we even know that it ages? It’s often barrel-fermented, which gives it a little more structure to it and just — they’re great wines.
The thing about these wines, Mencía and Godello — which sometimes also are blended with other varieties like Alicante Bouschet and some other white blending varieties, maybe to grab a little more acidity — is, although there are these generalities, because it’s a fairly new wine region, because of like the modern DO happening in 1989, everyone has their own style. There’s something very old-school going on in Bierzo. There’s always something new-school going on in Bierzo. It’s kind of an Old World meets New World in a small appellation producing amazing stuff.
One thing about Mencía, and you might come across this when you taste them, is sometimes Mencía gives off a little bit of funk. Now, this has nothing to do with what people call “natural wine” — not about that at all. It has nothing to do with Brettanomyces or spoilage yeast. It has nothing to do with “mouse,” or “Band-Aid,” or any of that. This is just a natural compound in the wine, and it gives a really — it adds the depth and complexity of Mencía, and it’s not very overwhelming, but you will get a sense like, “Oh man, this is an earthy wine,” especially the darker, more dense ones. You’ll get it.
It’s not off-putting at all. It’s part of the complexity of the wine. It’s very cool. It reduces a little bit with age, but the thing about Mencía is, even though it takes a minute, there are some aging requirements. It’s really good in its youth. It does age a little bit, but in its youth is when you really get all the upfront fruit-forward character, and that spiciness being woven into the wine. It’s just awesome. For food, forget about it.
OK, I can go on and on about this stuff, but this is El Bierzo, this is Mencía, this is Godello. This is not what people normally think about when they think about Spain, but because these wines are on our market, it’s time to go out there and really get into these wines. If you find one, let me know. Take a pic, @VinePairKeith on Instagram. I want to see it. Next week, we’re going all the way down south to southern Spain to a place called Jerez. If you think this wine was different, wait until you learn about sherry.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit TheBarrelRoom.com today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.