Mencía, the prominent grape from the Bierzo DO in northwestern Spain, typically produces medium-bodied wines, with bright acidity that helps keep grippy tannins in check. In their most concentrated form, these wines are powerful, intensely fruity reds, with alcohol levels around 14 percent ABV. Produced in a more delicate guise, the grape’s floral, spicy notes shine through. When picked and vinified to lower alcohol levels (12.5 to 13 percent ABV) Mencía is an ideal summer red, perfect for serving with a slight chill.
Historically, red wines from this pocket of the country (Mencía also grows in Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra) had a reputation for lacking flavor and body. But in recent decades, winemakers have been embracing old vines to produce wines with incredible quality and value for money.
VinePair recently conducted an extensive tasting of Mencía wines from Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra, and Valdeorras. To be included in the tasting, there was one criteria only: Bottles had to be relatively available throughout the U.S., so only wines sold in multiple states were eligible. Overall, we were impressed by the consistent quality across the board, but found seven bottles that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Produced in Ribeira Sacra from grapevines that are at least 40 years old, this ruby-red wine has nicely balanced red cherries and floral notes. Seven months’ aging in used French oak barrels softens its tannins and brings a subtle vanilla sweetness. Average price: $18.
Sitting on the more concentrated end of the Mencía scale, this wine shows an expressive range of aromas, including dark berries, licorice, and bitter chocolate. It’s ripe and juicy on the palate and seasoned with peppery spices and dusty tannins. Average price $13.
An affordable option from esteemed Ribeira Sacra producer Guímaro, this refreshing Mencía is crafted to be enjoyed young. The nose has a simple but attractive mix of red fruits, spices, and flinty mineral notes, all of which continue onto its medium-bodied, bracingly acidic palate. Buy a case now, and enjoy throughout the summer until the climate calls for richer, broodier bottles. Average price: $18.
Known as the mago de los vinos (wine wizard), if there’s just one Spanish winemaker on your radar right now, it should be Raúl Pérez. His Ultreia Saint Jacques Bierzo is a Mencía-dominant blend that includes a small amount of regional varieties Bastardo (Trousseau) and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet). An immensely concentrated wine made with grapes grown on 80- to 100-year-old vines, this bottle is still very young and definitely benefits from decanting. With time to open up, the wine has rich red berry flavors with notes of soy sauce and Worcestershire. Tight tannins and racy acidity suggest aging potential, a rarity for reds at this price point. Average price: $18.
A Portela vinifies and ages this Mencía in stainless steel, allowing the terroir of the high-elevation vineyard (planted on clay, granite, and slate) to shine through. From the minute it hits the glass, this wine’s aromas don’t stop coming at you. There’s steak tartare, Worcestershire sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, white truffles, roasted portobello mushrooms, and charred shishito peppers, all with the faintest suggestion of Brett. The palate has fruity notes, particularly tart red cherry with a light balsamic glaze. Average price: $15.
Another stunningly complex offering from Valdeorras, the Cuvee de O Mencía pours a striking velvet purple color. It smells like wild berries, cracked pepper, and dried herbs, plus earthy, freshly turned topsoil. A period of oak aging adds further complexity, but doesn’t overwhelm. Blackberries and an intriguing bitter cucumber peel arrive on the palate, along with grippy tannins and a persisting finish. Stick anything on the grill and this wine will offer the perfect pairing. Average price: $16.
Another Mencía-dominant blend, Lalama also contains a small percentage of other local varieties, which add depth and complexity. The wine strikes a balance between the concentrated fruity Mencías from Bierzo, and the lighter, more nuanced options from Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. Its dominant aroma is wild strawberry seasoned with black pepper, while the palate is silky smooth with well-integrated tannins. If you drink Rioja, you will love this, but if you prefer lighter, vegetal reds, like those from the Loire Valley, you will also not be disappointed. This is the 2014 vintage, and it still tastes young. Average price: $21.