Ribeira Sacra (courtesy of twentymonths)

I was recently turned on to the Spanish varietal, Mencía (“men-thee-ah”), especially when I heard that it was likened very much and even at one time, thought to be related to Cabernet Franc.  DNA profiling has proven that the two are not related, but that doesn’t change the fact that Mencía in the glass can have striking similarities to Cabernet Franc and my new found crush on the grape.

Mencía didn’t get much respect before because it produced wines that were simple, light and fruity in the NW of Spain.  That started to change when in 1998, Alvaro Palacios and his enologically-trained nephew made their way to Bierzo.  Alvaro Palacios is a widely recognized name when it comes to Spanish wine because he’s one of the fellas who after working at Chateau Pétrus, revitalized the vineyards and helped stamp quality winemaking into the region of Priorat in the early ’90s.  He and his nephew saw the great potential of the Mencía vineyards of Bierzo, on the other side of Spain, especially around the town of Corullón and started producing single-vineyard bottlings in 2001.

Mencía has been around for a long time in the Northwest of Spain, Galicia and Castilla y Leon as well as in Portugal where it is called Jaen and used as a blending grape.  Galicia is a land of Celtic tradition and culture that encompasses Rias Baixas, producer of mineral-driven and high-toned dry whites; Ribeiro and its wines from Treixadura, Torrontés & Albariño; Ribiera Sacra, Monterrei & Valdeorras, the latter three which we go into more detail regarding their production of Mencía.  More inland is Castilla y Leon where the Bierzo DO and is producing Mencía also.

Monterrei is a remote valley, surrounded by mountains, riding the northern border of Portugal.  The soils are primarily sandy with some slate too and the best vineyards are on the valley floor where the grapes enjoy cool nights.  Amizade is a producer here (joint project between experienced Spanish winemaker, Gerardo Mendez and De Maison Selections, an importer with a killer portfolio).  Amizade’s Mencía has a touch of two other indigenous grapes in it: Caiño and Arauxa.  The 2010 is pretty intense aromatically and a little wild, in a great way.  It offers juicy ripe fruit balanced by stony minerality and nice acidity.

Valdeorras is the easternmost DO in Galicia and is home to some really steeply sloping vineyards.  I haven’t experienced any Mencía from here yet, but it apparently has some respect.  In addition to Mencía, this region produces Garnacha Tintorera which is synonymous with Alicante Bouschet, the only teinturier that is vitis vinifera.  A teinturier is a grape that has red flesh and therefore produces wines with incredibly deep red color.  There’s your fun fact re: Valdeorras for today.

Ribeira Sacra is a DO that was created in 1996.  If I were Mencía, I’d want to grow up here.  The vineyards are on severely sloped sites along the said to be breath-takingly beautiful River Sil; this area is to Spain what the Mosel is to Germany.  The river grants a just-right cooling effect through the region producing wine with medium body, red fruit, minerality and fresh, natural grape acidity.

Bierzo’s vineyards are made of well-draining soils atop slate and granite amongst the Cantabrian Mountains at high altitudes of approximately 1,700ft.  As already mentioned, the wines from here were before, light and fruity but this was apparently because the grapes were overplanted in fertile soil thereby producing diluted juice. The “Petalos” 2008 that I have had from Palacios is not that in the least.  Rather, it is rich and earthy, spicy and full.

After tasting four different Mencías side by side, I recognize the varietal characteristics as being similar to Cab Franc in how it exudes a fresh red fruit, cider-like nose with some earthiness alongside it.  Above anything else when I smell and taste Cab Franc, I find a prominant green pepper aspect that is defnitely not present in Mencía, the earthiness here is more just simply dirt-like.  I like the grape a lot when it’s conditioned into a wine that is simply… well, Mencía.  Then, it is fresh yet full, red-fruit expressive with a generous amount of the best kind of acidity – the kind that isn’t noticeable but rather, simply cleanses your palate during the lingering finish.  The tannins are there and there’s quite a bit of them, but they’re balanced most pleasingly by the fruit, the earth, the acidity and the medium body.  I would drink an unoaked Mencía, such as the Viño do Burato with anything from my sister’s barbecue ribs to crispy, grilled little bird to smoked, peppery salmon.