The wines of Bierzo have nothing to envy to their better known counterparts in La Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Priorat. Featuring the indigenous Mencía grape variety, the Bierzo has undergone a remarkable qualitative shift in the early 2000s and is now a leading wine region in Spain. Bierzo wines are more and more sought after, especially by renowned winemakers such as Raul Pérez and Ricardo Pérez Palacios, who are critically acclaimed. I had the chance to spend two days in Bierzo during the grape harvest, and I can say that I fell in love with its wines and the kindness of its people.
Location and climate
Bierzo is a region located at the western end of the province of León, north-west of Spain. The Bierzo Valley benefits from a mild micro climate characterized by a balance between the rather humid climate of neighboring Galicia with its Atlantic influences and the drier climate of the province of Castilla y León with continental influences. Annual precipitation amounts to a little over 700 millimeters and the average temperature is 12.3 ° C, with extremes varying on average between 3.6 ° C and 23.6 ° C.
«The clay soils give more acidic and fruity wines. Sandy soils, finer wines, but with a higher alcohol level. The wines of Bierzo are born from this balance between these two types of soils, and the grape Mencía gives them this unique character»—Raul Pérez, Valtuille de Abajo winemaker
The soils of Bierzo are mainly composed of clay and sand. The vineyard is characterized by a high fragmentation with a multitude of small parcels and the altitude of the vines ranges from 450 to 800 meters. For Verónica Ortega, winemaker in Valtuille de Abajo, Bierzo is fortunate to have very diverse soils, which is a luxury. “This gives a very special singularity and diversity in our wines,” says Verónica. “There are a lot of old vines in the area because wine has always been part of life and the local economy. This has been passed on from generation to generation and today we find an infinite number of small parcels. Unlike many Spanish regions, we didn’t teared off vineyards out here! “
«Bierzo is on the border between the continental climate and the Atlantic climate. The wines of continental climate, like those of Ribera del Duero are powerful wines, very colorful, with lots of tannins and alcohol. The wines of the Atlantic climate, in general, whites or reds, which have a white wine character. They are fresher wines, friendlier, softer. The beauty of Bierzo is that you are in the middle of these two influences. In addition, each vintage is different and we can end up with wines more or less fresh or powerful, but still balanced. This usually gives ripe and fresh wines at the same time!» — Ricardo Pérez Palacios, Corullón Winemaker
A little history
More than 2,000 years ago, the writings of the historian Pliny the Elder already referred to the existence of vineyards in Bierzo, whose culture was developed by the Romans. The latter exploited the gold mines of the region and took advantage of their presence to plant vines. However, it was not until Middle Ages that Bierzo vineyards really took off under the impetus of the Cistercian monks.
After a certain success with the neighboring markets of Galicia and Asturias, Bierzo wines gradually fell into oblivion from the 19th century, following the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out almost the entire economy and causes massive emigration. In the mid-twentieth century, the vineyard was partially replanted with rootstocks of American origin and viticulture gradually regained its role as economic engine of the region. Bierzo is one of the most important viticultural areas in Spain with the largest area under old vines in Spain.
«Bierzo has always counted a lot of winemakers. The latter had a very thorough knowledge of the vineyard, but did not necessarily receive adequate training to make wine. So we had very good grapes, but not necessarily wines recognized for their quality. It was at the beginning of the 90s that many winemakers were trained in oenology. We have since witnessed a professionalization of the world of wine. The wine potential of Bierzo, with its multitude of old vines and the singularity of the autochthonous grape variety Mencía, really took off. We now favor quality over quantity. We have all the tools at hand to become a great wine region, not in size, but for the excellence and authenticity of our wines» — Misericordia Bello, President of the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Bierzo
In 1989, Bierzo was granted Denomination of Origin (denominación de origen) status by the Ministry of Agriculture. D.O. Bierzo officially sees the day. The role of the Consejo Regulador of the DO Bierzo (CRDO) is to control the quality of the wines produced by ensuring that a certain number of criterias are respected by the producers of the grapes at bottling. The Council is also in charge of the promotion of D.O. Bierzo wines on the international scene. Today, Bierzo covers just over 3000 hectares and has 73 winemakers and more than 2400 winegrowers.
«From a purely commercial point of view, D.O. Bierzo is a region with a lot of potential. When I started in wine a few years ago, very good producers were already established here, but today the reputation of wines is second to none and the spotlight is turning more and more towards us. Many people now want to have a Bierzo in their portfolio»–Véronica Ortega, Valtuille de Abajo winemaker
The mencía varietal reigns supreme
Mencía is by far the star grape variety of Bierzo. An autochthonous varietal, it alone represents three quarters of the vines in the region. It is found nowhere else, except sparingly in Ribeira Sacra in Galicia and in the Dão region of Portugal. It is a yielding variety that tends to mature early. The bunches are small, the berries are medium in size and dark blue in color.
Garnacha tintorera, another red variety, better known as Alicante bouschet, represents only 2% of the grape variety.
The white wines of D.O. Bierzo are mainly made from authorized grape varieties such as Godello, Doña blanca, to which can be added a little Palomino and Malvasía.
Godello represents 4% of the plantings, Doña blanca a little more than 2%. Palomino is the most planted white grape variety, accounting for 17% of the Bierzo vineyard. Finally, Malvasía is present in infinitesimal quantity with only 0,1%!
Beyond the appeal of its wines, Bierzo offers many other assets for tourists passing through. Ponferrada, the capital of Bierzo and its famous castle built by the Knights Templar, is one of the main stages along the Compostelle pilgrim route. The charming town of Villafranca del Bierzo is also worth a visit.
Located twenty kilometers from Ponferrada, the ocher mountains of Las Médulas are gigantic open-cast mines shaped by the Romans. More than 800 tons of gold have been excavated from this UNESCO World Heritage site, which has allowed the Romans to strike the first gold coins of the Empire. Do not miss the fabulous view from the Mirador de Orellán!
Outdoor enthusiasts will not be disappointed and will choose the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Los Ancares and its lush green landscapes. Situated on the border between the province of Lugo in Galicia and León in Castile, this reserve offers many hiking trails that allow you to discover rivers, waterfalls, hamlets, monasteries and other medieval castles that punctuate this little green jewel of the North-West of Spain.