Our judges were very impressed with consistency and quality in this tasting of Spanish Mencía wines...
The taster: Sarah Jane Evans MW, Simon Field MW, Pierre Mansour
Scroll down to see the scores and tasting notes
What a fascinating tasting this was! In a number of ways it surpassed our expectations. While there were no wines in the Outstanding category, there were several that very nearly made it. The Highly Recommended section is impressively large, with many wines that we recommend strongly. Roughly half of all the Bierzo wines entered were rated Highly Recommended; and the same for Ribeira Sacra. Notably our scores were very consistent.
Bierzo, the established home of Mencía, produced some exceptional wines. It was no surprise to find wines from Raúl Pérez and Descendientes de J Palacios jostling for position at the top. The main revelation, however, was the rapid improvement of wines from Ribeira Sacra. Pierre Mansour noted: ‘Overall I was impressed by the quality – in particular of the wines from Ribeira Sacra, which had fragrance, freshness and juicy fruit. My highest-scoring wine was from Ribeira Sacra and the hit rate was high – there were fewer Ribeira Sacra wines in the tasting yet four made it into the top 10.’
There were also entries from all the Galician DOs, but because they were fewer in number it is hard to generalise about them.
In terms of wine quality, we found no faults and only rated five wines below Recommended. Within the selection of wines tasted, there was a wide range of styles. This is definitely a case of know your producer. Mencía is often recommended on wine lists as a lighter, Loire-style wine, and yet there were plenty of wines at 14.5% and two at 15%.
We were impressed by the general quality of the winemaking. Very few of the wines were overworked or ‘made’ wines. In general, oak was absent (often a bonus on young wines), or subtly handled. Mencía proved that it works best by itself. In general Garnacha, Alicante Bouschet (Garnacha Tintorera), and even in one case Tempranillo, were too dominant as blending partners, even in small quantities. Five of the wines in the top 10 had other varieties in the blend, but in no case was this more than 10%.
And that stylistic question? Is Mencía Spain’s Pinot? We repeatedly praised the fine aromatics of the wine, and the appealing fruit. The confident answer is no, it’s Spain’s Mencía. Or is it Cabernet Franc? ‘The wines were less Cabernet Franc-like than I had anticipated, with the benefit that there were few leafy, green examples,’ said Simon Field MW. As for ageability the wines were most pleasurable young. With a few exceptions, these are wines for drinking soon. Though there are some top Mencías (not in this tasting) which have years ahead.
A footnote on the finished wines – once the tasting was over and the scores agreed, then it was time for the ‘big reveal’. While Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra led the tasting in terms of wine quality, their wines deserving of widespread recognition, only the Bierzo wines looked the part, with bottle choice and label designs that are professional. Ribeira Sacra has still some way to go in this respect. We strongly recommend the best wines, but their labelling and bottles won’t yet encourage wine lovers to buy.
Mansour summed up: ‘I think Mencía offers a real “trump card” opportunity for Spanish reds – the wines are different in stature, weight and power compared to most of Spain’s warmer regions, so for drinkers seeking wines with lift, lighter alcohol and refreshment, Mencía will fit the bill exceedingly well.’
89 wines tasted
Entry criteria: producers and UK agents were invited to submit their latest release wines made from Mencía (85% minimum in blends)
Highly Recommended 35
Ribeira Sacra 21
Castilla y León 2
Rías Baixas 1
Sarah Jane Evans MW
Evans is an award-winning journalist who contributes to leading wine magazines, while also focusing on wine education and judging internationally. In 2006 she became a Master of Wine, writing her dissertation on Sherry. She is also a member of the Gran Orden de Caballeros de Vino for services to Spanish wine.
Simon Field MW
Field joined Berry Bros & Rudd in 1998 and worked with them for 20 years, as buyer for Spanish and fortified wines, as well as wines from Champagne, the Rhône, Loire Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon. He gained his MW qualification in October 2002 and in 2015 was admitted into the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino.
Mansour has worked in the wine trade for his entire career, starting in 1995 with the Antique Wine Company. In 2000 he joined The Wine Society, taking on the role of buyer in 2004, covering Champagne, Australia, New Zealand and North America. He is currently head of buying and responsible for the Spanish range.
The top scoring Spanish Mencía wines from this tasting:
About Spanish Mencía
Among the pantheon of Spanish native red varieties, Mencía holds a special place. In contrast to the heavyweights of Tempranillo and Monastrell, Mencía can offer a seductive perfume, a lively freshness and appealing fruit that does not need to be obscured by oaking. At its very best it gives distinctive, glorious, ethereal wines.
Its home, in the far northwest of Spain, was long isolated geographically, socially and commercially, from the rest of Spain and internationally. For wine lovers this isolation had the benefit of preserving distinctively different local varieties.
Then, starting at the end of the 1990s, this isolation changed. The area’s arrival on the world stage was driven especially by three people. This is a definite case of the human factor being a key part of the definition of terroir, providing a way to understand the best expression of the place.
First is Raúl Pérez, a local from Bierzo, who in addition to making outstanding wines of his own has been an important ‘godfather’, guiding and giving cellar space to other winemakers. Ricardo Pérez Palacios and his uncle Alvaro Palacios, working in Bierzo at Descendientes de J Palacios, are also revealing the remarkable potential of the variety.
Some say that Mencía can be seen as Spain’s Pinot, while others have suggested it’s more similar to Cabernet Franc. Genetically it is neither of these. Wine Grapes notes that the Portuguese Jaen from the Dão is the same variety. It goes on to say that Mencía’s genetic diversity versus the more homogenous Jaen suggests that pilgrims brought the vines to Portugal on their return from Santiago de Compostela, rather than vice versa.
The vine is early flowering and early ripening, with short oval berries. It flourishes on slate, which is what drew Ricardo Pérez to Bierzo in the first place. But it is susceptible to powdery and downy mildew and botrytis.
The best Mencías have a keynote freshness, but acidity can fall rapidly at the end of ripening, so the harvest needs careful management. It can offer a range of wine styles, from youthful and fruity with light tannins to concentrated and powerful with higher alcohol and fine tannins.
Notably it does not need blending. Until recently Mencía was often green in character, with rustic tannins, and where oak was used, excessively oaky. In just two decades, such has been the recognition of Mencía’s charm that it is has become more famous than Bierzo. Now Bierzo is known as the home of Mencía, not on its own account. Ribeira Sacra, on the other hand, where Mencía also dominates, is still better known for its exceptional beauty and its ‘heroic viticulture’.
Spanish Mencía: the facts
Plantings Mainly found in northern Castilla y León and in Galicia, specifically in the DOs of Bierzo, Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. Also permitted in Rías Baixas and Ribeiro DOs, with a little in Asturias and Catalunya
Production volume (2018) Bierzo 8.9m kg (80% of total production)
Ribeira Sacra* 5.2m kg (90% of red production)
Monterrei 1.6m kg (83% of red production)
Valdeorras* 1.5m kg
*Source: Galicia en Vinos
Spanish Mencía: know your vintages
Vintage assessments across a wide range of DOs are inevitably imprecise, so please note that this summary is a broad generalisation
2017 Monterrei was 35% down on 2016. Ribeira Sacra had an early harvest, with uneven ripening. Valdeorras saw some severe frost damage.
2016 In general, an excellent vintage. In Bierzo, production of Mencía was 18% lower than in the previous five vintages.
2015 Overall high quality, with higher yields. The inland DOs of Valdeorras and Bierzo flourished.
2014 Rainy year, an ‘Atlantic’ vintage similar to 2013. Strict selection needed in many areas.
2013 A cool and wet spring gave welcome rainfall after drought, though many growers needed to select the best grapes.