El Bierzo, pocketed away in Spain’s northwest province of Léon, is a region comfortable in its own skin and, more often than not, has danced to its own beat. One of its foremost producers, Álvarez de Toledo, is arguably a microcosm of this achingly beautiful place: idiosyncratic; rich in history; proud of its traditions and mindful of its legacy.
Encircled by mountains, the dramatic terrain which is home to Álvarez de Toledo certainly befits a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has also acted as a partial barrier over the years, shielding the region from excessive external influences, thus allowing it to cultivate its own identity and culture. This strength of personality is exemplified by its calling card, the Mencía grape, which is now certainly having its moment in the sun having been something of a relative unknown on the international scene.
Wine has long been an intrinsic part of the region’s character and it was a vital driver of its economic rebirth in the late 1990s; however the Álvarez de Toledo family has been Bierzo residents for a good while longer. Its presence spans more than five centuries, beginning in 1514 when Pedro Alvarez de Toledo y Zuniga (a future Viceroy of Naples) married the daughter of the Marquis of Villafranca del Bierzo.
Today the estate is overseen by Ángeles Varela Mazón Álvarez de Toledo who has upheld and fine-tuned the viticultural traditions of her forbears – particularly the work of her father and grandmother – and initiated a thorough revitalising of the family’s vineyards. Mencía is the star of the show (ably supported by Godello) and here it is planted 420-500m above sea level, entirely hand-harvested, and the vines are predominantly between 40 and 60 years old.
Ángeles Varela Mazón Álvarez de Toledo has taken her family’s multi-generational know-how and from these plots concentrated it into a streamlined collection of just three wines: a vibrant, perfumed, drink-young Godello; an oak-aged Mencía which is aged for ten months in a combination of small French and American oak barrels, and finally the Colección de Familia which is a limited-release cuvee matured for ten months in French wood and where the fruit is taken from vines which are all between 60 and 80 years old, other than a small number which are over 100 years old.
This is a wine which encapsulates both Álvarez de Toledo’s talent it has at its disposal in the cellar, as well as the impeccable quality of the raw material on its land, certainly in the eyes of judges at the 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards where it won a Platinum medal, remarking: ‘Clearly, there was real ambition here to make something smart and now we have the results. The texture is bewitching and this is winemaking of the highest order.’
‘Mencía, is perfectly suited to both its climate and environment,’ Álvarez de Toledo says. ‘The ancestral use of this grape, generation after generation, has resulted in a natural selection, and along with the reduced production of bunches because of their age, makes Mencía the most suitable variety for producing red wines of great character and loyalty to our terroir.’
‘Being situated in a valley our climate is mild and humid, and our land has a special microclimate which is ideally suited to the agriculture of the area,’ describes Álvarez de Toledo. ‘The soils are composed of a mixture of fine elements such as quartz and slate. They catch water coming from the mountains down into the valleys and the vineyards are planted mainly on humid, dark soil which, being slightly acidic and low in carbonates, is typical of humid climates.’
It is these soils which have been utilised for grape growing since the art was introduced by the Romans, with the vineyards of Bierzo (whose name is rooted in the pre-Roman city of Bergidum) receiving notable mentions from Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, as well as Greek geographer Strabo.
‘El Bierzo is a land of grapes and wine,’ states Álvarez de Toledo. It’s a vine-covered region full of tradition, history, culture, gastronomy and over 2,000 years of wine production. Our main objective is to transmit, through our wines, all the effort and dedication shown by our family’s ancestors. Therefore we ensure that we look after each step of the journey: from the care of the grapes in the vineyard to the reception in the wine cellar and then the subsequent ageing of the wine. We believe Mencía has great international potential and we want to faithfully represent our homeland through this grape, the native variety of our region.’