Wine: Out of the ordinary

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The reinvigoration of the Spanish grape mencia reminds us there's more to life than cabernet and chardonnay.

Decendientes de J Palacios Petalos Bierzo 2008 $35. Photo / Babiche Martens
Decendientes de J Palacios Petalos Bierzo 2008 $35. Photo / Babiche Martens

There are more than 10,000 grape varieties growing in the vineyards of the world today, but most wine drinkers stick to a tiny selection of the tried and tested. To do so is to miss out on the rich pickings to be found among lesser known varieties, with mencia being one that's had me hooked of late.

It's a red grape, which was originally thought to be Bordeaux's cabernet franc. However, DNA testing has proved it's a separate variety, although quite where it originally came from has yet to be uncovered.

What is known is that it has been growing on the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula for many years, and is known as jaen in Portugal and mencia in the Spanish regions of Bierzo, Ribiera Sacra and Valdeorras, from which some of its most exciting examples hail.

Although Spain has more planted in its vineyards than we have pinot noir and chardonnay combined in ours, it remained relatively obscure until recently.

This was due to the fact that much had come to be planted on fertile plains, which produced light, dilute examples that failed to showcase the excitement the variety could offer and often ended up going into blends.

However, when planted on steep schist hillsides, which can boast vines of up to 100 years old, mencia is able to display its distinctive and delicious colours.

With a character that can be quite ethereal, its wines are fresh and silky, with wonderfully pure berry fruit, exotic florals and an earthy minerally element, while its styles range from light and pretty to more complex and weighty.

Unlike the gutsy reds with which Spain is most readily associated, its elegant and edgier mencias reflect the cooler maritime climate of a region like Bierzo, a remote spot in north western Spain on the border of Galicia and Castilla y Leon.

Bierzo and its mencia was stumbled across en route to another wine region by Ricardo Perez Palacios, the nephew of Alvaro Palacios, the man responsible for putting Spain's Priorat region on the map in the early nineties.

They founded their Bierzo-based Descendientes de J. Palacios in 1999, reclaiming a number of small older hillside vineyards.

Along with a growing number of mostly young, quality focused producers, such as Dominio de Tares, founded a year later, they helped reinvigorate the region and in the process raise the profile of its signature red grape. Credit goes to them for championing this then unknown local variety, rather than opting for the easier choice of the internationally popular cabernet sauvignon and merlot that locals had already started to plant in the region.

In those early days mencia may have been a harder sell, but it's the grape that's proved a real point of difference. Like many varieties outside the mainstream, it provides new and fascinating combinations of flavours and textures to captivate wine drinkers weary of the usual grape suspects.

Sadly we don't see that many mencias here in NZ, but I've been on a personal crusade to persuade importers to bring more in.

Given the cooler Spanish climes in which it seems to thrive and its fresh aromatic profile, I'd bet it would do quite well in our soils too, if it's ever brought into the country.

So if you're looking for something new, interesting and an alternative to the likes of pinot noir and syrah, I seriously suggest you seek out some mencia.

MARVELLOUS MENCIAS

We many not be spoilt for choice when it comes to mencias on the market in New Zealand, but all those I've tried here have impressed. Here are three fine examples to get you started.

OLD VINE EXAMPLE
Godelia Bierzo Mencia Cepas Viejas 2008 $27.90

A good value example made from 40- to 80-year-old vines. It's a mid weight and satiny textured wine with ripe and fresh dark cherry fruit wrapped around a sturdy earthy, stony core. (From Scenic Cellars.)

FAMILY FAVOURITE
Decendientes de J Palacios Petalos Bierzo 2008 $35
One of the wines that started my love affair with mencia, made by Bierzo trailblazers, Decendientes de J Palacios. A beguiling thread akin to rose incense or Turkish delight runs through this pretty mencia with its soft, silky and lifted red berry fruit. (From Glengarry.)

ELEGANCE AND WEIGHT
Domino de Tares Cepas Viejas Bierzo 2006 $52
A weighty and complex mencia sourced from 60-year-old vines. Its tangy and concentrated dark berry fruit is underpinned by rich savoury and spicy notes over a taut mineral base. (From Glengarry.)

- NZ Herald

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