This article was first published in The Irish Times on Saturday 27th August, 2022
If you haven’t heard of Mencía before you certainly will in the future. My first encounter with this grape variety was not a happy experience. I found it astringent, green and lacking in fruit. It didn’t help that I was standing in a vineyard in the midst of a miserable Galician winter, cold and wet, peering through an ever-present mist — a Spanish soft day. That was many years ago and since then I have learned to love both the region and the red wine it produces. Many growers and winemakers have since learned how to bring out the best in this grape and now produce some thrilling wines.
Almost all Mencía is grown in the inland wine regions of Galicia and Léon, as well as over the border in neighbouring Portugal, where it is known as Jaen. It comes in a variety of styles from light, supple and fruity to more concentrated and tannic.
It is frequently compared with Pinot Noir, and I can see why, as both have smooth raspberry and red cherry fruits. But for me it can also have a savoury liquorice note giving it a resemblance to a Syrah from the Northern Rhône. Others point to an earthiness that suggests Cabernet Franc. If you happen to like any or all of the above grapes, I suspect you will like Mencía. It can also have a lip-smacking minerality — probably due to the soils — mainly granite, schist and slate.
The three names to remember are Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras, the latter two in Galicia, the first in nearby Léon. I have tasted some brilliant wines from each and suspect quality will improve still further. Generally, I find wines of Ribeira Sacra to be more delicate and those from Bierzo richer and more full-bodied. While you will find some wines priced between €15 and €20, sadly many of the best ones cost a little more. While one or two of the supermarkets did offer less expensive versions, I haven’t seen any for a while.
Like the above mentioned Pinot, Syrah and Cabernet France, Mencía goes with a wide variety of foods, including white meats and firm cheeses, such as Manchego. I find it goes really well with grilled pork and lamb chops. They may come from a different country, but Mencía also goes nicely with pizza and medium-bodied pasta dishes.
If you do find yourself in Galicia (after walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela) try to make time to visit Ribeira Sacra; sparsely populated, it is a beautiful, atmospheric region, with steep terraced vineyards running down to the Sil and Miño rivers. For the moment tourism is still relatively undeveloped. Otherwise, why not try one of the uniquely Spanish wines listed below.
Parajes de Bierzo 2020 Bierzo, César Márquez
Delicious medium-bodied wine with pure, supple, juicy and dark cherry fruits. Perfect with cold meats and tomato-based pasta dishes.
El Castro de Valtuille 2021, Mencía Joven, Bierzo, Raúl Pérez
A richer style of Mencía, with dark cherries, redcurrants and a seductive savoury note. Enjoy with herby roast pork, lamb cutlets or roast Mediterranean vegetables.
From Green Man Wines, D6; 64 Wines, Glasthule; Baggot Street Wines; Lennox Street Grocer, D8; Pinto Wines, D9; La Touche Wines, Greystones; thenudewineco.ie; Liston’s, D2; Manning’s Emporium, Ballylickey; Morton’s, D2; Mitchell & Son, IFSC, Glasthule.
Camiño Real Ribeira Sacra 2019 Guímaro
A beguiling combination of vibrant fresh red fruits and a subtle earthiness that works so well. Try it with chicken dishes or a seasonal dish of baked courgette and tomato.
From Loose Canon, D2; Blackrock Cellar; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Pinto Wines, D9; Baggot Street Wines; Liston’s, D2.
Dominio do Bibei Lacima 2016, Ribeira Sacra
Showing some maturity with earthy sous-bois notes alongside some elegant red fruits. There are some fine-grained drying tannins on the lengthy finish. A very stylish wine to enjoy alongside seared duck or a mushroom risotto.
From 64Wine, Glasthule; wineonline.ie; Redmond’s, D6.