Bierzo wines are no match for their better-known counterparts from La Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Priorat. Featuring the indigenous Mencía grape, Bierzo has undergone a remarkable qualitative shift since the turn of the century and is now a leading wine region in Spain. Bierzo wines are increasingly sought after, especially those of renowned winemakers such as Raul Pérez or Ricardo Pérez Palacios, who are receiving critical acclaim. I had the chance to spend two days in the Bierzo during the harvest period, and I can say that I fell in love with its wines and the kindness of its people.
Geographic Situation and Climate
The Bierzo is a region located at the western end of the province of León, in the northwest of Spain. The Bierzo Valley enjoys a temperate microclimate 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 rainfall is just over 700 millimeters and the average temperature is 12.3°C, with extremes varying on average between 3.6°C and 23.6°C.
“Clay soils produce more acidic and fruity wines. The sandy soils give finer wines, but with a higher alcohol content. The wines of Bierzo are born from this balance between these two types of soils, and the mencía variety gives them this unique character” – Raul Pérez, winegrower in Valtuille de Abajo
The soils of the Bierzo are mainly composed of clay and sand. The vineyards are characterized by a high degree of fragmentation with a multitude of small plots and the altitude of the vines varies from 450 to 800 meters. For Verónica Ortega, winemaker at Valtuille de Abajo, Bierzo is fortunate to have very diverse soils, which is a richness. “This gives a singularity and a very important diversity in our wines,” says Verónica. “There are a lot of old vines in the area, because wine has always been part of the local life and economy. This has been passed down from generation to generation and today there are an endless amount of small plots. Unlike many Spanish regions, we haven’t pulled up any vines here!”
“The Bierzo is located on the border between the continental climate and the Atlantic climate. Wines from the continental climate, such as those from Ribera del Duero, are powerful wines, very colorful, with lots of tannins and alcohol. Wines from the Atlantic climate, in general, are whites or reds, but with the character of white wines. They are fresher, more pleasant, sweeter wines. The beauty of Bierzo is that we are in the middle of these two influences. Moreover, each vintage is different and we can find wines that are more or less fresh or powerful, but always balanced. So this usually results in wines that are ripe and fresh at the same time!” – Ricardo Pérez Palacios, winemaker in Corullón
A bit of History
More than 2,000 years ago, the writings of the historian Pliny the Elder already referred to the existence of vineyards in the Bierzo, whose cultivation was developed by the Romans. The Romans exploited the gold mines in the area and therefore took advantage of their presence to plant vines. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that the Bierzo vineyards really took off under the impulse of the Cistercian monks.
After having been successful in the neighboring markets of Galicia and Asturias, the wines of Bierzo gradually fell into oblivion from the 19th century onwards, following the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out almost the entire local economy and caused massive emigration. In the mid-twentieth century, the vineyard was partially replanted with American rootstocks and the wine industry gradually regained its role as the economic engine of the region. The Bierzo is one of the wine-growing areas with the largest number of old vines in Spain today.
“The Bierzo has always had a lot of winemakers. They had a very advanced knowledge of the vine, but they were not necessarily trained to make wine. So we had very good grapes, but not necessarily wines that were very well known for their quality. It was in the early 90’s that many winegrowers were trained in oenology. From then on, we have witnessed a professionalization of the wine world. The viticultural potential of the Bierzo, with its multitude of old vines and the uniqueness of the indigenous grape variety, the mencía, really took off. Quality is now preferred to quantity. We have all the tools 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 de la D.O. Bierzo
In 1989, Bierzo was granted the status of Denomination of Origin (Denominación de Origen) by the Ministry of Agriculture. The D.O. Bierzo was officially created. The Consejo Regulador de la D.O. Bierzo (CRDO) has the role of controlling the quality of the wines produced in the D.O. Bierzo by making sure that a certain number of criteria are respected by the producers from the grape to the bottling. The Council is also in charge of promoting D.O. Bierzo wines on the international scene. The D.O. Bierzo currently covers just over 3,000 hectares and has 73 wineries and more than 2,400 winegrowers.
“From a purely business point of view, the D.O. Bierzo is a region with a lot of potential. When I started in the wine business a few years ago, there were already some very good producers here, but today the reputation of the wines is unparalleled and the spotlight is turning more and more to us. Many people now want to have a Bierzo in their portfolio” – Veronica Ortega, winegrower at Valtuille de Abajo
Mencía is by far the star variety of the Bierzo. It is an autochthonous grape variety and represents three quarters of the region’s vineyards. It is found nowhere else, except in much smaller quantities in Ribeira Sacra in Galicia and Dão in Portugal. It is a variety that gives little yield and tends to ripen early. The cluster is small, the berries are medium-sized and dark blue in color.
The garnacha tintorera, another red grape variety, better known under the name of alicante bouschet represents only 2% of the vineyard.
The white wines of the D.O. Bierzo are mainly made from the authorized grape varieties godello, doña blanca, to which can be added some palomino and malvasía.
The godello represents 4% of the vineyard, the doña blanca a little over 2%. Palomino is the most planted white variety, representing 17% of the Bierzo vineyard. Finally, malvasía is present in infinitesimal quantities with only 0.1%!
Which wineries to visit?
Here is a list, of course, not cpmplete, of good producers of the D.O. Bierzo appellation (and in brackets, one of their wines to discover):
- Akilia (Valdesacia : 75% palomino, 25% doña blanca), akiliawines.com
- Almázcara Majara (Almázcara Majara : mencía), almazcaramajara.com
- Camino del Norte (El Tesón : mencía and pinot noir), caminodelnortevinos.com
- Casar de Burbia (Tebaida : mencía), casardeburbia.com
- Castroventosa (Valtuille cepas centenarias : 95% mencía, 5% other grapes), castroventosa.com
- Desciendentes de J. Palacios (Las Lamas : mencía)
- Dominio de Tares (Pago 3 : mencía), dominiodetares.com
- Estefanía (Tilenus Pieros : mencía), tilenus.com
- Godelia (Selección Blanco : godello), godelia.es
- José Antonio García Viticultor (Aires de Vendimia : mencía)
- Losada (La Bienquerida : mencía and other grapes), losadavinosdefinca.com
- Mengoba (La Vigne de Sancho Martín : mencía, alicante bouschet and godello), www.mengoba.com
- Merayo (La Galbana : mencía), bodegasmerayo.com
- Peique (Luis Peique : mencía), bodegaspeique.com
- Pittacum (Aurea : mencía), terrasgauda.com/#pittacum
- Raul Pérez (Ultreia de Valtuille : mencía)
- Verónica Ortega (Roc : mencía)
- Vinos Valtuille (Pago de Valdoneje viñas viejas : mencía), vinosvaltuille.com
For more information on the DO Bierzo, its history and so on, you can visit the website of the Consejo Regulador de la Denominación de Origen Bierzo: crdobierzo.es. For wine tourism tips: bierzoenoturismo.com
Beyond the appeal of its wines, the Bierzo offers many other advantages to tourists. Ponferrada, the capital of the Bierzo and its famous castle built by the Knights Templar, is one of the main stops on the Way of St. James. The charming town of Villafranca del Bierzo is also worth a visit.
Located about 20 kilometers from Ponferrada, the ochre mountains of Las Médulas are gigantic open-air mines created by the Romans. More than 800 tons of gold have been excavated from this site, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and which allowed the Romans to mint the first gold coins of the Empire. Don’t miss the fabulous view from the Mirador de Orellán!
Outdoor enthusiasts will not be at a loss and will choose the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Los Ancares and its green mountainous landscape. Located between the provinces of Lugo in Galicia and León in Castilla, this reserve offers numerous hiking trails that will allow you to discover rivers, waterfalls, hamlets, monasteries and other medieval castles that dot this little green jewel of Northwest Spain.
Where to eat?
There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bierzo. On the other hand, you will find a good number of restaurants that offer traditional, family-style cuisine. Among the restaurants that I have been recommended are