Bierzo and the Wizard of Mencia – Raul Perez
Posted on September 04 2020
How many memorable discoveries begin with “why don’t you try this?”
In this instance the offer was very tempting and completely legal – a new Spanish red from an unknown region –at least as far as I knew then.
The magician himself - Raul Perez.
The wine was Pagos de Posada 2001 from Bodegas Estefania-Tilenus. The grape was Mencia. The region, then emerging from the shadows, was Bierzo in Galicia. Although just the second vintage from Estefania the wine was strikingly different - mouth-filling, velvety fruit with a beautiful perfume, gentle, complex, fresh and elegant. I didn’t know it then but I’d just tasted a groundbreaking wine from an extraordinary wine maker - Raul Perez.
The Bierzo region is in Spain’s northwest – politically part of Castilla Y Leon, but in terms of its wines an extension of Galicia to the west, with Mencia the stellar red grape and Godello for whites. Recognized formally as a Denominacion de Origen only in 1989, it had lost the plot - though not, thankfully its heritage of old bush vines, in the 1960s. Back then local co-ops were producing lots of light red for local consumption and its wines were almost unheard of beyond Bierzo. Many vineyards were abandoned – low yielding bush vines need a lot of manual love and the local Napoleonic inheritance laws saw already small plots further divided amongst siblings, becoming less and less viable with each generation.
Bierzo actually has a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Las Medulas, near the main town of Ponferrada, home to the Roman Empire’s most abundant gold mines. But it’s liquid treasure that’s putting Bierzo on the map now.
The ancient gold mine in Las Medulas.
Years later I ran into Mencia again, tasting some Bierzo reds for the shop. Two of them were from the same wine maker – one Raul Perez. Perez was heading for a career in medicine when he decided to spend the summer before his course working in his uncle’s winery in Valtuille. The wine bug got him and he never did read medicine. He’d been working in the family winery, but also making wine all over Bierzo for Pittacum, Estefania amongst many.. and he’d made the Pagos de Posada 2001 I’d loved so much.
Raul has since gone on to work with Dirk Niepoort and Adega Algueira in Ribeira Sacra and in South Africa but his greatest achievement has been to teach Spain’s winemakers how to coax the best out of Mencia. The grape is naturally high in acidity, can be reductive and volatile - in the wrong hands.
When it works, the resulting wines have perfumes of fresh cherry, raspberry even damson in warmer sites, bright but balanced acidity and tannins that if handled gently, can give a velvety sensation. Sensitive use of oak in older, larger barrels softens the wine while respecting its beautiful fresh fruit. Mencia can be youthfully smashable when drunk slightly cool –or age majestically – as that first taste of Pagos de La Posada taught me
Go grab some ….