Bierzo

It was the Romans who first planted vines in this beautiful mountainous region in north-western Spain. However, its real origins as a wine region began in the ninth century with the arrival of the Catholic pilgrims. At that time Bierzo was becoming a famous waypoint on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and Cistercian monks had started settling in the region, affirming it as a place of religious significance. Before long, they had identified the best vineyard sites and begun producing wine for their own consumption. This religious, peasant existence, continued for centuries.

Come the mid-nineteenth century, the famous phylloxera crisis was beginning to really hurt the French, and it was at that time that vignerons from Bordeaux and Southern France ventured south to Bierzo in search of wine – the first outsiders to take it seriously. Sadly, phylloxera was already en route to Spain and would eventually catch them up, but, unlike in France, noticeable pockets of vines withstood the crisis thanks to their well-draining sandy soils, particularly in the historic village of Valtuille del Abajo. Others were either grubbed up or replanted on to new rootstocks in a programme that lasted well into the 1930s. Mencia was then, and still is, the darling grape of Bierzo, being higher yielding and more resistant to disease pressure than other indigenous varieties (although this comes with its own challenges in the winery). Within a few years of the replanting though, the Spanish Civil War broke out and the country was left destitute. Bierzo, and Galicia more widely, faced decades of economic and political isolation after the war, and vineyards lay abandoned as the local populace migrated toward more stable and less arduous work in the cities. It was not really until the early 1990s that locals began to refocus on wine as a legitimate economic prospect, and even then it was a case of “little acorns”. Thankfully, the 21st century has seen a revival and, although it’s a long way from the finished article, the region is endowed with an extremely high proportion of mature, low-yielding vines, as many pre-phylloxera plots and early 1930s plantings continue to yield fruit today.

Despite its history though, the character of Bierzo wine has not been shaped purely by religion and politics. In fact, Bierzo is one of few wine regions in the world that actually sits at the convergence of two different macro-climates: the maritime and the continental. Administratively in Castilla y Leon, but pressed up against the eastern border of the more Atlantic Galicia, Bierzo is, in reality, a sibling of Galicia and many of the people identify as such. The mountains and countryside in Bierzo, as in Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro, Valdeorras and Rias Baixas for example, are verdant and dramatic – a far cry from the plains of Leon or the intensely hot villages that flank the Douro, but with sufficient, steady summer warmth and day-night swings to ensure ripe flavours are met with jostling acidities. Although near-enough uninhabited, the village of Valtuille del Abajo is the centre when it comes to wine, and here the soils are primarily clay and sand atop hard underlying bedrock. Valtuille is one of the warmest villages and highly regarded for its spread of ancient vineyards of differing altitude (between 500-700m), steepness, exposition and varietal composition. As a whole, the terroir here is complex and fragmented, and of the approximately four thousand hectares that qualifies for appellation DO Bierzo, Valtuille comprises just five hundred. Other important villages include Vilafranca del Bierzo, Corullón, Arganza and Cacebelos. Each has its own identity. Increasingly though, grapes from the cooler, windier climes and clay-schist soils around Ponferrada (the principal local town) are finding favour as a way to balance riper expressions from elsewhere. Vineyard ownership is still immensely scrappy, with over 2000 grape growers exploiting miniscule, often inherited, parcels of vines; tended only at the weekends and consumed by local families. Co-fermentation with indigenous red and white varieties is commonplace and this brings complexity and freshness, despite appellation laws insisting that no red grape other than Mencia can be listed on the label. The overall composition of the vineyards is roughly two thirds Mencia, co-planted with Bastardo (Trousseau), Garnacha Tintorera, Godello, Dona Blanca, Palomino and Malvasia, amongst others. 75% of production is red, whilst whites are usually based on Godello. Currently, a mere 25% of the total production is exported, although increasing investment from more established producers and widening international attention may see that figure grow. The emblematic producers of Bierzo wines are Raul Perez and Decendientes J. Palacios.

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