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A few weeks ago, we stepped back and looked at our Mencia offerings, and figured the lineup was worth emailing about, as there are quite a few Mencia fans among our ranks and amongst our local clientele as well. We figured some of our readers may share our enthusiasm! Mencia is found in Galicia, and most historians speculate that it came from Bierzo (see Wine Grapes; J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz). Research has shown that Jaén du Dão from Portugal is in fact identical to Mencia, and there is some evidence that Mencia may have come from Portugal originally (if it was indeed a cross between two Portugese grapes - Alfrocheiro and Patorra - as some researchers posit). Whatever it's exact origin, Mencia is unique to northern Portugal and the north-west of Spain, and is a grape that has increasingly impressed us as quality has improved over the last 20 or so years. Most of this is due to the growing focus on old, low-yielding vineyards on granite and schist soils, as opposed to the high-yielding low altitude plains where Mencia was planted in abundance after phylloxera hit Europe. The rest is due to a particular type of pride that winemakers in the region have for their indigenous grapes. Mencia is here to stay, and we're happy that the old parcels are being protected and respected instead of being torn up for internationally recognized varieties.
In an effort to mix things up a bit with the formatting of our emails, we offer two free-form meditations on Mencia, from Oskar Kostecki and Eben Lillie.
"In my youth I was fortunate to travel quite extensively throughout Spain, and what struck the deepest chord was the incredible diversity found all throughout the country. I hadn't dedicated my life to wine yet, but even then falling in love was unavoidable; and the local cuisine, culture, and wine of all corners of Spain had a deep impact on my time spent there. As I started learning about wine, I started to catalogue things and that initial melange of wonder took on a more rigid order. This tastes like that, or x is similar to y, and so on and so forth. With Mencia I learned to tell people, oh, it's like the Spanish pinot noir, and it seemed easy to explain it that way. Yet as I dive deeper and deeper into Spanish wine I am struck again by the all the things I didn't know, and get to discover. Mencia, a grape I thought I could explain away as "a Spanish pinot noir," shows a myriad different profiles and textures in the varied terroirs of Northwestern Spain, and a the chance to explore them all brings me great joy again. Spanish wine is experiencing a beautiful renaissance, and I'm very happy to be able to drink through it." Oskar Kostecki
"Once upon a time, Chambers St. Wines didn’t have much of a Spanish section. We always had Lopez of course, and I’m sure we had Priorats of some repute, but I don’t remember them much. Things changed around 2010 when a young fellow named Chris Barnes joined the sales team, and they only got better years after Chris left, when Ariana Rolich joined the team and brought her passion to the section (thank you both!). My first memory of Mencía goes back to the days when Barnes was on the floor. He brought in some D. Ventura Do Burato and I immediately clicked with the wine. There was something bright and fresh about it, but it had a dark side too. Chris would go on about Galicia and the history of vine growing there, which dates back to Roman times. I got this sense of beauty and timelessness though I had never visited the region, and I never forgot the impression that Mencia made on me. During Ariana’s tenure, I kept learning about Mencia, as it became clear that some renditions were much lighter and juicier than others and I wondered about the differences in style. I didn’t realize that winemakers would often acidify their Mencia wines, especially when the grapes were coming from lower elevation plains. At this point I knew to ask more from my Mencía, and began to realize that the most authentic expressions were most often the darkest and most structured. Now, I'm no more an expert than the next person whose eyes light up when they hear ‘Mencía,’ but I'm a proponent nonetheless, and someone who is genuinely excited to introduce people to this grape, whether in store or through a casual Tuesday email!" Eben Lillie
We invite you to try these wines, or keep them in mind for holiday gatherings! The following selections are from both Portugal and Spain, and represent just a portion of the Mencia based wines that we've fallen in love with here at Chambers Street over the years.
Rufia is a playful yet serious red from João Tavares de Pina at Quinta da Boavista. 40% Jaen (Mencia), 30% Touriga Nacional, and 30% Rufete from granitic soils in the Dão region of Portugal, it's medium bodied, with brightness, but firm tannin. There are Pomegranate and Blackberry notes on the palate, and it's almost Cab Franc like in its interplay between elegant bright red fruit and more earthy and tannic dark red fruit. Because of its structure, it's probably best with food, though fans of BIG full bodied reds will find this reminds them more of Pinot than a Cabernet (there's a lot of flavor but it's only 12%). Grapes are co-fermented and let to ferment in open top steel lagars. Submerged cap, and 'infusion' style (minimal punch down if any), natural yeast fermentation, aged in 400L barrels for about 8 months. Soils here are Schist, with clay and shale, sedimentary like the Duoro, but not as compact. It's too tannic to drink cold, but we'd recommend a light chill before serving. -- Eben Lillie
Vibrant and fresh, this wine is mostly Mencía with a small portion of Albarín Negro (an indigenous grape of Asturias), planted on slate, quartz, and anthracite soils. The grapes were farmed organically and biodynamically, and then fermented and aged in neutral oak for 18 months, with no addition of sulfur and no fining or filtering. The bouquet is lively with ripe dark berry and tart red cherry, with light herbal and savory notes. The palate is crisp but also smooth, with great acidity and light tannin. Enjoy this wine slightly chilled with vegetable earthy soups, roasted chicken or grilled fish. Caroline Coursant
Tilenus from Bodegas Estefania is one of the many projects the tirelessly dynamic Raul Perez is involved in, and one that has been close to his heart for a number of years now. This cuvee of mostly Mencia (with other indigenous grapes interspersed in the vineyards) is a beautiful introduction to the reds of northwest Spain. This is a blend of 200 different parcels from both slate soils on higher ground, as well as sandier parcels from the lower valley, with old bush-trained vines. Notes of raspberry, cherry, black cherry, rose, and violet dominate, with a hint of oak spice and earthiness. The wine displays soft, medium tannins, as well as bright acidity to keep it lifted and balanced. It paired beautifully with a Berkshire pork chop, but I have no doubts it will work wonderfully with a holiday feast. Oskar Kostecki
Orly Lumbreras is based in the Gredos, where he makes some great minerally-driven wines. This wine is 100% Mencia from 60-year old vines planted on schist soils, at 600 meters altitude. Fermented with 30% stems in open vats, foot-trodden, the wine is then aged for 4 months in used barrels. Fresher and brighter than the prior vintage, the 2016 Vertixe displays a savory bouquet of tomato, licorice, earth with some dark raspberry, and purple berry notes. With beautiful broad minerality, good acidity and light tannin, the wine is vibrant with an energy so unique to Orly. Pair this wine with Italian sausages, braised pork, and Mexican food. Caroline Coursant
It is a treat to work with the wines of Jose and Vanessa Perdigao in the Dão. Their certified organic vineyards and sensitive winemaking shine across grape variety and vintage. This is the current release of the Jaen (Mencia), from vineyards planted in the late 1990's. For a Mencia, this is definitely an impressive offering, with dark fruit, spice and structure, albeit mellowed over time in the bottle. Initial aging was for one year in used French barrels, and over 5 years in bottle, before being released in 2017. As our friend and importer Naama (from NLC Wines) explains, "Although Jaens from the Dão region are usually rather watery, the producer green harvested these vines at about 75% (which means they removed 75% of bunches per vine) for the remaining bunched to receive the best of everything...sun, nutrients in the soil, and water. The green harvesting contributed to a concentrated wine that has somehow maintained all its freshness! A fairy forest wine to enjoy now or over the years." What else is there to say? EL
Pena do Lobo translates as "Cry of the Wolf"- a reference to a time when there were more wolves than people in this part of the world. From the Amandi subzone, grown on slate and granite, this Mencia shows juicy and tangy dark fruits, a strong mineral under-pinning, and notes of cracked black pepper. There is a always a signature violet quality to the fruit that lifts the palate irresistibly. The balance of acidity and density of fruit suggests the potential to age. cb