Cru Mencia Masterclass

This tasting features a selection of the top ‘cru’ single vineyard Mencia wines prior to release to the Australian market. As much as I dislike cross regional analogies in wine, sometimes they analogies are useful: Mencia is something akin to a cross between wild, spicy Cornas, gamey Cru Beaujolais and supple high-end Burgundy. Bloody meat, inky-jube fruits, rose and violet florals, forest floor, tobacco and dried herbs are common varietal features. Standout examples of Mencia have a long, fine, extremely silky thread of fruit tannin all the way down the palate. The seeming acid-freshness of successfully balanced Mencia is a factor which Alvaro Palacios terms ‘environmental acidity’: altitude, low yield, cold-mineral soils, vine age and careful handling of fruit tannin can all be very successful collaborative mitigatory of the variety’s low-acid nature and conspire to present the wine in a deceptively acid-fresh guise. The (re)discovery of this variety is one of the most important steps in Spanish wine over the last 20 years – akin to the discovery of abandoned vineyards in Priorat.

Recently quality conscious producers have begun bottling small crops of ancient vine Mencia which display unique qualities depending on the various elements of aspect, inclination and soil type: all the factors of traditional terroir – these are incredible and rare wines some of which fetch prices akin to grand cru Burgundy or first growth Bordeaux. This is a rare opportunity to sample some of the best and most exciting wines Spain has to offer. SEBASTIAN

CONTINENTALITY & SUB-REGIONALITY, what grows where and why

In Galicia, a neat, progressive trade-off between Atlantic mildness and moistness and Continental warmth and dryness defines a continuum of subtly changing associations between place and variety. In whites, at the coast, Albariño’s flashing interplay of fruit and acid seems perfect. However, just 45 minutes inland in appellations such as Monterrei and Ribeiro, continental influences see daytime temperatures which make it difficult to retain acidity in Albariño. The result is pleasant, aromatic wines but which are a little too soft (low in acidity) and round to make successful varietal wines. Instead of lead actor, Albariño inland plays a supporting role, adding perfume and life to Godello and Treixadura whites.

In Ribeiro, Treixadura finds its only really successful home. Steely and golden with fine structure but lacking in aroma, Treixadura with a little Albariño balances beautifully into long wines of subtle richness and aroma. Further inland, however, the progressively Continental environment suits Godello best. In tracing the regions which feature Godello whites, a telling journey of the influence of Continentality becomes clear. From Monterrei, through Ribeira Sacra, on up into Valdeorras and then to the source of Rio Sil atop the continental plateau in Bierzo, Godello is exposed to increasing daytime temperature and becomes progressively richer, fuller and rounder as one continues inland, uphill and into more Continental environments, albeit all with residual Atlantic influences.

Red wines follow exactly the same logic. At the coast, Caiño Tinto and a handful of other local varieties are historically adapted to providing roundness and softness as well as herbal acidity in the mild, damp daytimes of the Atlantic. Inland, these varieties quickly become overly soft. At the coast, one does see some Mencia, but it is irredeemably green and herbal, making rustic and mean wines in the main. In the near-coastal regions of Ribeiro and Monterrei, a range of varieties are adapted to provide a pleasant fruit-acid balance, with the best fit being Brancellao. By the time one gets to Ribeira Sacra, however, the climate has enough daytime warmth to (just, maybe) ripen the tannins of Mencia. As with Godello, Mencia becomes richer and less acidic as it moves inland and uphill. In Ribeira Sacra, it is a little too green more often than not. By the time Mencia is grown at the source of Rio Sil in Bierzo, it can tend towards chocolatey richness and over-softness.

20TH CENTURY GALICIA, a tale of loss and forgetting

Happily, in the here and now of the early 21st century, we apprehend a ‘natural’ Galicia where a regionally diverse range of lovely wines are made thanks to matches of grape variety with sub-regional teroirs. It has only recently been thus, however. If one were to pull back the focus just 40 years to the death of Franco in 1975, for example, Galician wine looks almost entirely different. A lot of bad happened to Spanish (including Galician) wine during the 20th century.

The beginning of this was the arrival of phylloxera, very late in the 19th century. Happily for Spain, by the time the vine louse wiped out tracts of Galicia, Castile and Catalunya, the solution of re-grafting Vitis Vinifera onto American rootstocks was already in place, and most regions that were devastated by phylloxera were very soon replanted with locally-evolved genetics. By 1930, the re-establishment of a ‘natural’ Galicia is easy to picture. Although not yet on the historical scale prior to phylloxera, the various sub-regions of Galicia were successfully replanted to their own locally adapted cultivars, grown on the same sites and soils in the manner of best practice established from perhaps two thousand years of adaptive learning. For the next 50 years, however, pretty much everything went sour. By 1980, most regions of Galicia were growing ‘Jerez’ …

After the Civil War, agriculture as directed by the ministry in Madrid was utterly focused on low-cost high-yield production. Most of Galicia was planted over to the easy-to-grow, high-yield Palomiño white, native to Jerez. Such plantings were predominantly in the fertile river valleys, ignoring the previously preferred poor soils of the hills and mountains. Quantity, not quality, was the decisive factor.

Worse, as rural industry became less economically rewarding, the youth of the pueblos (historically, 90% of Spaniards lived in very small villages, or ‘places’) were forced to abandon ‘home’ and go to find work, variously, in the cities, mines or the army. The abandonment of historical viticulture and the weakening of country culture and economy was later joined by the advent of chemical-industrial farming. By 1980, winemaking in Spain bore little resemblance to the natural form which had been successfully re-established in the first decades after phylloxera. In Galicia, remnant plantings of local genetic material remained in the hills and continued to be made as house wine by locals, but generally-speaking, such ‘authentic’ local wines were neglected, lost, forgotten.

RECOVERY AND REMEMBERING, old and new in Galicia now

As Spain underwent ‘la transicion’ (the reawakening of civil society and the reversion to functional democracy after Franco’s death in 1975 – a process nominally completed by the elections of 1982), various forms of awakening, remembering and re-imagining worked their way into agricultural practice. Slowly but surely, the native-traditional varieties, locations, pruning techniques and organic practices were remembered and re-asserted. Remnant old vine plantings in the hills and mountains provided source material for new plantings which would re-assert continuity with the genetic heritage of the sub-regions. 30 years later, it is not uncommon to find yourself in a Galician DO established in the 1980s, and home to producers working with a mix of ancient vines and 20-odd-year-old maturing plantings based on heritage genetics.

Let’s not get entirely dewy-eyed at this point, however.

Such producers still constitute a minority. Bush vines remain marginalised, thanks to government subsidies which promote high-yield viticulture on trellises. Many new vineyards are planted to yield-oriented industrial clones from commercial nurseries, rather than to more genetically diverse (and definitively local) massale selections from old vineyards. Chemical-industrial farming still predominates over organic and biodynamic methods. Chemical-industrial winemaking (wood chips, additions of acid and tannin, personality yeasts, enzyme treatments, silicone corks, glue corks, and all the rest) remains more common than hand-made and natural practices.

The real deal is out there however. If you care to sort wheat from chaff, there are champions in each sub-region of Galicia faithfully working the locally adapted genetic heritage into beautiful, subtle, delicious expressions of a place and its natural grapes.

While this discussion which follows suggests a ‘natural’ view of the vinous cultivars best adapted to the climates of each sub-region. I wish to stress that this is not simply an environmental-deterministic view of grape varietal evolution. Yes, Mencia, Godello, Treixadura, Brancellao and company are native to Galicia and exist as an evolutionary expression of the relation between cultivar and place. But it is very important to realise the importance of human agency in this process … it did not just happen! At each moment through history, human taste (as well as practical considerations of yield, stress resistance, ease of propagation) has been the mediating agency between cultivar and climatic influence. Mencia, for example, is the historical result of untold thousands of propagative choices ultimately resulting in the evolution of a varietal with a pleasing fruit-acid balance in a certain place, in reaction to the climatic complexity of that place.

Scott Wasley