Meet the Grape: Mencía

On the Spanish Wine Experience we have already covered the two stars of Spanish red wines in Meet the Grape: Tempranillo and Garnacha. They are the Premiership of red grapes if you will. However, it is within Division One that you find more and more varied grape styles.

One of my favourite grapes, that so often goes under the radar and is often criminally underrepresented, still, in the bars, is a little spicy and minerally number from the northwest: Mencía.

When people think about Spanish wine, they often think of medium to full-bodied and berry fruit-forward reds á la Rioja and Ribera del Duero. However, hiding in that top part of Spain is a grape that creates a very different style of wine. Spain’s answer to Pinot Noir, Mencía is a grape that deserves to be a superstar.

So let’s meet the damn thing!

The Grape:

  • For a long time these medium-sized red wonders were thought to have been related to Cabernet Franc – but DNA profiling has proven this not to be true.
  • In fact it appears to be one of our native varieties, although possibly introduced by the Romans.
  • It is identical to Portugal’s grape Jaen.
  • It’s also locally known, as always it seems in this country, by other names: Loureiro Tinto, Negra, Negro, Tinto Mollar. But I’ve never seen these, so just stick with Mencía!
  • The grapes are high in sugar and have good acidity.
  • In Spain its home are the northwestern regions of Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and, maybe its pinnacle area, Bierzo. Though it can also be found in Tierra de León, Arribes and Monterrei denominaciones.
  • After the Phylloxera plague ravaged the country at the turn of the 18/19th century, masses of Mencía were replanted on the high-yielding fertile plains in that part of Spain. This resulted in famously diluted, pale and aromatic wines.
  • The grapes have recently been enjoying a huge revival Spain – look up wine heroes Alvaro Palacios and Telmo Rodriguez – with winemakers rediscovering old, low-yielding hillside plots of Mencía.
  • Generally the grape grows, and grows best, on schisty hillsides which, along with the low-yield, helps give intensity to the resulting wines.
  • Mencía is occasionally blended with other local varieties of the area: Sousón, Caíño Tinto, Brencellao, Merenzao.

The Wines:

  • If the wines used to be limp and uninspiring, they are now quite the opposite. They are wonderfully complex.
  • This complexity is especially pronounced on the nose thanks to Mencía’s high levels of terpenoids.
  • Dark fruits, flowery notes like violets, earth, minerals and black pepper abound.
  • The wines generally have a rather deep colour with lovely violet hues towards the rim.
  • They usually are medium bodied with a fairly decent yet supple acidity which makes good Mencía wines both refreshing and suave.
  • That acidity also makes Mencía wines great for food pairing: grilled and smoked meats (especially with peppery sauces), roasts, stews, strong cheeses like Manchego, cooked mushroom and tomato dishes.
  • The wines take well to a touch of chill, so are great for summer if you just leave the bottle in the fridge for 10 minutes before serving.
  • Mencía takes ageing well also, as it can be a little tannic. Ageing adds vanilla, nutmeg and other sweet spices.

If Tempranillo and Garnacha are the Premiership League of Spanish red wine grapes and spicy Mencía was always stuck in Division One, then I think its about time this brilliant grape – a personal favourite – was promoted!

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