A new flavor from northwestern Spain | AspenTimes.com

A new flavor from northwestern Spain

Kelly J. Hayes

One of the great joys of being a wine drinker is the opportunity for discovery.I had an “a-ha” moment not so long ago when I purchased my first bottle of wine from a region in northwestern Spain called Bierzo. The area has been getting some buzz and Eric Asimov, the fine wine writer for The New York Times wrote a column about it that included notes on some of the wines he had tasted. Intrigued, I sought out a bottle and immediately became a fan. That first bottle was a 2005 Descendientes de J. Palacios “Pétalos” Bierzo and it was one of the most interesting wines I had tasted in quite some time. The first thing to catch my attention was the grape, mencia. I had never heard of mencia, but a little research showed that it is often compared to cabernet franc. Its origins are in dispute, but mencia is thought to have been brought to northwestern Spain centuries ago by French pilgrims who colonized and proselytized during the Middle Ages.Though cabernet franc has a reputation as a blending grape in Bordeaux, used to help along cabernet sauvignon and merlot, there is a history of great wines that are heavily reliant on the grape. The famed Bordeaux wines of Cheval-Blanc, for example, are dominated by merlot, but in some bottlings as much as 60 percent of the oh-so expensive juice derives from cabernet franc. That’s not to say, however, that mencia is cabernet franc. There are those in Bierzo who will dispute that with vigor, thank you very much. But it is interesting to note that this grape of unknown origin has similarities to an old standby with regal roots. In the glass the mencia was a deep, ruby color. The first taste hit like a ton of big berries. While it was a very young wine, it held together nicely and was ready to drink straightaway. My first thought is that, though a little lighter, this wine would be a great alternative to shiraz or even zinfandel with a mixed grill.But there was something different about the taste as well. Something, not necessarily dirty, or mineral-like, but something else that made this wine taste of the place it was born. It was like nothing I had ever had before. Cool.And then there was the winemaker. Over the last 20 years Alvaro Palacios has made some of the world’s most-prized wines, and his grenache-based L’Ermita from the Priorat region of Spain is said to be transcendent. It is perhaps no coincidence that he studied in Bordeaux, where he worked for the fabled Jean-Pierre Moueix at Chateau Pétrus, where they grow a little cabernet franc.In the late 1990s, at a time in which Bierzo was still under the radar as a wine region, Palacios partnered with his Bordeaux-trained nephew, Ricardo Perez, to form Descendientes de J. Palacios, a new winery with a moniker that honored Alvaro’s father and Ricardo’s grandfather, Jose. Their goal was to create great wines from an indigenous grape that was, for the most part, unknown to the rest of the world.Bierzo is located in the province of Leon in a region bordered to the north and west by ocean. Approximately 100 miles from the sea, Bierzo is extremely mountainous and its grapes grow on steep, rocky hillsides. To date there are just 48 wineries in the Bierzo DO (designated in 1989), though there is growing interest among investors and winemakers. Because of the difficulty and cost of working these high-altitude vineyards, some of which are 2,000 feet above sea level, the wines will likely remain the domain of serious producers who see the beauty in this unlikely grape. That makes it perfect for Palacios and his young partner.If you want to try the 2005 Descendientes de J. Palacios “Pétalos” Bierzo, you can buy a bottle for around $25 at Of Grape & Grain. Catherine Store Wine & Liquor also has the 2003 vintage in stock for around $23 a bottle. Or you can order the Pétalos with a meal at either The Tavern at The Little Nell or Cache-Cache. For a treat, Montagna at The Little Nell has some of the very limited, single-vineyard wines from Descendientes de Jose Palacios on their list lately.It’s nice to try something new.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@wineink.com.