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Old vines, new gambles

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The cobblestone streets of the village of Hornija follow the slopes of the hills in this remote corner of Spain's Bierzo region -- which is to say they are steep, uneven and treacherous. Here, piles of stones pass for houses. A crude communal laundry pool and a dilapidated bread oven constitute the medieval hamlet's central square.

The evidence that this forgotten land was once a thriving crossroads dots the surrounding slate-soil hillsides: acres of vineyards planted with shrubby 100-year-old vines of Mencía grapes, the descendants of vines brought to the region by 10th-century French monks. The wines now being made from those old vines are the bridge from ancient to modern Spain.

Racy, red Mencía wines from Bierzo are the new darlings of America's wine intelligentsia. Sommeliers and other adventuresome wine lovers are drawn to their distinctive fresh fruit flavors and food-friendly acidity. And with most Mencía wines priced $20 or less, says Anne Pickett, Spanish wine buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood, the wines are an affordable discovery.

It's just the latest chapter in the revival of Spanish winemaking, itself part of the economic rebirth of the country after the death in 1975 of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Throughout the country, winemakers have nursed old vineyards back to life, their efforts typically resulting in high quality yet inexpensive wines. A few artisans have discovered vineyard gold in forgotten corners of the country. Bierzo is such an El Dorado.

But, says Bierzo's pioneering winemaker, Alvaro Palacios, whose single-vineyard La Fararona Mencía is among the most expensive wines in Spain today at $225 a bottle, "You are never a prophet in your own land." Old-vine Mencía wines, an emerging phenomenon internationally, are almost unknown in Spain. Even in nearby León, it is difficult to find the wines on store shelves or in tapas bars.

The Mencía puzzle

Mencía is a mysterious grape, says Steve Zamotti, one of the owners of Wine Exchange, a wine store in Orange. Zamotti has carried Mencía wines since the release of the 1999 Descendientes de J. Palacios Corullón, produced by Alvaro Palacios. That wine inaugurated the new wave of wines made from the low-yielding, untrellised Mencía vines clinging to the hillsides of Bierzo.

Mencía was once thought to be related to Pinot Noir because of its complexity and lilting acidity, then to Cabernet Franc because of the wine's intense, inky concentration. Today, it is simply assumed to have originated somewhere in Central Europe. "It's been in this region for a thousand years. Whatever it started out as, it's now considered unique to Bierzo," Zamotti says. That makes it the ultimate wine for those, including himself, whom Zamotti calls "wine geeks."

"We try all kinds of wines. And these are really interesting. Mencía has characteristics of both red Burgundy and cool-climate Syrah from the Rhône Valley, but it's its own thing -- soft tannins, snappy acidity, pleasing texture, fresh fruit."

Palacios, Bierzo's best-known winemaker, is the son of a venerable Rioja wine family and one of the original band of modern vintners in Spain's Priorat region near Barcelona. His single-vineyard Garnacha wine, L'Ermita, is that region's most critically praised. When his nephew, winemaker Ricardo Pérez, suggested he visit Bierzo, a region with schistose soils, steep hillsides and old vines similar to those in Priorat, Palacios saw past the region's poverty and isolation and realized that its ancient vineyards could be an oenological treasure trove.

He immediately began buying and leasing Mencía vineyards and, with his nephew, transformed an old garage in the village of Villafranca into a winery. Palacios was intent on proving that Mencía wines could be as lilting and ethereal as fine Burgundy.

Skeptics in the Spanish wine industry dismissed the scheme as slightly insane. Sure, Palacios' old-vine Garnacha and Cariñana wines from Priorat had earned critical raves and were terrific commercial successes. But Mencía? There is no history of quality wine from the Mencía grape being produced anywhere in the world. In Bierzo, its continuing cultivation was tied up with centuries-old traditions unchallenged in the economically depressed region. The mere mention of the awful plonk associated with the decrepit cooperatives in this long-ignored northwestern corner of Castilla y León made Spaniards elsewhere shudder.

Artisans are buying in

But, in the wake of Palacios' initial success, the rush is on to cultivate Mencía vineyards in Bierzo. Spain's large wine companies remain unconvinced of the area's potential, but artisan producers such as Dominio de Tares, Mariano García's Paixar, Pago de Valdoneje, Eric Solomon's Cuatro Pasos and Luna Beberide as well as 50 other wineries have joined Palacios there. They're convinced that Bierzo can be the next Priorat -- another long-neglected region where old vines can be revived seemingly overnight and, with modern vinification, produce stunning, high-quality wines.

Of course, Bierzo could be bigger. Priorat has perhaps 1,000 acres of very old vines, but Bierzo is home to more than 10,000 acres of heritage vineyards. Yet not all vineyards are the same, Palacios is quick to point out. Just 10% of Bierzo's vineyards are planted in the flaky slate soils -- situated on an outcropping of a subterranean geological vein that extends across northern Spain from Priorat -- that Palacios prefers. Those soils are concentrated around the Corullón area, which includes medieval Hornija.

Starting with his first vintage in 1999, Palacios' wines expressed the minerality common to wines from slate soil regions. The fresh blueberry and herbal aromas and flavors evident from the beginning have grown more intense as he's developed more single-site Mencía wines.

It could be that single-vineyard Mencía wines will be the best expression of Bierzo's potential, says Mario Rico, one of the founders of Dominio de Tares, a large vintner by Bierzo standards whose first vintage was 2000. But Spain is a country that has always relied on blending grapes from across a region. There are 9,000 vineyard owners in Bierzo and most own only one to two acres of vines, he says. Blending is the only way he can pull together enough fruit to make his wines, which are among the best selling in the United States, in part because of their reasonable price-quality ratio.

And, Rico says, slate soils may not be the only soils that produce the grapes to make a complex wine. The work of learning the effect of the various slate and composite clay soils is just beginning. "We vinify our wines plot by plot as we try to learn the terroir of the region. We still don't know much."

Still in its infancy

With less than a decade of releases behind it, modern Bierzo winemaking is in its infancy. Although dozens of Mencías are now available in world markets, the original standard-bearer, Palacios, is still the only recognized prestige producer. Whether the region has the wealth of prize vineyards necessary to provide the raw material to support an artisan wine community on par with Priorat is yet to be seen. In the meantime, wine lovers can taste the region's evolving character with each new vintage.

This summer, the narrow streets of Villafranca were filled with throngs of sunburned and limping religious pilgrims. After hiking for months from homes across continental Europe, they trudged past Palacios' garage winery on their way to Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where legend has it the bones of St. James are buried. Catholic priests and penitents have made the trek since the Moors were overthrown in the 10th century. Early pilgrims, eager to reinforce the church's claim to this corner of Christendom, planted the first grapevines here to ensure there would be wine in Bierzo for the sacraments.

Palacios likes to say that the religious lineage of these vineyards adds a touch of the divine to the wines. After his success in Priorat, he says, "when I see an old vine in a beautiful place, I know it will make good wine. It will take time to develop, but it's already there in the vine."

corie.brown@latimes.com

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