Most grapes come by their reputation through mass effort, a community of producers working in tandem to tease out the variety's nobler qualities over decades and sometimes centuries – pinot noir in Burgundy, cabernet in Bordeaux and malbec in Argentina, for example. In the case of mencia, it took one man – Alvaro Palacios – and just a few short years.
Mencia? It's not exactly famous. But it might be called – I cringe at the word – fashionable. Spanish wine cognoscenti are wise to it, extolling its bright fruit, food-friendly acidity and pretty, herbal-floral overtones. Imagine a cross between delicate pinot noir, crisp cabernet franc and savoury cool-climate syrah from France's Rhône Valley and you get a vague and enticing picture. Ancient, uncommon and complex, yet light on its feet, it's a wine geek's wine.
For 10 centuries, mencia justifiably languished in obscurity, yielding unremarkable – if not dreaded – quaffers exemplified by the mostly thin, harsh reds of the Bierzo region in northwestern Spain. Bierzo wines helped keep the already poor, isolated locals humble.
In the late 1990s, Palacios, at the behest of his winemaker nephew, Ricardo Perez, travelled to Bierzo for a look-see. The uncle was by now an international phenomenon, the man behind one of Spain's newly iconic and most expensive reds (the $800 garnacha-based L'Ermita) and a key figure in the resurgence of the Priorat region near Barcelona.
He spied gold in Bierzo's hills, mature 40-to-100- year-old vines whose concentrated fruit had been mishandled or entirely neglected by growers, as had been the case with old-vines garnacha (a.k.a. grenache) in Priorat. He was keen to play Pygmalion again and bring Bierzo to life.
Uncle and nephew formed a partnership under the name Descendientes de J. Palacios, an homage to their family's centuries-old Rioja winemaking roots, and quickly put backwater Bierzo on the map with exacting, modern winemaking practices. Their entry-level offering below is available in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
Palacios is the best-known producer in the region, but the group of small pioneers includes other noteworthy names, including Pago de Valdoneje (also available in British Columbia), Luna Beberide and Dominio de Tares. In Ontario, keeners can now also special-order Palacios's flagship and smoky-dense Villa de Corullon, the wine that got the old-vines Bierzo boom rolling, from Vintages's online store ($45 through www.vintagesshoponline.com).
Don't expect crowd-pleasing grenache-style opulence from mencia; it's a grape with a tight-fisted punch. But do expect a rewarding Spanish lesson and a fine accompaniment for Iberico ham.
Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
Full-bodied and tightly wound, this invigorating red offers up candied fruit, herbs, smoked paprika and mineral flavours, with gum-sticking tannins on the firm finish. The B.C. price is $29.99; in Quebec, it's $21.80. In Alberta, contact Dream Wines ( firstname.lastname@example.org, 403-685-9463).
Painted Rock Syrah 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $40
Wine Access magazine named Painted Rock British Columbia's No. 1 and Canada's No. 3 winery for 2011 (behind two Niagara estates, Tawse and Henry of Pelham). This 2009 syrah had not been released in time for the judging, but I think it would have solidified the winery's standing. Concentrated and succulent, it's packed with plum, dark chocolate, espresso and spice flavours, framed by solid acidity and tannins.
It's a different style from the iconic, peppery syrahs of France's northern Rhône Valley, but it's compelling in its own Okanagan way. Ideal for medium-rare lamb chops, duck breast or osso bucco. It's available online direct from the winery ( www.paintedrock.ca).
Domaine de Cristia Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $42.95
Lovely stuff. Velvety and rich (at 15-per-cent alcohol), with chewy cherry at its core, along with pipe tobacco and menthol. The alcohol peeks through slightly in the form of heat, but it's far from fatal. It should cellar well for 10 years or pair nicely now with lamb shanks. The 2006 is available in Quebec for $46.75.
Château de Treviac 2008 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
A syrah-grenache blend from the southern Corbières appellation, this red is fullbodied and concentrated, with a pleasing balance of fruit and savoury characters. Plum, dark chocolate and licorice lead the way, culminating in a long, gently bitter finish. Perfect for hearty meat stews.
St. Magdalena Pinot Grigio 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
There's more going on here than with many pinot grigios at this price. On the lighter side of medium-bodied yet with a seductively round, oily texture. A sweet core of citrus, pear and apple finds a counterpoint in nuances of mineral and smoke.
Andrian Rubeno Lagrein 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
The offbeat lagrein grape is common to the Alto Adige region of northeast Italy. It tends to yield earthy, midweight reds with solid acidity, not for the fruit-pie-in-your-face shiraz crowd but often very pleasing. This one's on the money, with cherry, apple skin and a mineral edge. Great with cheese.
Le Gravillas Sablet Côtes du Rhône Villages Blanc 2010 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $17.95
Those lesser-known southern Rhône white grapes are on parade here: grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne and clairette. Typically austere in the fruitiness department, it's medium-bodied, with nuances of bitter citrus, flowers and a quarry-dust mineral note. Suitable for roast chicken or herb-accented, oven-roasted fish.
Alfredo Roca Pinot Noir 2010 (Argentina)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $12.95
It's unfair to ask much of a pinot noir at this price, so expect to be surprised. It hails from a cool, southern region of generally warm Mendoza, enabling the variety to retain critical acidity. Medium-bodied but rich for a pinot, it's smooth, with notes of plum and vanilla and a light dusting of fine-grained tannins. Grilled salmon would pair nicely.