The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
Mencia – the name has a smart ring about it, as though it might be the Spanish chapter of a high-IQ society. It's a grape, in fact, though one increasingly popular among consumers wise to Spain's modern wine resurgence.
Centuries-old but only recently revived to its full glory by a new generation of exacting producers, mencia tastes like a cross between Beaujolais's light-bodied gamay grape, herbal cabernet franc and chewy-spicy syrah. I think of it as Beaujolais with bull's horns.
Mencia makes its home mainly in the northwest, above the border with Portugal, in a region that includes the districts of Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. It's not exactly a tourism mecca, which may help explain why mencia has been off the global radar for so long. Another reason is local neglect. The workhorse vine was cultivated by economically challenged growers mainly on flat plains where the crop yields tended to be high and the resulting wines were, at best, thin and gutsy. But a few quality-minded producers persisted, slowly gaining notoriety. And things changed sharply in the 1990s after a white knight rode into town.
Alvaro Palacios, a global wine superstar who had created a super-luxury red called L'Ermita in the Priorat area far to the east near Barcelona, seized on preciously mature 40- to 100-year-old vines that had been abandoned on the hard-to-farm hillsides. Old vines on better-drained, sloped soils will usually produce more concentrated, flavourful fruit and better-balanced wine.
Palacios's celebrity shined a spotlight on Bierzo, where, in a partnership with his nephew, Ricardo Perez, he crafts the very fine Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos. Other good producers include Dominio de Tares, Casar de Burbia and Castro Ventosa.
With many mencias, you'll see only the appellation name, such as Bierzo, on the front label, not the grape name. You'll also discover a profile markedly different from the instantly lovable richness of, say, cabernet sauvignon or shiraz. The wines generally are light-to-medium-bodied, with a clenched fist of food-friendly acidity. They mingle beautifully with salty tapas plates involving fried fish, olives and cured ham. And they mix suavely with smart dinner-party company.
The Flavour Principle, co-written by Beppi Crosariol and Globe food columnist Lucy Waverman, recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.