The Highs of Mencía – Exploring Spain’s Ribeira Sacra

Mencía, a varietal unique to Portugal’s Dao and Spain’s Bierzo and Galicia regions, reaches its most exciting heights on the steep riverside vineyards of Ribeira Sacra in the center of Spain’s Galicia region.

MenciaMencía is high in anthocyanins (red pigment), so its wines typically show a deep red color even when grown in cooler vineyards. And it’s high in terpenoids, aroma compounds that deliver bold scents of fresh flowers, raspberry, strawberry, pomegranate and sweet cherry. A bold dose of cracked peppery spice, a touch of something leafy green (think Cab Franc), and a dollop of crushed gravel minerality round out the fascinating aromatic and flavor profile.

What does Mencía taste like? Well – if you like the aromas and silkiness of Pinot Noir, the herbal snap of cool-climate Cabernet, and the plump, direct, fruit of Cru Beaujolais, these wines are sure to thrill.

As Neal Martin wrote in Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I found the wines of Ribeira Sacra immediately attractive, not because they are powerful, ineffably complex or built for the long-term. No, I enjoyed their sense of purity and their complete lack of pretention. I enjoyed these wines because they spoke of their place, harnessing the Mencía grape variety to conjure crisp, fresh, vivacious wines that are born to marry with the local cuisine. The finest wines are those whereby I could envisage one finishing a bottle and yearning for another drop – a virtue all too often forgotten in this day and age.”

From Romans, to Monks, to Today
First planted by the Romans to provide wine to overseers and slaves working the goldmines of Bierzo to the east, Ribeira Sacra’s vineyards tumble down hills sloped 50 to 85 degrees (remember – 90 degrees is straight down!), often running along terraces first carved by the Romans. Replanted by monks in the Middle Ages to serve the 18 monasteries and hermitages that dot the region’s hills and valleys, the vineyards were once again largely abandoned in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Today, the region’s most visionary, committed, hard working and talented wine grower, Pedro Rodriguez Perez, comes from a family that kept up the struggle during these times, making wine selling it in garrafones – 20 liter glass containers – to local bars and families.

In 1991, when Pedro was still a teenager, he and his parents decided to bottle their own wine and named their estate Guímaro – dialect for “rebel,” the family nickname for his grandfather.

steep vineyards of ribera sacra

Doug and winemaker Pedro Rodriguez in the steep Ribeira Sacra vineyards.

Pedro and his parents (still in the vineyards daily!) work their vineyards organically and by hand (because machines are impossible here). The whole bunches are sorted and then go into tank where they are trod by foot to release some juice and then allowed to ferment with native yeast. Then into a mixture of large oak tanks and barrels of various sizes (all used) to smooth out before blending and bottling with minimal sulfur.

We spent a day with Pedro in March at the winery, tasting his 2017s and 2018s to come. Pedro took time out of his day not only for the tasting, but to hike the vineyards with us (don’t look down!) and then treated us to a Galician lunch of squid, octopus and rare local beef.

Tasting his wines today recaptures that amazing experience. We have two on sale this week. Like Pedro himself, these are wines of fantastic joy, intense focus, and – importantly – serious fun.

Guimaro wines

  • The 2016 Camino Real (93 points Wine Advocate; 95 points Suckling) is at once rich and light. Aromas of fresh red berries, cracked pepper, leafy herb and sweet spice carry through to a palate that combines a velvety mouthfeel with energetic verve and sublime grace. Every sip reveals a new combination of flavors that flow beautifully into the silky, kaleidoscopic, finish. From a best in the USA $22.98/ea, this is fabulous now through 2026.
  • The 2015 A Ponte (95 points from both Wine Advocate and Suckling) is stunning at multiple levels. From a very young vineyard, it somehow delivers old-vine intensity in a wine almost translucent in color and weightless on the palate. As Suckling writes, “Detail is the key. Great length and depth. Toasty, plush finish.” We have only five cases available (the region’s allocation) of this rare (165 cases) gem from $49.98.

These are some of the very finest wines produced to date in Ribeira Sacra, made by the region’s leading winegrower from amazing vineyards old and young. We cannot recommend them to you highly enough.

Wines of Wind and Stone … Exploring Empordà

Not far from the rocky, popular tourist beaches of the Costa Brava, Spain’s Empordà wine region is a decidedly unwelcoming place. In this tiny slice of Catalonia above the Costa Brava, on the border of France’s Roussillon region, acidic brown schist soils stress the vines, while the baking heat of summer days and the strong Tramontane wind that hurls southward from the eastern Pyrenees stress both vines and people.

Tramontane clouds in Rousillon

Tramontane clouds

As Andrew Jefford writes in Decanter Magazine:

“It’s tough country, not least because of the flagellation of the Tramontane, the northwesterly wind which hurtles southwards here with unbridled force. What I discovered about the Mistral in Châteauneuf is every bit as true for the Tramontane in Empordà: it’s hard on humans, but all the signs are that the vines thrive on it.” – Andrew Jefford, “Wind, Stone …”

Grapevines can thrive in tough climates, and as in many parts of Europe, winemaking here dates back thousands of years. But the vines will only thrive – and be transformed into excellent wine – because of extraordinary efforts and care by humans.

priorat jonas gomez 2

Importer Jonas Gustafsson

Importer Jonas Gustafsson, who explores Spain looking to discover new winemakers, recently brought us two wines from Empordà made by David Saavedra, founder of the relatively new estate, Celler Viniric. David created the estate to celebrate the old vines and the new traditions of Empordà. David’s 20 acres of vineyards run down the southern side of the Gavarres Massif towards the Mediterranean Sea.

Passion and Perseverance
As winemaker David Saavedra told Jonas, “Everyone has a formula that leads you to fulfill your dreams. In my case, as the owner, winemaker and wine producer at Viniric, the words that guide me are passion and perseverance.”

Viniric collage

Other than deliciousness and tiny production levels (around 600 cases each), what David’s Viniric wines most share is what Andrew Jefford describes in Decanter as the essence of Empordà:

“A drama, a stoniness and an austere, almost aching bittersweet beauty which is common to this northern Catalonian cluster of vineyard zones.”

More than “Taste-Deep”
Sometimes we feature wines because they are familiar, or highly-rated, or in demand. But sometimes we bring you wines that touch our hearts a bit with what we find in the glass and the story behind the wine. And we hope they will touch your heart a bit, too.

And so, here are two of David Saavedra’s wines discovered by importer Jonas Gustafasson from this windy, rocky, remote Spanish region, one white, one red, and both ready to deliver inspiration in your glass from $14.98.

  • David’s Vella Lola red – a blend of Garnacha, Syrah and a tiny bit of Cabernet – delivers layered black fruit, crunchy minerality, and feels great in your mouth. It’s a fantastic cookout red, for sure, but you can also give it a light chill and sip it for fun and refreshment.
  • His Vella Loa white – blending Garnacha Blanca, Xarel.lo, Macabeu and Muscat – is zesty and fresh, serving up a mouthwatering serving of lemon, lime, quince and pineapple fruit supported by salty, chalky minerality at the end. Shellfish, sea bass, and fresh cheeses are its natural companions but it’s so lipsmackingly delicious, you’ll find yourself reaching for it on any warm, sultry day.

Growing and making these wines is hard, tough work, drinking them, on the other hand, is easy as pie! See for yourself when you stop by this week and give them a try – we’ll have a bottle of each open every day, all day.

Both are fine value at the $16.98 bottle price, and better still at $14.98/ea when you mix/match your way to a case of 12. We know you’ll love how they taste. We hope you’ll enjoy the connection to place and story as well.

Viniric labels

Is This Wine Organic? Wait … What’s Biodynamic?

Organic:Bio shelf talkerHere at Chain Bridge Cellars we work mainly with wine made by people who drink what they make and serve it to their family and friends. Overwhelmingly, they care about health and the environment and reflect that care in how they farm and make wine, whether or not they meet the various standards for organic and biodynamic farming or winemaking.

Still, because more and more of our customers want to know how the wine was grown and made, we recently decided to include the words “organic/bio” in green in our wine descriptions and on our “shelf talkers.” But what exactly does this mean?

A Focus on the Farming
Winemaking can be divided into two stages: the farming of the grapes in the vineyard and the fermenting, aging, and bottling of the wine in the winery. When we mark a wine with our “organic/bio” label, we’re referring to the farming: It means that the grapes were farmed either organically or biodynamically.

Organic farming is much like what you would expect: compliance with bans on herbicides and systemic pesticides and limits on what growers can use to nourish their vines and protect them from disease. For example, organic vine growing allows use of copper sulfate and sulfur, which are sprayed on the vines to prevent mildew and other fungi from growing.

demeter-logo-225px-hiWhat about Biodynamic?
Developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics not only bans chemical or manufactured sprays, it also governs what growers do and when they do it.

For example, growers must follow a lunar calendar of root, fruit, leaf and flower days that determine when a grower can prune and harvest. In addition, all growers must spray two preparations on their vineyards: 1) a spray made from manure that has been buried in a cow horn for six months, and 2) a dilution of fractured quartz. Other preparations that vinegrowers can choose to use include herbal and homeopathic preparations.

And while some of this might sound a little crazy, it’s important to understand that biodynamics also relates to a bigger picture: how farming contributes to the overall health of the world. Standards apply to what grows on the edges of a vineyard, for example, and many biodynamic winegrowers grow cattle, chickens, and vegetables in addition to grapes. Biodynamics requires ecological diversity.

USDA Organic symbolThe Winemaking Piece
For a wine to have the USDA organic seal, both the wine growing and the winemaking must meet organic standards. And even though many organic wine growers make their wine with minimal intervention, one big issue keeps them from achieving USDA organic status: sulfites.

Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation – anytime you ferment grapes, you’re left with wine that has sulfite in it.  If you ever find a “sulfite free” wine (which I bet you can’t!), the sulfites would have to be chemically removed … along with much of the wine flavor.

In the winery, almost all winemakers add sulfites to grapes and wines at multiple points in the winemaking process to protect the grape must from oxygen, kill off unwanted bacteria, and to ensure adequate levels of “free sulfur” in the finished wine at bottling to keep it fresh and tasty over time.

For reasons of both cost and philosophy, modern winemakers generally use as little sulfur in the winery as they can consistent with turning out a sound, healthy, fresh wine for you to enjoy.  But that means they almost always end up with greater than 10 ppm of residual sulfite – the level that triggers the “Contains Sulfite” label and prevents a wine from being awarded the FDA Organic label.

Even so, wines have far less sulfur in them than your typical package of dried fruit.  And, over the last few decades, winemakers have been steadily decreasing the amount of sulfur they add to their wines: no one likes wines that taste like sulfur! And, especially under screwcap, over-sulfured wines can taste rubbery and reduced. So each winemaker must decide: do I add just enough to be confident the wine is stabilized? Do I see how little I can get away with? Here at Chain Bridge Cellars, we favor wines made the first way.

Biodynamic practices also extend into the winery. That root, fruit, leaf and flower calendar also governs winemaking. In addition biodynamics forbids use of cultured yeast – all yeasts must be native to the winery or vineyard. And many biodynamic producers have begun to focus on how to keep winemaking from interfering how the wine reflects the vineyard’s terroir: Do the wines taste like the place the grapes were grown? This question leads winemakers consider how much they should manipulate the grapes, how much wood to use, if any … to consider  how “natural” their wines can be.

A Word about the Word “Natural”
But if you see the word “natural” on a wine, our advice is to run! Wine, much as we might like the pretend otherwise, is not a natural product. It’s a manipulated product, and winemakers “interfere” with the process for good reasons. Unsulfured wines tend to go bad, for example. Call us crazy, but we like our wine to taste good!

Where do we approve of “natural?” In the phrase “as natural as possible.” We like to work with winemakers who are careful, who work to have their grapes express the best that the varietal can be in their region, but who also are willing to intervene when things seem to go wrong. The line can be fuzzy – but we think you can taste the difference in the bottle. An overly manipulated wine tastes … manufactured. And an overly “natural” wine can taste, frankly, bad.

Then Does this Organic/Bio Label Make a Difference?
We think the answer is yes … and maybe. We know some excellent winemakers decide not to get officially certified in organic or biodynamic farming—sometimes because of the expense, or because they want to be able to use certain non-organic treatments when it’s necessary. Still, vine growers who go organic or biodynamic are willing to spend extra time and energy in the vineyard, monitoring and caring for the vines and their land—and that attention shows in the glass.

The Produttori del Barbaresco and the Magnificent 2014 Riservas

Produttori vineyardThe mission of the Produttori del Barbaresco is simple: “Excellence in Barbaresco.”

The 54 families who grow the fruit and own the Produttori farm just one grape: Nebbiolo. And there are few winemakers more skilled than Aldo Vacca, managing director and head winemaker, and his team at Produttori del Barbaresco.

Unlike most well-known Barbaresco estates, Produttori is a co-operative winery, one owned by its growers. The co-op idea came early in Barbaresco, in 1894 when Domizio Cavazza, headmaster of the Royal Enological School of Alba and a Barbaresco resident, brought together 9 vineyard owners to make and market wine collectively.

After being abolished in the 1920s, Produttori del Barbaresco was reborn in 1958 when the head priest of Barbaresco’s church realized that local vineyard owners were unable to afford to make and profitably market their own wine. Today, the co-op includes 54 members and 250 acres of vineyard.

While the Produttori is a co-op, it’s not “just” a co-op – this is quite likely the single best co-operatively owned winery in the world. Consider a few of the comments top wine critics have made about their wines over the past 20 years:

“The Produttori del Barbaresco is unquestionably a terrific source for Barbarescos that rival the best made in Piedmont. Although there is a tendency to scoff at wines made by cooperatives, the quality of the wines from this superbly run operation is as high as that from any highly committed, passionate estate-bottler… The Produttori del Barbaresco gets my vote as the best run and most committed cooperative regarding quality, and, most importantly for prospective purchasers, a source for exceptional Barbaresco wine values!” – Robert Parker, Wine Advocate, April 1994

“Piedmont’s cooperative winery makes top-notch values. Vacca’s cooperative has always paid its members according to the quality of their crop rather than just the quantity. And that’s why it consistently makes outstanding Barbarescos.” – Jo Cooke, Wine Spectator, December 2006

“The quiet transformation that has taken place at Produttori del Barbaresco in recent years is nothing short of remarkable. Far from a sleepy, old-fashioned cooperative winery, the Produttori have stepped up their game big time over the last decade or so. The wines remain reference-points, though, especially in years in which the Produttori make their flagship Riservas. The Produttori’s Riservas remain some of the greatest values in the realm of fine, cellar worthy reds.” Antonio Galloni, 2015

Only in Exceptional Vintages: Grand Riservas
Produttori del BarbarescoAbout those Riservas. The Produttori’s “main” wine is its Barbaresco Normale, a wine made by blending fruit from across its members Barbaresco vineyards. Every vintage, the first question the winemaking team asks itself is, “What is needed to make the Normale a great wine?”

In exceptional harvests, the Normale shines brightly enough that the winery can carve out grapes from its nine great “Crus” or single vineyards and bottle them separately. The best fruit from each of these sites is fermented, aged and bottled separately. Winemaking and aging for each of the Crus is exactly identical, so the remarkable differences you taste between the wines is due entirely to the unique characteristics of each of these great sites.

In an era of climate change and ever warming growing seasons, vintage 2014 was a “classic” year where the grapes were able to hang on the vines until mid-October before harvest at balanced levels of alcohol, acidity, and amazingly ripe tannins. The next four vintages in the winery – 2015-2018 – will all have their charms. But none will deliver the classic levels of freshness, finesse and perfume you’ll find in these stunning 2014s.

Like all Barbaresco, the Produttori’s Riservas are meant to age and develop gracefully in cellar. At our class, we found all of the 2014s to be giving boatloads of pleasure on the palate after a two-hour decant (although a few, like Ovello and Montestefano, were clearly powerhouses!). But vintage 2014 is all about the aromatics, and those will take another 2-3 years in cellar to start showing their best. And all will shine most brightly from 2024 and continue giving pleasure for 20 years or so after that.

Our 2014 Produttori del Barbaresco Offer
We’re offering seven of Produttori’s nine Riserva 2014s today plus magnums of one great site: Rabaja. The tiny allocation of Paje sold out during the class. We also can obtain Mucagota at the same prices as the other wines on a special order basis. We have unusually good supplies of what are often considered the Produttori’s top wines: Asili, Rabaja, Ovello and Montestefano. But, really, you cannot go wrong with any of this year’s releases.

You can see the entire offering on the website at this link. If you’re having trouble deciding, shoot us an email or give us a call – we’ll be delighted to help you assemble the perfect set of 2014 Riservas for you!

Note that six- and 12-bottle savings are mix/match across the offer. Mix/match savings will not display on your online order form or confirmation email, but will be applied before your card is charged. If you have any questions at all, please let us know!