Historically, miners trailing after a vein of ore were closely followed by the alcoholic drinks industry. In certain cases, such as the Potosí region in Bolivia, the mines were the only raison d’être for pisco and other aguardiente drinks. In other places, where nature prevented the presence of vineyards, potatoes and cereals where distilled for alcohol-thirsty miners.
The first public monopoly to control the sale of alcoholic beverages, Systembolaget, was created in the wake of the miners’ alcoholic overindulgence in the Swedish town of Falun. When climate allowed vine growing, wine was a source of nourishment for thousands of miners. In some cases, they were transformed into classic regions and some of today’s wines used to be the miners’ wines. California’s top Zinfandel owes its existence to the 19th century Gold Rush; Rutherglen’s finest wines in Victoria (Australia) are direct descendants of the gold that was found there.
Many centuries earlier, the proliferation of gold coins as currency during the Roman Empire was a thriving business for Las Médulas mines in the Bierzo region. Its vineyards, a source of robust and warm wines, laid on Roman castra, served as nourishment for miners and legionaries. For centuries, Mencía became the variety of choice for its capacity to produce powerful wines in the extreme Bierzo climate. At the dawn of the 21st century, the Pérez and Palacios families (Descendientes de J. Palacios) discovered Mencía and made it digest its rustic, wild past along with its memories of the mines to become the uniquely fine grape that we know today.
As Europe’s finest wines travelled the routes established by the monks, sturdy wines followed in the footsteps of miners and seamen. Asturias, right to the east of Galicia, was a crossroads for both routes. This church-dominated region of monks and fine wines embraced 19th century modernity —which saw ecclesiastical confiscations and a shift of land towards the bourgeoise; in terms of the wines, they probably forsook finesse in favour of appeal and purity for crossbred blends. Later during Franco’s days, its inhabitants rushed not for gold but for coal and thus a large part of the population was employed in the miners.
Transformation was quick and radical. Vines almost disappeared, not only because their owners, who worked the soil underneath, abandoned them but specially due to a change of tastes. This new breed of miners, like others before them, preferred their wines warm and powerful. They earned good money and could afford to buy wines from elsewhere, so Asturias wines were gradually spurned in favour of warm southern alternatives. Wine drinking grew so much that Asturias, even to this day, has one of the highest consumption rates per head in Spain. But its own wine was abandoned.
Vineyards in Cangas del Narcea were pulled out. Surface under vine dropped from 1,000 hectares to the current 70 and a good deal of them were grafted with imported Mencía vines preferred for their warmth and colour, altering the vineyards even more.
Nowadays, one of the world’s most captivating wine landscapes has almost disappeared. Vineyards in Cangas, perched on precipitous slopes surrounded by infinite greenery and shifting low clouds, are now a beautiful image of decadence. The vineyards are all but gone and those terraced grasslands that one day sustained vines awaken our nostalgia of a scenery that our eyes never saw. The visitor can breathe the region’s recent agony.
Luckily, the days of decadence are over. Globalisation, the European Union, renewable sources of energy and what have you forced the closure of most of the mines. Coal faded away just before killing the region off. Life has returned to these lands ever since a few people —empowered with winemaking and wine growing skills acquired somewhere else— started to work with the vines that remained. It is likely that there will more people choosing to live their lives producing wines that convey the local landscape.
They have two excellent elements to work with: soils and multiple orientations which are generally suitable to grow quality vines, and a first-class genetic vine heritage. There are at least four unique varieties among these plants, some of which are very old and are planted in small plots.
Cangas is a land of red wines; white grapes were a minority. However, there is one variety, Albarín Blanco, which stands out for its features and is suitable to be rapidly accepted by the markets. It produces wines with racy acidity and intense, pure thiol aromas. Some producers use lees contact for more body, which makes commercial sense. The Nibias range by Bodegas Chacón Buelta are spectacular on the nose and well structured on the palate —ambitious wines which aim to pitch Albarín Blanco on the same league as the best Albariños and Godellos. Others, such as Monasterio de Corias, spend time in barrel to gain roundness; it is the case of Guilfa 2015, a balanced, supple wine with an open finish. I really enjoyed the most immediate Albarín Blanco, pure fermented juice reminiscent of pastures and moist meadows and simple freshness. Siete Vidas by Bodegas Vidas follows this line and, at €10 per bottle, it is a steal.
Albarín Negro is probably the most planted and the reason why it has become the region’s flagship variety. It produces polished and lively Atlantic-style wines with good tannins which are suitable for oak ageing. It is a versatile grape, which blends well with others and provides finesse to Mencía. This latter variety is widely planted for its colour and alcohol but feels more rustic and of lesser quality than its Bierzo sisters. Albarín is at its best when it is not blended. Cien Montañas 2015 by Bodegas Vidas is a lovely example, with floral and raspberry aromas and pleasant vegetable notes bringing freshness to the palate, lively but smooth tannins and a very unique and singular finish.
Verdejo Negro is a winemaking jewel. Wines made from this variety will one day be the epitome of finesse and understated elegance. It shares some stylistic features with Pinot Noir from Ahr and Lemburger from Württemberg, but it is clearly different in terms of expression. It seems to be a difficult grape to grow; its value lies on its zesty acidity, which fades if it is harvested a little later than required. Perhaps it ought to be planted in colder terraces. Verdejo Negro is very rare but it deserves full attention. I like it better when oak aging —a standard practice in the region— is kept to a minimum. I was captivated by some Monasterio de Corias samples taken from used 500-litre barrels.
I finish with the other jewel in the crown, a marvel called Carrasquín. Producers assure me it has nothing to do with the Cabernet family, but in my mental map of varieties I associate it with this group. Its fruit aromas evoke blueberries and blackcurrants. It boasts the sort of firm, fine-grained tannins that are usually found in fine, age-worthy Cabernets; its acidity brings to mind the Cantábrico sea and its fresh summers, it is highly suitable for barrel aging and it displays a long, lingering finish. It blends well with other varieties: Guilfa 2012 by Monasterio de Corias, 40% Verdejo Negro and 60% Carrasquín, is a lovely example of complexity and freshness and could be perceived as Loire on a blind tasting. But I think Carrasquín shines on its own. Valdemonje 2012 by Monasterio de Corias delivers fantastic concentration and depth; it is dense but smooth and lingers beautifully on the finish. Cien Montañas Carrasquín by Bodegas Vidas is an Atlantic courier: its pure tannin and blackcurrant aromas put it closer to Bordeaux; its firm acidity calls for a second sip and its finish brings me the joy of the finest Médoc wines.
I tasted two dozen wines from three producers in the appellation. All of them were of above average quality and competitively priced. On the down side, I must talk about the little interest of most of the Mencía-based wines. It seems this variety’s rustic character is more present when grown in this region, with animal notes that are sometimes found on less refined wines from León and Galicia. I also have my doubts about the tendency of producers to use barrels and lees excessively; I think it implies a certain insecurity but they will gradually figure out that the purity and personality of their top wines don’t need any make-up —their best commercial asset will reside in being different.
The wines I tried speak more of the journey ahead rather than of a final result. They hint at the potential of this land and its native varieties. There is plenty of work to do, starting with the need to replant abandoned plots as well as parts of the actual vineyards based on quality and identity criteria. Seventy hectares mean very little. It is perplexing that the local Asturias government, which manages large restructuring funds and claims to be concerned about the economic revival of Cangas del Narcea, has failed to prioritise the recovery of the area’s indigenous vineyards. Time and effort are needed to understand the varieties, the best locations to plant them and how to grow and vinify them. A great deal of experimentation is also required. Again, I would like to see more public funds destined to investigation.
Despite all these shortcomings and at this moment in time, I don’t know of any other region in the world encompassing such a unique, top quality grape heritage found in such a suitable location to develop its terroir to the highest level. In these days of climate change, the opportunity to plant vines in a cool rainy area such as Cangas del Narcea is obvious.
I finish this piece with a recommendation to national and international readers: hurry up and visit this region. Firstly, because it fills your soul with beauty. Secondly, because there are excellent tourist facilities already in place. The Parador in Monasterio de Corias, with a long wine and monastic tradition, is one of the best in Spain. Thirdly, because these wines are hard to find outside of the region. And lastly, because I am convinced that the area around Cangas will soon be transformed —visitors who travel there now will be able to return in the knowledge that they witnessed the birth of arguably the world’s last classic wine region.