Madrid-born winemaker Silvia Marrao made the wines of Godelia in Bierzo for some years. She went on to pursue her career in Galicia, but she always remembered the character of the grapes grown in San Pedro de Olleros, a small and remote hamlet on the foothills of Los Ancares, an isolated mountain range that is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. When Silvia decided to launch her own project, she instinctively headed there.
"I love the freshness of this elevated area and the minerality and fragrance of Mencía grown here. In contrast with lower vineyards, we rarely have fog and this results in healthy grapes,” Silvia explains. Getting to San Pedro de Olleros requires some stamina – and a drive from Cacabelos up a narrow, winding road with not a single vine along the way.
The new classification has arrived at the right moment for Silvia -her first release in the 2017 vintage was a village wine. During 2018 and 2019 she has created a full range exhibiting the new categories: two village wines (a red Mencía and a white Godello) and three parajes: La Cruz, a white Dona Blanca, and two Mencías: La Capilla and Penedón. Production is tiny, except for her red village wine, but she has managed to produce 7,000 bottles in 2019 and expects to fill 15,000 to 20,000 bottles when the project is in full swing.
Marrao is a true vigneron and tends 3.2 ha distributed in 20 rented plots. Her home is in Barco de Valdeorras (Ourense), a 55min drive to the south, so she spends three to four days weekly in San Pedro de Olleros and stays one day at home to handle the paperwork. Everything is properly registered now (“red tape was worse than pruning,” she says) and as Silvia is the only producer in the village she is often offered new plots to rent. Banzao, as her little project is called, has drawn attention to this area, where vines are grown at an average elevation of 700 metres.
At the other end of the appellation to the south, on the border with Galicia, Nacho Álvarez, former technical director at Jorge Ordóñez group of wineries, set Pago de los Abuelos (grandparents), a commendable effort to recover old vineyards in his village, Puente de Domingo Flórez. He started with Barreiros, a plot planted by his paternal grandfather, and followed with many others in the area. All of them are now signposted with the names of the growers who kept them alive. Nacho’s first village wine is an original oak-aged rosé. Grapes are sourced from a steep vineyard with a 45% gradient grown in the hamlet of San Pedro de Trones. In the future he may also release his one hundred year-old Mencía from San Juan de Paluezas as a village wine.
Some 20km north across the Médulas, a historic Roman gold-mining site and stunning natural monument, San Juan de Paluezas stands out because it is one of the few places in Bierzo with limestone soils. It is on the radar of leading names in the area like Raúl Pérez and his nephew César Márquez, who champions the new categories as I reported in this recent article.
Undoubtedly, village wines will help unearth some of the most distinctive, quality-driven areas in the appellation beyond the few names most wine lovers know (Valtuille, Villafranca, Pieros, Corullón…). An interesting example is the river Oza valley, southwest of Ponferrada, where local grower Javier González has partenered with the Michelini i Mufatto family from Argentina. They produce their wines in a small, charming old cellar in Toral de Merayo, near Ponferrada, and make the most of the diversity of soils in the area.
Clay abounds in lower parts but it gives way to slate as altitude increases, often with generous amounts of quartz. The project, appropriately renamed Vinos de Pueblo (Village Wines), includes two reds -Capitán Beto and Mundo Zeppelling- which will be labelled as village wines from Toral de los Vados.
Gerardo Michelini and Andrea Mufatto also make a separate range of wines which will also join the new categories. They will release a village wine (A Merced Vino de Villa de San Lorenzo) and three parajes: Encucijada, from a plot in Valdecañada, El Rapolao (Valtuille de Abajo) and Post-Crucifixión (Santalla del Bierzo).
In contrast with the new classification in Catalonia’s Priorat, which lists 12 villages under the name vi de vila, Bierzo allows to mention on the label both the villages (24 altogether) and their respective hamlets totalling over 200. The number of lieux-dits (more than 1,500) considerably exceeds the 459 established in Priorat. With 37 hamlets and 257 parajes, Ponferrada, the region’s capital, is an extreme example of such complexity.
According to Ricardo Pérez Palacios from Descendientes de J. Palacios, a leading producer in the area and the member of the board who has worked more actively on the classification, the goal is to “expose the region's productive potential and maximise all its possibilities.” That is why all areas where vines were grown in the past were also included. In fact, Pérez Palacios estimates that around 40% of all lieux-dits might not be under vine at present. His piece of advice: “use the new categories to highlight the most special features within each village and each paraje.”
In fact, out of almost 80 wines tasted at the headquarters of the Consejo Regulador last March, almost half of them came from Villafranca del Bierzo, and the vast majority were from Valtuille de Abajo and, to a lesser extent, from Valtuille de Arriba. It makes sense –they are areas with a considerable amount of land under vine and winery concentration. On the other hand, awareness of these "smaller geographical units", as defined by the EU, will depend to a large extent on the reputation and the quality of the wines produced in each of them. There is no doubt that Descendientes de J. Palacios has put Corullón on the map while Raúl Perez has done likewise with Valtuille de Abajo and many of its sites (Villegas, El Rapolao, La Vitoriana...).
Village wines are the next logical step after regional wines to broaden the knowledge of a wine region, however two thirds of what I tasted were parajes. This has a lot to do with the region's small scale farming. For Amancio Fernández, winemaker at Losada Vinos de Finca, this fact "increases the complexity of the indications tenfold" and points out important differences between the land register and the farming land assigned to each village. "In this context, it is easier to make a paraje than a village wine," he adds. Losada’s Las Chas site will be mentioned on their single-vineyard red La Bienquerida and the latest release of Altos de Losada Mencía states that it is a village wine from Valtuille de Arriba, but "without emphasising the geographical unit over the brand,” says Amancio.
You can see the level of detail in some of the maps drawn by the Consejo Regulador on the slider at the top of the page.
Not all wineries have a portfolio that naturally fits into the new categories. Take Peique, for instance, a familiy winery in Valtuille de Abajo (Mar Peique and Luis de Priego are depicted below). After two difficult, short vintages like 2016 and 2017, they have decided to focus on their own grapes to produce wines for ageing and buy the wine they need to produce young reds. Viñedos Viejos, their flagship oak-aged red, is more about the age of the vineyard than a specific site. Hence their plan to create a new range of parajes starting in the 2018 vintage and including Mata Los Pardos or Cova de la Raposa. Fermenting with some stems and ageing the wines in 500-litre barrels helps to emphasise these terroirs. The wines have not been released yet.
Parajes are a natural option for producers with relatively large vineyards in specific areas. This is the case of Luna Beberide’s property in Villafranca del Bierzo where two great value red wines are produced: Finca and Art. Starting in the 2018 vintage, the words Vino de Paraje Valdetruchas appears on both labels. As for Paixar, the red produced with grapes grown in Dragonte (Corullón), it will be labelled as Vino de Paraje La Sierra from the 2019 vintage onwards.
Cantariña, a relatively new project set up by the Ysart siblings, is another good example. They own two vineyards: the stunning Los Pinos, 4.5 ha crossed by The Way of St James in paraje Las Gundiñas and a second one nearby in Valdeobispo and have rented a plot in Corullón to get a taste of the area’s distinctive slate soils. Most of their wines are in fact single vineyards. Grapes for three of them are sourced from Las Gundiñas. Los Pinos is their flagship wine, both in terms of availability and price, and shows the freshness, finesse and floral notes of a north facing slope, Grapes for El Triángulo are sourced from a sun-drenched plot on sand and schist soils, and Cantarina Merenzao (only 300 bottles), likely to be the first wine made from this grape variety in the area. In contrast, Valdeobispo is firmer and likely to develop with time as grapes are sourced from a south facing slope. The sole village wine so far is La Blanca, made from the white grapes grown in the two previous parajes.
Casar de Burbia, a producer who farms 27 ha of organic vines in a higher area nearby, is following the traceability of three single-vineyard wines -Castañal, Nemesio and Tebaida Nº 5- whose grapes are sourced from Valdaiga and Valdepiñeiro. Tebaida Nº5 comes from the most elevated area of Viña Sapita, a plot planted in 1903. Owner Isidro Fernández Bello (below) thinks that Bierzo’s greatest challenge right now is to make old vines profitable.
He confirmed that Casar de Burbia won’t make village wines. Other producers like Estévez and Estefanía share this strategy and are focusing on parajes. In 2018 Estévez made three parajes: Casares, Cova de la Raposa and Villegas, from Valtuille de Abajo. Estefanía had previously used La Florida site as a brand and has now applied for paraje; they also plan to mention the Altos de los Cotos lieu-dit on the label of Pagos de Posada.
One point that became clear during my visit to Bierzo is that these small geographical units are still under construction. Many of the wines I tasted have not yet been released and many producers will begin to work on traceability in the 2020 or 2021 vintages. So far, almost 40 wineries out of the approximately 80 registered in the DO have applied for traceability for either of the two designations, and this figure does not include producers making their wines in rented spaces.
My impression is that the Burgundian approach was well established in the area long before this new classification. In some cases, producers have simply formalised what they had been doing for a long time. A clear example is Akilia, run by winemaker Mario Rovira in San Lorenzo, a hamlet of Ponferrada, where he makes two village wines and three parajes.
At Castro Ventosa, Raúl Pérez's family winery overseen on the day to day by his nephew César Márquez, the new categories have helped to clarify and define a solid, worthy range of fine villa or paraje wines (excepto for Cepas Centenarias). These designations will also be useful to identify specific sites or places which are not usually associated with a particular producer. This is the case of Losada Vinos de Finca, whose vines are predominantly in Valtuille de Arriba but is very proud of its three hectares of old clone Godello in San Lorenzo (Ponferrada) destined to the white Altos de Losada. With its new village wine designation, this information will now be printed on the label.
Wineries with an established market like Dominio de Tares will use these categories to create stronger ties between the wines and their terroir. As winemaker Rafael Somonte told SWL, "our idea is to focus on the place where we are based, Bembibre, in Bierzo Alto, to make fresher wines as befits the elevation of the area and its distinctive mix of grape varieties since Garnacha Tintorera or Alicante Bouschet and Palomino are more abundant here than in Bierzo Bajo." Tares has produced their first village and paraje wines in the 2020 vintage, but it will still take some time for them to reach the market.
We might also see redesigned labels (this is what José Antonio García, an interesting producer from Valtuille de Abajo will do with his excellent Aires de Vendimia), more Burgundy-shaped bottles and attractive packaging presentations that will hopefully help to improve the image of the wines and the region as a whole. With an average vineyard age of 75 years, Bierzo really needs to raise its profile and devote its best vines to its finest wines.
According to Misericordia Bello, president of Bierzo’s Regulatory Board, “the new certification should benefit the entire value chain so that prices rise and growers get a fair price for their grapes.” For the time being, white wines have traded up significatively, as demand for Godello is increasing; they now expect the reds to follow the same trend.
The new categories in Bierzo have drawn the attention of other wine regions. “We are receiving many enquiries and visits; people want to find out how we tackled this extremely complex process,” she adds.
As for wine lovers, the chance to compare wines from the same village or, more interesting perhaps, the same site, is really appelling. Right now, the sites with more wines on the market are all in Valtuille de Abajo. El Rapolao may be number one, mainly thanks to Raúl Pérez, although not all of them are being tracked by the Consejo. I tasted wines from Villegas made by Castroventosa, Demencia and Estévez. Its sandy soils produces gentle, elegant wines that are approachable quite early (just the opposite of those from El Rapolao, which are more elusive and tend to be more reductive). Other parajes to consider are Cova de la Raposa, whose ripe character works if the wines are balanced, or Mata Los Pardos, producing deep reds with ripe tannins. Peique and Castroventosa are working on the latter two, while Estévez is doing the traceability for Cova de la Raposa and Adela Folgueral for Mata Los Pardos.
I found different styles in Corullón, ranging from the sheer elegance of the wines made by Ricardo Pérez at Descendientes de J. Palacios (Moncerbal 2018 is divine) and the fresh Pico Ferreira Paraje Zagalín 2019 of César Márquez to deeper reds that will benefit from some time in bottle like Paixar. José Antonio García’s village wine stood somewhere in between.
One might get the impression that a majority of bodegas have embraced the new categories, but there are notable absences. The most significant is that of Raúl Pérez, who is probably the producer who has fermented more plots and sites separately in the region while encouraging others to follow suit. At present, none of his wines made in the old bodega in Salas de los Barrios (Ponferrada), or those from La Vizcaína, have applied for traceability. I was unable to speak to him, but his team confirmed that the reason behind this decision is the additional paperwork involved in the new designations.
Is it really that arduous? Verónica Ortega, one of the first to mention a paraje on the label (El Garbanzal, one of the few areas with limestone soils in Bierzo where her Cal Godello comes from), says it’s just about the same amount of work for a regular wine, "but you must remember to inform the Consejo the night before the harvest."
The biggest and most cumbersome issue with the new categories, Verónica says, is yield restrictions (20% lower for village wines and 25% for parajes), which means that crop output has to be anticipated. But this, she points out, "is going to have a positive impact on quality because it demands painstaking care in the vineyard to show the character of a particular soil or plot, as opposed to the past, when everything was mixed together".
Other producers with interesting wines who have not requested traceability include Diego Magaña, who makes his wines at La Vizcaína, and Frenchman Gregory Pérez. Pérez has an excellent portfolio of wines made from grapes grown in Espanillo, a hamlet located at over 600 metres elevation between Cacabelos and San Pedro de Olleros. He has also pioneered the launch of the first separate bottlings of Estaladiña (a local grape variety), orange wines and wines aged in tinaja (clay jars).
There are novelties in terms of the new grape varieties authorised in the region. In addition to Garnacha Tintorera, which is finally accepted for varietal wines, Merenzao and Estaladiña are also on the list, as is Pan y Carne ("bread and meat"). I tasted a sample with natural producer Jorge Vega, of Puerta del Viento, who must be the first Spaniard to join Vin Méthode Natural -the French syndicate of natural wine producers which now accepts members from other countries. His first vintage certified as such will be 2020.
Vega added that in the really old vineyards, where Dona Blanca is grown instead of Palomino, one can still find some Pan y Carne vines. He described it as a late ripening variety, prone to dehydration (that is why he grows it facing north) with small berries, "as if it were a red Godello". His first experience in 2020, just 200 litres, was herbal and vibrant.
There is still so much to discover in Bierzo.