Más Besos to Bierzo

My introduction to Bierzo, a relatively new (est. 1989) appellation in northwestern Spain, came through its white wines, made primarily from the Godello and Doña Blanca grapes. But Bierzo’s reds are easier to find in the U.S. and well worth seeking out.

Bierzo reds, like the wines of Ribera Sacra, are based on the Mencía grape—although Bierzo’s wines tend to be fuller and juicier than those of its neighboring DO to the west.

Although Mencía is an ancient grape said to have been brought to Spain from France in the Middle Ages, its vines were decimated in the phylloxera plague of the 1800s. The chance to revive Mencía vineyards along with the challenges of cultivating Bierzo’s steep, rocky terrain—and, no doubt, the lower cost of land here—seem to be attracting talented, ambitious winemakers.

45 - Petalos close-up

A leading house of Bierzo, established in 1999, is Descendientes de José Palacios, producer of an affordable star of the region, Pétalos del Bierzo. (BTW, José was the patriarch of Rioja’s Palacios Remondo winery. His “descendents,” both of whom trained in Bordeaux, are son Alvaro, a top winemaker in Spain’s Priorat appellation—L’Ermita is his signature wine, and grandson Ricardo Pérez.)

Descendientes de J. Palacios’ vineyards are in the town of Corullón, on the western edge of Bierzo, where they cultivate their vines biodynamically. They produce small quantities of several single-vineyard reds priced from approximately $55 to $175.

And then there is Pétalos, an impressive entry-level offering for the price (the 2012 is currently available at Sherry-Lehmann for $19.95). Depending on the vintage, Pétalos tends to range from 95% to 100% Mencía. The 2011 vintage earned a 92 rating from Wine Advocate; the 2009 was ranked #26 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2011.

“I love this wine!” I said aloud as I drank the 2011. It was soft and beautiful but complex on the palate, with notes of dark fruit and flowers.

The Bubbly Debrief

With Bubbly’s biggest night* behind us for another year, I’m pausing to assess the three sparklers—fittingly, all of French origin—we drank over the holidays. Here is the line-up:

44 - Gruet, L'Ermitage, Grande Dame

• Gruet Brut “Champenoise” Gold Label – This New Mexican star held center stage on Christmas Eve, paired with a meal of one fish/two ways (chilled shrimp cocktail followed by garlicky shrimp scampi)—my modest take on the traditional Seven Fishes feast. $16 at Sherry-Lehmann.
• Roederer Estate L’Hermitage Brut 2003 – To accompany an array of cheeses and charcuterie, we started the December 31 festivities with this Anderson Valley, California, offspring of venerable French Champagne house Louis Roederer. Priced around $40-$45, depending on the retailer.
• Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Brut 2004 – Saving the best for last, we popped the cork at midnight on this Veuve Clicquot classic from Champagne’s stellar 2004 vintage. A deal while it’s still in stock at Buy-Rite in Jersey City for $120.

44 - 3 corks

The Gruet family brought their Champagne-making experience with them from France to the New World in the 1980s, after discovering promising, high-altitude, inexpensive terroir around Albuquerque. Like all of their sparkling wines, the Gruet Brut is aged for a minimum of 24 months. Tasting of apple cider, it’s not a complex wine but stands up well with food. At this price point, I’ll have it again—and seek out Gruet’s other sparklers.

L’Ermitage along with L’Ermitage Rosé are the high-end lines of family-owned Roederer Estate, produced only as single-vintage cuvées. The 2003 earned high marks across the board from the usual critics: Wine Enthusiast 96, Wine & Spirits 94, Wine Spectator 93. If you can’t find this vintage, look for the 2005. My first sips were peach-infused, then a hard-candy lemon-drop flavor settled in. The minerality was just right.

44 - Roederer, Grande Dame caps

La Grande Dame was the favorite Champagne of a now-deceased friend and oenophile, but since we’d somehow never tried it, this was the obvious choice for ringing in 2015 when we spotted it in Buy-Rite’s Champagne cabinet. The 2004 is a refined Champagne, with lemon and minerals on the nose and the palate. The initial uprush of bubbles after opening was misleading, as it quickly subsided into a gentle effervescence. Wine Spectator conferred 92 points on this beauty.

These three wines span a range of price points, from everyday to special-occasion, and I can recommend landing on each one of them. Cheers!

*While New Year’s Eve is unlikely to be dethroned from its perch as the time of maximum sparkling-wine consumption, why not resolve in 2015 to drink more of it more often?