Mencía is a Spanish grape varietal primarily found in the north-western part of the country - around the border with Portugal, in a region which includes the districts of Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. Exact up-to-date records are hard to find, but it is thought that there are just over 9100 hectares of vines planted in the region.
Traditionally the wines produced from Mencía have been a light, relatively fragrant style of red wine, ideal for early consumption. This style of wine was the result of post-Phylloxera plantings on richer more fertile plains, which resulted in producing high yields but light styles of wine. In recent years, more concentrated and complex wines have been produced by a new generation of winemakers.
Produced from old vines growing on hillsides, often on schist soils, in combination with careful vineyard management. This has led to a renewed interest in Mencía wines (especially in the UK) and the Denominaciones de Origen using it, such as Bierzo, Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and the little-known Liébana. The renewed interested from winemakers wishing to work with the grape started in the 1990s, and this improved quality of wines has taken a while, but now have a respected place on retail shelves and varied wine-list across Europe.
It was once thought Mencía was an ancient clone of Cabernet Franc, with which it shares some of its varietal aromas, an impression which has been dispelled with DNA profiling. Testing has proved it is a separate varietal, although quite where and who are its parents has yet to be confirmed.
DNA testing has revealed that Mencía is identical to the Portuguese grape varietal called Jaen do Dão (known as Jaen for short) grape varietal, as testing carried out by the Department of Vegetal Biology of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid concluded that Mencía and Jaen are one and the same varietal - and winemakers in Spain and Portugal are permitted to use either name on their bottles.
Mencía is described as a difficult grape in the vineyard, and with a tendency to produce low yields on slopes and high yields on the plains, making it a challenging for growers. It is also susceptible to botrytis and mildew, and can lose its natural acidity if not harvested inside the ideal window of ripeness. Mencía can produce wines with high alcohol and must be kept in check to produce a balanced wine. Oak is used on occasion, but it can overwhelm Mencía’s delicate flavour profile. Some winemakers have been experimenting with carbonic maceration to accentuate the grape lifted fruit characteristics and to reduce any aggressive tannins. Another discover trait to what makes Mencía of interest is that it has shown an ability to age well and displays rich aromas.
Mencía is the primary varietal of the Bierzo region, covering nearly two-thirds of the vineyard area. Grown almost exclusively in north-western part of Spain (especially in the DOs of Galicia, Valdeorras, Monterrei, and Ribeira Sacra). Mencía ripens early and is well suited to the maritime climate of Bierzo where autumn rains are quite common.
Mencía when made well offers fascinating wines across a contrasting spectrum of styles; on the one end; fruit driven and forward wines with supple tannins and succulent fruit. At the other end, more concentrated, powerful styles with a rich earthiness, smooth tannins and an expression of the mineral-rich Bierzo terroir.
Mencía is capable of making excellent wine on its own, with no need to surrender its unique character in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot that are commonplace elsewhere in Spain. So keep an eye out for more single varietal expressions.