What do a saint from Spain who lived in the third century AD, Burgundy, France, January 22, and the Bierzo wine region in Spain have in common? Heavenly wine. St. Vincent of Saragossa is the patron saint of wine growers and every year, for the last 70 years, a selected village in Burgundy hosts a wine and food extravaganza called Tournante de St.-Vincent. It’s held the weekend after St. Vincent’s feast day, which is January 22, and despite geographic and varietal differences between Bierzo and Burgundy, the mencia grape from Bierzo could be a long-lost sibling to Burgundy’s pinot noir.
Situated along the Camino de Santiago (the Pilgrim’s Route of Saint James to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela), the Bierzo region is a relatively unknown region in the Castilla y León region along the border with Galicia. This tiny corner of northwestern Spain is where the mencia grape has reached new heights, due in large part to trailblazing winemaker Alvaro Palacios and his cousin, Ricardo Perez. As younger members of the Palacios family in Rioja, they helped lead the resurrection of this ancient and forgotten grape and wine region.
Back in the 1990s, both men combed Spain in search of new vineyards and it was near the village of Corullón that they came upon grown-over, abandoned vineyard plots planted with a grape eventually identified as mencia. Cosseted along precipitous, steep hills with poor soils, Palacios’ old vines (between 50 and 90 years old) lie in 210 parcels of slate terroir. Genetically linked to cabernet franc, it’s believed the mencia grape was introduced to the area by medieval French pilgrims making the trek to Santiago de Compostela, mencia, despite poor soil, does well in these mountainous vineyards. Thanks to bio-dynamic cultivation by hand and horse, each plot produces breathtaking wine that has helped put Bierzo and the mencia grape on the map.
Summer Whitford is the D.C. Editor at The Daily Meal and also writes about food, drink, and travel. Follow her on Twitter @FoodandWineDiva, on Instagram at thefoodandwinediva, and read more of her stories here.