Bierzo in the Crossroads
The Bierzo wine region lies in an area of crossroads in the confluence of the departments of Castilla y León, Asturias to the north and Galicia to the west. Situated in the northwestern part of Castilla y León, Bierzo is defined by climatic, cultural, and geological intersections and transitions. This relatively young appellation was conceived in 1989, yet it boasts one of the richest viticultural traditions in Iberia due to the existence of the Las Médulas gold mines near Ponferrada, one of the most important gold mines in the Roman Empire. Ponferrada is still a mining capital for iron ore. In the Middle Ages, Cistercian monks refined viticulture, bringing pilgrims and technology from France while Bierzo became an essential red wine provider to the neighboring regions of Galicia and Asturias. The area was kept alive by the tourist traffic along the Camino de Santiago, with the aid of monasteries and churches in the surrounding area.
While boasting an impressive history and some of the oldest vines in Europe, Bierzo, like much of rural Spain, is a remote agricultural region which became known from the 1960’s onward for simple, cheap red wines from their cooperative. In fact, uninspired “labels” from the cooperative continue to show up in the American market, further promoting a mediocre image of an otherwise fascinating viticultural region. These marketing wines are easy to drink and tailor-made for the bulk market, yet few inspire the kind of soul-affirming, cult-like admiration usually reserved for more ambitious wine regions. The bulk market certainly does nothing to elevate the prospects of the growers in the villages.
Sometimes called “the Switzerland of León” for its unique microclimate boasting meadows of walnut and chestnut trees, mountain passes with trout-filled streams and a great variety of herbs and wildflowers, it is indeed a world away from the plains of Castilla. Vineyard plots here are tiny, with the average parcel of vines being less than 1ha in the hands of almost 2,200 growers and 75 wineries, currently. Like the wines of the Northern Rhône and Beaujolais in the aughts, Bierzo is being rebuilt and reimagined by a new generation of growers. Utilizing an understanding of the region’s potential and the courage and vision, they forge a new, world-class identity for their wines from native grapes: mencía, godello, and doña blanca as well as palomino and garnacha tintorera.
Fresh Winds in Bierzo
With the 2017 vintage comes a newly approved Bierzo D.O. classification which is the most ambitious in all of Spain (along with Priorat), bringing Bierzo in line with other world-class wine regions. A new Burgundy-inspired, multi-tiered classification system includes designations for regional wines: Vino de la Región and village wines: Vino de Villa. Vino de Paraje, single-parcel wines are similar to Burgundy’s lieu-dit, are followed by two top tiers. Vino de Viña Clasificada are single-vineyard wines with a five-year track record, and finally Gran Vino de Viña Clasificada are single-vineyard wines with a ten-year track record.
According to E.U. regulations, wines may be linked to their place of origin if 85% of the grapes originate there. The new classification in Bierzo goes even further and demands 100% of the grapes’ origin be within the (expanded) appellation boundaries, making Bierzo a leader in Spain as well as internationally for authenticity and traceability.
G²: Deep Roots
Jose Antonio García and his wife Julia Peña García (together they are G²) are at the forefront of this change and the next-generation of vignerons in Bierzo. Their familial roots in Bierzo are fundamental to them, as they do all of the work in the vineyards. Jose’s mother is a native of Valtuille de Abajo, and his father is a native of Corullón. Together their families have owned vineyards in Bierzo for generations, providing wines that would become the backbone of other famous blends, but never bottling for themselves.
Like many families who left the countryside for better opportunities in the cities, Jose spent his formative years in Barcelona where he worked in restaurants and gained valuable perspective and experience with fine wine. In 2009 Jose returned to recuperate his family's vineyard holdings in the tiny village of Valtuille de Abajo, which is also home to his friend and former mentor Raúl Pérez, where Jose made wine following enology school. Historically, parts of the García family's production was once destined for their neighbor’s Ultreia St. Jacques blend. Jose’s first commercial vintage of his Unculín Tinto Mencía de Valtuille was in 2011, after two vintages of perfecting his expression.
"I came back finally in 2009, but since my earliest memories, I always felt connected with Valtuille because my mother always talked about Valtuille all of the time and we would travel there while growing up to visit our family."
In the spirit of elevating their family holdings and with an inexhaustible work ethic, Jose and Julia set out recuperating historic vineyards by hand, recovering them one by one from the stranglehold of wild ivy. A monumental work, considering the 22ha they own and the fact that they are doing all of the work themselves. In the same way, working out of a tiny, crumbling building hundreds of years old in Valtuille de Abajo, Jose and Julia have brought the structure back to life by hand, stone by stone, building new walls and a new future from the rubble of previous generations. Renewal and rebirth are themes which run deep throughout the very soul of these wines. Jose shares the same spirit and sensibility as vignerons like Alain Graillot, who revived the once-maligned Crozes-Hermitage appellation and with whom Jose has collaborated.
Unafraid to innovate and push the envelope, Jose is also exploring naturally occurring flor wines in his Aires de Vendimia line, spontaneous whole cluster fermentations as well as many other traditional methods. He performs all the work in the vineyard and winery manually, with minimal intervention and input. Jose is a proponent of organic viticulture (notably they use the plentiful bounty of local walnut shells as fertilizer in the vineyard) and he is also an avid user of natural, indigenous yeasts for his fermentations. Quality, excellence, and soul are always the target, and the resulting wines are delicious, exciting, and speak for themselves.
In Valtuille de Abajo, equally crucial to the quality and resulting complexity and liveliness of his wines is the genetic heritage of his ancient vines of mencía, godello, and doña blanca. With his 22ha of native vines planted mostly before the industrialization of Spanish wine (some vines in Valtuille being more than 200 years old), his vineyards provide an unspoiled genetic window to another era before modern clones were selected for higher yields. It’s one thing to produce your wines naturally, it’s whole other thing to produce naturally-made wine from these vineyards.
Tasters often remark that his genre-defining El Chuqueiro Godello de Valtuille tastes nothing like most other modern versions of Godello on the market. This is true, as it has much more soul and depth than the average offering. Something reminds you of great Chardonnay from Chablis or the Jura. The answers lie in the exceptional provenance of his vines, his indigenous fermentations, miniscule yields and hands-off winemaking. The El Chuqueiro vineyard in Valtuille continually produces some of the region’s most distinctive white wines. Bierzo was off the beaten path and forgotten when other areas were replanting to more productive, higher-yielding clones in the 80’s and 90’s.
In addition to his vineyards in Valtuille de Abajo which are primarily mixed alluvial and clay soils with a wide variety of stones, Jose is also working single vineyards with slate and quartz soils in the crus of Moncerbal and La Tias (also known as La Faraona by Descendientes de Palacios) in the Corullón village at 800 meters elevation. La Tias is an excellent vineyard in the transition zone between the province of Lugo and Castilla y León, connecting Bierzo to Valdeorras and the Val do Bibei in Ribeira Sacra. As such, it receives the most Atlantic influence of the villages. Here we find another link to Galicia in the terroir of this village. Another recently recovered Vino de Paraje vineyard in Corullón called San Martín is already yielding exciting, promising wine.
In 2019 we are excited to release the first single cru wines from these vineyards as well as Jose’s wines based on the Prieto Picudo grape from his vineyards in León. Now is indeed an exhilarating time to be working in northwest Spain. Stay tuned!
Introducing: Unculín Blanco 2016
We are thrilled this year to be able to offer the debut vintage of a fresh, new white wine from Jose’s cellar based on the doña blanca grape (with some godello) from his organically-grown, single vineyard called Hundiñias in the center of Valtuille de Abajo; planted with 60 to 100-year-old traditional bush vines at 600m.
With an ancient genetic ancestry, this vineyard is known by elders in Bierzo for producing some of the best white wines of the region. A field blend of 70% doña blanca and 30% godello grapes are handpicked, undergoing a spontaneous fermentation by natural, indigenous yeast in stainless steel and followed by eight months on the lees in stainless steel, with minimal intervention.
Tasting note A complex, mineral nose of aromatic citrus, spring flowers, and a herbal balsamic note. Round and lengthy on the palate, this vineyard shows exceptional depth with a lengthy, refreshing finish. Reminiscent of classic Chablis, Unculín Blanco offers both satisfying fruit and chalky minerality in one enchanting package.
Unculín Tinto Mencía de Valtuille 2016
Available in both 750ml and our favorite format, the magnum, Unculín is a fresh, vin de soif style Bierzo which offers an antidote to over-blown, internationally-styled wines previously made in the region. Jose’s mineral Unculín echoes the forgotten traditions of the Bierzo region while pushing the envelope. Fans of Cru Beaujolais, take note!
Unculín comes from Jose’s organically-grown, family-owned vineyards in the village of Valtuille de Abajo; planted with 60 to 100-year-old traditional mencía bush vines from an ancient genetic ancestry. Some of these vines are more than 200 years old. Grapes are hand-picked, leaving stems on 30% of the bunches. Unculín undergoes a spontaneous fermentation by natural, indigenous yeast in large, neutral, French foudres with a 20-day maceration post-fermentation. Four months of aging on the fine-lees and malolactic fermentation in stainless steel without topping up. Bottled unfined and unfiltered with minimal intervention.
Tasting note Balsamic dark raspberries and black pepper on the nose. The 2016 vintage shows fresh herbs, with a crunchy structure and grippy tannins. Bright acidity and electricity run throughout this vintage. This wine is a perfect pairing with grilled lamb shank or Iberico pork secreto
El Chuqueiro Godello de Valtuille 2015
Godello sourced from the single paraje El Chuqueiro vineyard near the village of Valtuille de Abajo at 600m from 60-80-year-old vines. Vinification is by spontaneous natural yeast fermentation with 35% destemmed grapes and no malolactic fermentation. 6 months aging on fine lees in stainless steel tanks.
El Chuqueiro is a wild, complex wine, broad and structured, saline and herbal. A vivacious and textural wine with an impressively long finish. Tasters often remark that El Chuqueiro Godello de Valtuille tastes nothing like most other modern versions of Godello on the market. This observation is true, as it has much more soul and depth than the average offering. The El Chuqueiro vineyard in Valtuille continually produces some of the region’s most distinctive, exciting white wines.
Aires de Vendimia Godello Centenario de Valtuille 2014
When we are lucky, we receive a handful of cases of what many have called the holy grail of godello. In exceptional vintages when all of the elements align, Jose selects a field blend of his oldest centennial vines of godello (around 90%) and doña blanca (usually 10%) This single-vineyard wine is sourced from the oldest vines within the El Chuqueiro vineyard in Valtuille de Abajo.
Vinification is strictly non-interventionist with no-input. After hand crushing, the wine is left in 8-year-old used 500L French oak barrels to slowly barrel-fermented with indigenous yeasts, and the barrels are not topped off, allowing for the growth of flor when the conditions are right. Following fermentation, the wine is aged biologically under flor for 15 months in the same vessel and then bottle aged for at least 9 months before release.
Best enjoyed at cellar temperature at the end of the meal with strong, raw milk cheese, Aires de Vendimia Godello Centenario de Valtuille is a rich, transporting, psychedelic wine bridging the metaphysical gap between the Vin Jaune of the Jura and godello’s Celtic roots. This is a true Grand Cru wine realizing the potential of the godello grape.
Aires de Vendimia Godello Centenario de Valtuille 2016 will be released in fall 2018.
Aires de Vendimia Mencía de Valtuille 2016
Currently sold-out, the Aires de Vendimia Mencía de Valtuille has traditionally been an assemblage from some of the best old-vines parcels of the estate, representing the best that Jose can do each vintage, released in tiny quantities. 50% destemmed, fermentation is with indigenous yeast in 8-year-old open-top French barrels for 30 days with manual punch-downs twice a day. The wine is aged without topping up for 11 months on the fine lees and a further 9 months in bottle before release.
This wine has quickly become a reference point for mencía, and the Aires de Vendimia line in future will be released as Vino de Paraje, vineyard-specific wines.
Aires de Vendimia Mencía de Valtuille 2016 will be released in fall 2018.