Godello & Mencía in Northwest Spain

Godello & Mencía in Northwest Spain

Though Spain is one of the largest wine producers in the world, industry-wide acceptance of its fine wines has taken an exceedingly long time to establish.

It was just 20 years ago that “big” had grown in dominance to be the defining style in wines. While lean, crisp wines never went away, they became mostly relegated to poolside quaffing, and dislodging this concept proved difficult. It made Spain’s Galicia a hard sell, given that this cooler, wetter region on the Iberian Peninsula is prone to making light, high-acid wines.

Yet Galicia wasn’t content to stay in the shadows. Albariño was the first of the region’s grapes to get its foot in the door of the mainstream wine market during the mid-1990s. Its success might have been due many Albariño wines suddenly getting leaner and no longer hiding behind cellar processes that led to the overall “bigness” that Spain was known for at the time. Winemakers in Rías Baixas (where the variety is 90% of production) backed off from using their old chestnut barrels and instead opted for sharper, acidity-driven wines that focused on the orchard fruit foundation with bitter saline trim that’s come to define the variety. As we’ve seen in the years since, this rethink got Albariño recognized and namechecked by wine drinkers, and it brought eyes to other corners of Galicia that had been forgotten—or, if remembered, often dismissed.

However, Galicia is not only Albariño, and the region doesn’t lack for a palette of grapes that it can call its own above and beyond this most well-known variety. For anyone wanting to make a white wine, there are (among others) Dona Branca, Treixadura, Caíño Blanco, and Loureira. The reds include Merenzao, Caíño Tinto, Sousón, Brancellao, Mouratón, and Espadeiro.

These varieties are found in various blends and even have their diehard proponents. But there are an additional two that have risen to the top of the slope, giving Albariño a challenge for its market dominance: the white Godello and the red Mencía. While they could be grown in other regions in Spain or even further abroad, about the only places they are found in any quantity are the neighboring northern bits of Portugal. Ampelographers agree that despite this appearance in Spain’s Iberian neighbor, they’re most likely both native to Galicia or the Galicia-adjacent region of Bierzo in Castilla y León.

The renewal of these two varieties that started some 20 years ago has now reached heights of excellence, making it crucial to take a deeper look at the wines we find today.

Coming to Grips with Godello

Five years ago, I wrote that Godello was “at a crossroads in terms of its definition.” What I meant was that in trying to whittle down an exact idea of what Godello is or should be, we find ourselves on exceedingly shifting grounds. Today, that crossroads has been passed. The undefined definition of Godello has, in fact, become one of its primary characteristics, as it can be fresh, linear, and fruity, all the way up to holding serious body with long aging potential.

I find it best to liken Godello to—depending upon your generational bracket—the music of St. Vincent or David Bowie. Much like these two musicians who have reinvented their sound with each album, Godello too is reinvented and reinterpreted by those who work with it. And like the Vincent-Bowie conundrum, you may not love every wine produced by Godello, but there’s always a core component that makes you come back for more and see what the new releases have brought.

One of the key producers of Godello and a name many people know is Rafael Palacios. He’s one of the brothers of Spanish wine legend Álvaro Palacios, and he arrived in 2004 to the Valdeorras region. Rafael Palacios quickly set about buying vineyards near his base in the subzone of Val do Bibei, with Godello as his calling card.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, however, and Palacios was building upon the work done by Bodegas Godeval. Its REVIVAL project (REstructuring of the VIneyards of VALdeorras) started recuperating and promoting the Godello variety back in the 1970s. Were it not for the work of Godeval, Palacios, and, later, Telmo Rodríguez, we’d most likely not see the wines in the state we do today. Before these efforts, Godello, like many Spanish native varieties, was near extinction. This was due in part to hectares of all vineyards decreasing in Spain once it entered the European Union (largely due to vine-pull schemes), but also because it wasn’t a popular variety, such as Albariño, and it was in an unknown region that was still working to rebuild itself in the modern era.

Godello’s renaissance has been impressive, as it’s now the defining grape for Valdeorras. In the 2020 harvest, which totaled 5.5 million kilograms, Godello made up 3.5 million, or 64% of the region’s production. Not bad for a grape that was clearly on the outs.

In neighboring DO Ribeira Sacra, the plantings have doubled in the last decade from about 250 hectares in 2008 to nearly 500 hectares. This is despite the fact that Godello is rarely seen in Ribeira Sacra in varietal form, as it’s more often blended. Even in DO Bierzo, where 77% of the vineyards are planted to red varieties, Godello is the leading white, with 4% of total plantings. And even in the admittedly lesser-known DO Monterrei, Godello leads with 46% of total production.

A Taste of Godello

Growth is great, but with the aforementioned shiftiness among Godello’s defining traits, how does one actually approach the grape? And given the decades-long track record of Albariño, is it possible to talk about Godello as Galicia’s vanguard variety?

For the UK market, MW Lenka Sedláčková of Bancroft Wines has years of experience in Spanish wines and knows exactly where each variety can fit. “I think it’s easy to suggest Albariño as an aperitif wine whilst Godello is the one you enjoy with a meal,” she says.

Sedláčková‘s reasoning is based upon a key aspect that‘s consistent in Godello: no matter how it‘s made, the variety carries a great deal of texture that’s braced by structure and balanced, but it doesn’t have exceedingly high acidity. In typical pairing considerations, you’d want a Godello wine to be in a place where it can stand on its own, as it will usually be fuller bodied.

I admit with some degree of pride that in a blind tasting competition, I once mistook Rafael Palacios’s Louro, which is nearly 100% Godello, as Chablis Premier Cru. That’s certainly not the worst of associations to make, and it shows how different Godello can be from the other white varieties of Galicia. My misguided call was partly due to the wine being from a concentrated year. But Godello is quite commonly produced in a reductive fashion, barrel fermented, and graced with high acidity. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the 12 grams per liter one used to find in Albariño before Rías Baixas dialed down the screech factor, in Godello you find upward of 6 or even beyond 7 grams per liter—all right in line with Chardonnay.

Godello’s Looming Midlife Crisis?

The marker of success for any grape variety is when it reaches that point where most any wine drinker knows it by name—but that can be a double-edged sword when lesser wines start popping up. See Merlot circa 2004 and the movie Sideways, Syrah during the height of Australian Shiraz around the turn of the millennium, or the Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) movement.

By any measure, Godello should be identified as the signature variety of DO Valdeorras, but it can also be found in lesser amounts in the DOs of Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo, and Monterrei. If looking for varietal versions like those of Valdeorras, however, the only examples of note are from Bierzo, made by the likes of Bodega Almaz, Verónica Ortega, Dominio de Tares, César Márquez, and a handful of others.

Sedláčková says, “I think Godello is now firmly recognized as Spain’s most interesting white variety.” This shows that people, at least in the wine trade, definitely regard it as Spanish, but do they regard it as Galician? And even more to the point, do they know Valdeorras to be the source of most wines made from Godello?

Eva Llorente is the co-owner of Viña Somoza in Valdeorras and a passionate defender of both the variety and its suitability to Valdeorras, but she is very aware of the issues of recognition among consumers. “People will tell me that they love Godello but admit they’ve only found it recently,” she comments. “So we can see that there’s a lot of potential growth for us in the future. . . . The general public may not yet know Valdeorras, but we’ve had a lot of excellent enologists come through here and start projects due to the quality of the region for this variety.”

This is where it starts to get tricky for Godello: its popularity has made for growing pains. One of the first has been the increasing prices of grapes, which can now fetch upward of €2 per kilogram in Valdeorras. That’s on the high end for Spain, where many regions are at an unsustainable €0.20 per kilogram. Even in an established region like DO Cava, the price of grapes has only reached €0.33 per kilogram.

Those “good value” wines of Spain’s past can’t be produced at this price for the grapes, which perhaps isn’t the worst thing. This rise in prices, along with massive frost damage in 2017, ultimately stopped Rafael Palacios from making his introductory wine, Bolo, which he had been producing mostly from purchased fruit. Instead, he’s now focused on his estate wines, and as critics’ scores indicate, the quality just keeps going up.

Álvaro Ribalta Millán, the newest Spanish MW, works for Indigo Wines in the UK. He echoes Llorente’s sentiment in seeing branding issues looming, noting, “The variety is probably more recognized than the region of Valdeorras. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to say or remember, but I’m not sure. The wine trade knows where it’s from, but the general public is a bit blind to it.”

Due to the grape’s rising profile, other wine producers in Spain are starting to plant new Godello vineyards. Ribalta adds, “In Spain, Godello is slowly becoming the new Verdejo. Plantings are growing at a rapid rate, and it seems to be quite popular everywhere in the country. In the UK, it’s not as huge at the moment, with just a few key players, but there is growth.”

Eric Solomon of European Wine Cellars, which imports Rafael Palacios into the US, expands on this issue, explaining, “The wine-geek crowd who are information savvy talk a great deal about Godello. With Rafael’s work, there’s a consumer love for the wine, but what they love is the brand, and the variety isn’t registering. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anyone walk up to a bar and ask for a glass of Godello.” He continues, “Consumers simply love Godello at tastings, but both it and Mencía need to arrive to more of the middle-American market and grow beyond their current fan base of those who love anything Spanish.”

Mencía’s Ascent

Mencía is best known for the wines it produces in DO Ribeira Sacra; to some extent in DO Valdeorras, where it’s usually blended with Alicante Bouschet (Garnacha Tintorera); and most impressively, in DO Bierzo, where it’s the most planted grape by a long way.

While the variety has made waves in recent years, it isn’t without its detractors. One well-known winemaker who crafts exceptional wines from Garnacha in a different part of Spain once told me, “I don’t think Mencía can make fine wine.”

There’s definitely a basis for such a prejudice against the grape due to its inherent transparency; it will sing in great vintages and grumble in the tough ones. If you’ve had the displeasure of trying the latter, you know exactly how this can be, as the resulting wines can be tough, reductive, and funky—but not in the good way. Mencía is still climbing the hill that it seems Garnacha conquered a short while ago, but there are those who have found great success with the variety and are pushing others toward the same.

A Homebody Variety

Discernible links to other grapes via DNA analysis have failed to lift the curtain of Mencía’s parentage. It has, however, been disproven that Mencía was descended from Cabernet Franc, now thought to have originated in the Basque Country, or Graciano from Rioja. The former was quite important to establish, as many have compared the profile of Mencía, particularly wines from Ribeira Sacra, to Cabernet Franc. There may be some nugget of relatability to this, but people who know the wines of the Loire have said they have trouble seeing the direct comparison. Solomon, for example, comments, “I’ve been importing wines from the Loire Valley for decades, and I can’t say that I really see a parallel between Mencía and Cabernet Franc.”

Mencía’s main cultivation areas all reside along the Camino de Santiago, and while that’s worked to help spread the variety across Galicia and into a little bit of Portugal, it’s not done anything to spread it further away in Spain. It’s as if it seemingly arose spontaneously, adapted perfectly to the curious weather of the region, and has been in use ever since. Or it could just be, as acclaimed winemaker and winery owner Raúl Pérez of Bierzo says, “There aren’t actually a lot of places that can cultivate it very well.”

Of course, Pérez is talking about regions primarily in Spain and Portgual, as there have been those attempting to work with the variety further afield, such as Analemma in the Columbia Gorge. But international plantings of the variety haven’t reached terribly far beyond Galicia where, explains Pérez, “The variety has adapted exceedingly well to our half-Atlantic, half-Mediterranean climate.”

A Window into the Soil

Like many grape varieties, Mencía can yield high volumes if that’s the only goal, with industrial production methods reaching 15,000 kilograms per hectare. To keep this in check, the DO Bierzo had originally set a limit of 11,000 kilograms per hectare. Even this was too much, however, and after a massive overhaul of the region’s regulatory laws, it will be dropping the limit to 9,000 kilograms per hectare. This is now under DO Ribeira Sacra’s requirements, at 9,500, but both DO Valdeorras and DO Monterrei are still a bit higher at 10,000 kilograms per hectare.

Ricardo P. Palacios of Descendientes de J. Palacios says, “A younger, fruitier wine is maybe around 6,000 to 8,000 kilograms per hectare, but we had to bring down the yields at a regional level, because . . . you just lose all essence of the variety at those harvest yields.”

This “essence” is key, as the most oft-repeated word when describing Mencía is transparent. Tougher vintages showing a bit too easily is the downside of this, but at the same time, this quality allows for sense of place, or terroir, to shimmer in all its brilliance.

Wines from the regions of Galicia such as Ribeira Sacra or Valdeorras will often have a misty, ethereal quality to them. Those from the border with Galicia, such as in Bierzo, will speak to something different, a more robust and structured quality due to the slatey soils found there. This is found especially in the village of Corullón, where J. Palacios is based and sources its top-end wines. But Bierzo’s soils are highly variable, and other wines offer a lighter profile from more granitic soils and crumbly slate, such as Silvia Marrao’s Banzao wines from the higher-altitude village of San Pedro de Olleros.

Mencía is curious, as understanding it is less about the variety and more about comprehending the vineyard in a holistic sense. Given its innate, transparent nature, it works exceptionally well for those creating single-vineyard wines, and it might even be one of the ultimate single-vineyard varieties, at least in Spain.

A perfect example of this is two wines from cult producer Envínate called Seoane and Camiño Novo. Both are varietally Mencía; they are produced from vines of nearly the same age, planted on the same generally slatey soil in the Amandi subzone in Ribeira Sacra; and they even have the same alcohol level. Yet they could easily be mistaken for two wines of different regions and varieties. The Seoane is more structured and open, whereas the Camiño Novo is softer, delicate, gentler, and perfumed.

Fresh without Freshness

Mencía went through an adolescent beefcake period where it became de facto to amplify everything about the variety and then boost it with aggressive oak regimens. This has thankfully receded. Like the variety’s transparency in showing its point of origin, Raúl Pérez says, “it really picks up what you do in the cellar.”

Harvesting at the exact right moment is still key, though. Bierzo winemaker and winery owner Verónica Ortega says, “Normally you have three days to harvest it at the maturity point you’re looking for. Given its ability to gain sugar and the low level of acidity, making it overripe and heavy or then too thin is a very real problem.” A variety for parachuting winemaking projects, Mencía is not.

This key point of just-enough-without-too-much is crucial to making Mencía come out its best and keep this sensation of freshness, which is actually something of an illusion. Medium-plus will often appear in tasting notes when rating acidity levels of Mencía, and it’s quite understandable. When doing large regional tastings, I’ve found myself prone to this as well, but something would nag at me as I kept thinking, “Am I off, or is the acidity actually not that high in these wines?”

It turns out it’s the latter, and every producer I’ve talked to about the variety emphasized this point. The lack of acidity leads to different profiles, however. In Bierzo, where there are a lot of slate soils, the wines get more muscular in body. Drifting toward Ribeira Sacra, the wines are lighter, greener, and more aromatic, with Valdeorras somewhere in between depending upon how the variety is worked.

A Question of Tastes

This essence of freshness as well as “non-volume” found in Mencía has potentially made its embrace lag a bit when comparing the American market to the British. Several people in the US remarked that there’s been uptake, but mainly in the so-called wine curious markets often found in big cities or on the coasts.

In the UK, it’s a different story, as Álvaro Ribalta explains. “Mencía has gotten quite big in the UK and is really taking off. Pérez’s early success has been expanded upon by J. Palacios and others.”

The growth in the UK is perhaps due to wines from regions such as Bierzo holding a similar appeal as Cru Beaujolais, of which there can be quite a resemblance. Others compare it to a blend of Syrah, which is something that Lenka Sedláčková picks up on. She comments, “I think of Mencía as a child of Syrah and Cabernet Franc, but it really depends on the region and the winemaker. It can be hauntingly beautiful and really show the wild flowers and wild herbs (thyme, lavender) that grow in these regions, sometimes with a rosy perfume.”

Wines with Purpose

The slopes of Ribeira Sacra are stunning but require an onerous amount of energy to work. Even Bierzo, with its flatter vineyards, isn’t immune to problems in holding onto viticulturists, and the region lost 2,000 hectares of vineyards in the last two decades. Thankfully, the arrival of people starting new projects seems to be stabilizing the loss of old vines.

More importantly, it appears that the market for the wines has been steadily growing over the last decade. While the local markets of Galicia and upper Castilla y León have been strong, and the greater Spanish market has taken well to Godello, there’s been a slower uptake for Mencía. In much of the Spanish market, the big-is-better perception persists, with people all over the country more often than not opting for wines from Rioja or Ribera del Duero. Thus, many producers are relying on the outside markets, especially in the US, for wines made from Godello and Mencía.

Eric Solomon has seen countless trends pass during his many years of importing wines into the US and has probably the best insight in regards to these two varieties in the current markets. “New winemakers going to the backwaters across Spain, an embrace of local varieties, and the momentum of small production projects being directed away from large blends,” he says, “[have] me convinced that even after three decades in this business, when it comes to Spain, the best is yet to come.”