Bierzo was one of the favorite wines of Andrés, my father-in-law. Bierzo is a D.O. in western León, in the north of Spain, very near his native Galicia. The wines of Bierzo are usually made with the mencía grape.
Although there are now some fine Bierzos out there--the wine writer Oz Clarke praises them, and Ana has them in nice restaurants when she's in Galicia--most are young reds. They are not too sophisticated, but Andrés loved them, and Ana and I do too.
What makes the wines of Bierzo exceptional is that they go so well with rich, strongly-flavored foods (grilled sardines or sausages) or slightly acidic foods (tomato sauces, all sorts of salads) that just don't pair well with most wines.
A Bierzo is perfect for many of the hearty vegetarian and vegan dishes I write about here at Simple Spanish Food. If you're looking for the right wine to accompany vegetarian caldo gallego or a cocido of chickpeas, spinach and mushrooms or alubias estofadas, look no further than Bierzo. It compliments the smoky, spicy pimentón in all of these dishes.
Andrés loved Bierzo with pulpo a la gallega--Galician-style octopus, a strongly flavored dish dressed with fruity olive oil, raw minced garlic, coarse salt, and lots of pimentón. Bierzo also goes well with homey dishes like salt cod in tomato sauce. If I were grilling pork ribs and sausage, I would not hesitate to serve them with a Bierzo.
What makes a Bierzo perfect with food normally so difficult to pair with wine is its "brightness"--a slight acidity--and, oftentimes, an unsual body, which can be thick yet light, as though it wants to bubble. (Some reds in neighboring Galicia, such as the local red ribeiros, also often made with the mencía grape, are slightly effervescent, and good with similar foods for the same reasons.)
In short, young (and relatively inexpensive) Bierzos retain the characteristics of their simple country-wine roots, so it's not surprising that they go so well with simple, country Spanish food. These same qualities make most Bierzos unsuitable for drinking on their own: the wines of Bierzo are made for food. If you want a glass of something to sip while watching a movie, don't choose a Bierzo.
Are these young Bierzos delicate and nuanced? No. They are not meant to be. At the same time I find them much more exciting than the Yeclas and Jumillas produced farther south--wines I find much more often in wine shops here in the U.S. Though growing in popularity, Bierzos are still not all that common. If you see one, it's usually well worth a try.
Bierzo also produces some nice, light, minerally whites--even more difficult to find. These will be the subject of a future post.