Bierzo's first industry was not wine -- it was mining. Romans colonized the area and put slaves to work extracting gold from stones at Las Medulas. This was a serious operation, involving hydraulics and the construction of an artificial lake. Later, mining efforts would focus on coal and iron [source: Parode]. The high mineral content of the Bierzo soil is still important, but today people are benefiting from it via grapevines.
Barbarian tribes -- the Visigoths and the Suevi -- invaded after the Roman Empire fell. The Visigoths apparently mingled less than the later invaders, the Moors; Visigoth language left few traces in Spanish, although Visigoth architecture is still visible in some areas [source: Spanish Fiestas]. Although the emperor Justinian planned to oust the Visigoths, after several centuries the plan was abandoned, and the Visigoths' leader, Recarred, converted to Catholicism [sources: Berschin, Spanish Fiestas].
Religion has always shaped Bierzo. An early abbot, Valerius (or Valerio) of Bierzo, is responsible for much of what we know about the area in the early Middle Ages [source: Berschin]. Valerius also developed an influential educational model that came to dominate rural schools [source: Udaondo].
In the ninth century, the remains of St. James were discovered and then interred at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and Bierzo became a destination for holy pilgrims [source: Parode]. You might recognize it as the destination of Chaucer's pilgrims from Canterbury.
The Compostela pilgrimage reshaped the Bierzo countryside. Cacabelos was a stop along the trail, and the city still commemorates such vagabonds each year [source: Cellar Tours]. Monks cultivated wine to refresh the weary travelers, and more and more monasteries and churches sprang up along the trail. The Knights Templar even took an interest in the pilgrims' safety, constructing the massive castle in Ponferrada [source: Parode]. Tourists today can still duplicate the journey on foot [source: Davies].
In the early 1800s, during the Peninsular War, northern Spain became a battleground for forces beyond its control: the French army, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the English, led by Wellington. After Wellington's overwhelming victory at Vitoria, the retreating French ransacked Bierzo's monasteries and villages. France thereby lost the support of Spain -- a loss that would prove crucial in Napoleon's tumble from power a few years later [source: Jackson].
Despite all this activity, Bierzo remained stubbornly rural. Ponferrada is still the largest city, but its population is only about 65,000 [source: Parode].