(An abridged version of this article first appeared in Wine News, March-April, 2007.)
Mountainous terrain, denuded of vegetation by widespread fires of suspicious nature that have plagued Galicia for the past several summers, surrounds the town. On a high promontory outside of town, with spectacular views overlooking Verín, the vineyards and the sweeping Val de Monterrei, sits the striking Acrópolis de Verín, a complex that includes the 15th-century Castillo de Monterrei, a Renaissance palace and the medieval Gothic Santa María church. A few hundred yards away, on the opposite promontory with superb views is the rustic former Jesuit convent that is now the comfortable Parador de Turismo, the hotel where I make base while touring the region’s vineyards.
Galicia's Ribeiro & Sanclodio, The Wine of Spanish Art Film Maker José Luís Cuerda
Great Red Wine Hope from Ribeira Sacra
Ribeira Sacra, “Vinos del Cielo” (The Wines of Heaven) reads a sign overlooking a heaven’s view of perhaps the most strikingly dramatic and stunningly beautiful wine region in the world (from a writer fresh off a trip to Portugal’s Douro River Valley, this is not hyperbole). The Ribeira Sacra Vinos del Cielo sign is also a tie-in to the origin of the region’s name, which comes from the profusion of ancient sacred (sacra) monasteries and churches in this region. Some are more than a thousand years old and several are Romanesque churches founded in the 12th and 13th centuries by Burgundian Cisterican monks, who were the “Johnny Grapevines” (instead of Appleseeds) of their epoch. They established vineyards all around France, Spain, and Germany, many of which are still the basis for some of the world’s most famous wines (Clos de Vougeout, Beaumes de Venise and Vega Sicilia to name a few).
“Heavenly” Riberia Sacra is the land of mencía par excellence, but two other preferred minority varieties, brancellao and merenzao; some beefy garnacha tintorera; two other obscure red grapes; and a sextet of Galician white varieties, the most promising of which is the superb godello, are all grown here. Ribeira Sacra, a snake-shaped denominación de origen with 3,000 acres terraced along the spectacular slate-strewn hillsides of the dammed-up Miño (flowing north-to-south) and Sil (flowing east-to-west) river valleys. Ribeira Sacra is shared by the Galician provinces of Lugo in the north and Orense in the south and divided into five subzones: northernmost Chantada and Ribeiras do Miño along the Miño, Amandi and Quiroga-Bibei along the Sil (all four in Lugo province) and Ribieras do Sil (along the Orense portion of the Sil).
More than five years ago, I began visiting Ribeira Sacra, still practically unknown in this country. I found single row terraces of old vines mencía (with some garnacha tintorera and the white grapes, albariño and godello), growing on incredibly steep slate hillsides first planted by the Romans that plunge precipitously down to the dammed-up Sil and Minho rivers, making for some of the most spectacularly beautiful vineyards in the world (surpassing even the beauty of the Douro and Germany’s Moselle wine growing regions). These vineyards are so steep that steel railings have been placed at strategic points to allow the grapes to be hauled up and some, like a Cividade, are so precipitously steep and isolated that they can only be reached by boats, on which the grapes are placed during harvest to transport to the winery.
On that first visit, I was immediately awestruck by the region’s magical landscape and after a number of tastings and a few dozen bottles that I drank during meals in Galicia, I found some of the same promising black ruby-red, raspberry-flavored fruit and mineral elements in these mencía-based wines as those in Bierzo. I loved the fact that Ribeira Sacra reds were fresh, light (some only 12% to 12.5% alcohol, a welcome relief in this epoch), deliciously fruity and laced with the same graphite-slate mineral characteristics as the wines of Bierzo and Priorat. (For the “there is no such thing as mineral terroir current wisdom,” those mineral tastes are getting into these wines somehow, because all three regions have the same Galician food and in tastings in the region, I tried a number of wines that were pleasurable, even fascinating because of their raspberry and red currant flavors and distinct mineral stamp, but few them were more than quaffable, rustic country wines.
I felt too many of the wines were way too unsophisticated, not well made and often obviously overproduced, a fact underscored by Adegas Alguiera’s Fernando González, when he showed me heavily laden vines from one of the multitude of small minifundia grower vineyards that sell their grapes to the larger Ribeira Sacra wineries and to others outside the region. However, as 50-something former banker-turned-bodeguero, González has shown--with the winemaking expertise of the peripatetic, talented Raúl Pérez to bring out the best in his wines–that these small, old vine plots, with careful vineyard practices, reduced yields and a good winemaker can produce world-class wines practically overnight. This is relatively easily acheivable and means that there can be quantitative and qualitative quantum leap in the wines of Ribeira Sacra within a very short period of time.
In early August 2007, José Manuel Rodríguez, President of the Consejo Regulador (regulatory council) of Ribeira Sacra took me to Pradio, a new, but very isolated hill country winery overlooking the spot where the Sil River pours out of its “throat” (Gargantuas del Sil) into the Minho River, which flows down past Ourense and becomes Galicia’s southern border with Portugal. Twenties-something owner, Xavier Seone Novelle, who owns a whole hamlet where he renovated some old houses and built a winery, hotel and facilities for mountain tourists, poured his Pradio 2006 carbonic maceration red wine along with some of his mother’s excellent tapas. It was evident from the first sip, that at least at this winery, something was changing in the right direction in Ribera Sacra. Pradio was deliciously fruity, moderate in alcohol and had seen no wood except the trees around the property.
That night with tapas at O Grelo restaurant, just down the road from the hilltop Parador de Turismo where I was staying in the Ribiera Sacra capital of Monforte de Lemos, José Manuel Rodríguez tasted me through his own wines, the juicy, complex Décima 2006 and the Décima 2005 (a year he says was espectacular for his wine), both of which were delicious and full flavored, neither of which topped 12.2% alcohol! Then he served an unusual and unusually good Décima 2006 tinto that was delicious, silky, easy drinking blend of mencía, garnacha tintoera (30%) and godello (10%), the white grape. The garnacha tintorera boosted the alcohol level to 13.5%, but that is low by today’s standards. I now had tasted four superb wines from two small producers. Were there more good Ribeira Sacra wines where those came from?
A day later, after having toured some incredible mencía vineyards with Fernando González (and almost having a heart attack when I peered out the window of a van too large for the cliffside vineyard road we were on and saw a vineyard 100-feet below me, at the bottom of a sheer drop!), we returned to Alguiera, where Raúl Pérez, fresh off a flying enologist run from Bierzo in his Mini-Cooper, had just arrived. Pérez led me through an eye-opening lineup of wines ranging from the Alguiera 2006, which should be superb with bottle age, back to the 2001, one of the best Mencía-based wines I had ever tasted, certainly the best Ribeira Sacra wine perhaps ever made. As if to underscore that where there is smoke, there’s fire, as we were drinking the wines with some tapas from Alguiera’s own small restaurant, José Manuel Rodríguez showed up with Dona Das Penas owner Antonio Lombardía, who produced a bottle of juicy, white peach- and honeysuckle-flavored, mineral-laced Alma Larga Godello 2006, which clearly showed that Ribeira Sacra was capable of producing a world class white as well. (In a previous Wine News article, I wrote about the quality of Abadia da Cova’s godello-albariño white wine blends.)
The next morning, at the Parador of Monforte de Lemos, Antonio Lombardía brought me his Verdes Matas Mencía 2006, which despite just having been bottled and marked by new oak, showed excellent potential with rich, sweet red raspberry and red currant fruit, mineral flavors and just 12.5%.
On earlier trips to Ribeira Sacra, I had seen glimpses of future greatness in the meager production of José Manuel Rodríguez’s Décima and in Abadía da Cova, which had been on the market for some time, but had seemed to have lost focus under the interventionist winemaking market urgings of their former American importer. But now, after the remarkable tasting at Alguiera and the tastings of Décima, Pradio and Pena Das Donas, I had seen the future of Ribeira Sacra come together in just two days. And, there are other wines like the unusual, but exotic and intriguing (are you ready for cherry and chestnut wood, instead of oak?), Enológica Thémera and a trio of wines–Lacima, Lapena and Lalama–from Priorat husband-wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier, Jr. (Clos Mogador). With Pérez-Barbier, what I fear is not invasion of the “L”s, it is the Priorat invasion, which I hope does not bring in its wake Mediterranean climate style wines with 14% - 15% alcohol levels.
My prediction is that within two to three years, this region will suddenly vault onto the wine stage to join the new Spanish red wine chorus line that already includes Bierzo, Priorat, Toro and Jumilla, but Ribeira Sacra, if it stays true to its own regional style, will be the lightest stepping dancer in the line and may find an important market as the antidote to the beefy 14% to 16% alcohol wines that seem to be dominate today. The challenge will be to maintain the lovely raspberry, red currant and light black raspberry mencía fruit, minerality and reasonable alcohol content (12.5% to 13%) that makes these wines so engaging, plus resist the temptation to submit the wines to the ubiquitous abuse of new oak, which overwhelms both the fruit and the terroir. If these first few wineries entering the American market are an indicator, they may prove to be Spain’s antidote to all the overblown “blockbuster” wines out there–an antidote which a multitude of protesting wine lovers are fully ready to embrace. Maybe their bigger sibling to the East, Bierzo, will even follow Ribera Sacra’s lead and mencía may turn out to be Spain’s new Great Red Wine Hope.
After making wines for several years in his family's Palacios Remondo winery in La Rioja Baja, including the very well-regarded Placet, one of the best 100% viura wines ever made in La Rioja, Rafael Palacios burst onto the Galician white wine scene in 2005 with As Sortes Godello white, which was in instant sensation. After a rumored family rift and, perhaps a desire to make his own mark free of the shadow of his superstar brother, Álvaro, Rafael moved to Valdeorras (Palacio's cousins are also making wine there and in neighboring Bierzo) and procured some high altitude, terraced old vines godello from which he crafts his signature.
When first released As Sortes will score in the low 90s on just about anyone's scale. It is cask fermented in foudres (again, a la Alsace) and the wine is left on the lees for several months in the cask. The resulting wine is Burgundy weight, richly fruity, mineral-laced, leesy and without marked oak characteristics, but early on it exhibits a slightly cloudy, too-deep green-gold color, which, if it were a sweet wine would not cause concern, but in a dry white it often means that after a year the wine may be an downhill oxidative spiral, which I have seen in several other Spanish white wines vinified this way. One hopes that Palacios will master his superb godello raw material, because tastings of his first efforts show the potential to make one of the great white wines of Europe.
Rodríguez is the former winemaker of Rioja’s Remelluri, where he made some memorable, highly rated reds and one of Rioja’s most interesting whites from a blend of several native and foreign varieties. He now makes Telmo Rodríguez y Cia wines in such far-flung areas as Ribera del Duero, La Rioja, Alicante and Málaga. Two years ago, he introduced his first Valdeorras wine, an old vines godello called Gabo do Xil. The 2004 was already showing an advanced deep, green-gold color, but was somewhat out of balance; it did possess a promising character that made it a wine worth revisiting in vintages to come. Rodríguez admits that he considers Gabo do Xil an entry-level Godello, but the 2005, which I tasted over dinner with young star chef Vicente Patiño's food at Sal de Mar restaurant in Denia (Alicante) in January, was silky, spicy, delicious and performed well above Telmo's own advance billing for the wine.
La Tapada, which produces Guitian, uses godello grown on vineyards around the winery that are distinctly less rocky than those at Godeval. José Hidalgo, winemaker at La Rioja’s Bodegas Bilbaínas, is La Tapada’s consulting enologists. Guitian is a pleasant, rich, glossy mouthful of tropical fruit, but it does not achieve Godeval’s complexity. I tend to discount the barrel-fermented version, because of its overtly butterscotch flavor and a surfeit of oak, but I recently had to amend that opinion when I tasted the 1997 and found it surprisingly good. Other Valdeorras 100 percent godello-based wines of interest are Galiciano Dia, Joaquín Rebelledo, Viña Somoza and Pezas de Portela.
After this article was almost complete, I tasted the latest vintage of Pezas de Portela, the 2005, at the trendy Urban restaurant in the Hotel Urban, perhaps the hottest new hotel in Madrid. It was simply stunning, easily as good as many white Burgundies. Two days later, at Mari Carmen Velez’s superb La Sirena restaurant in Petrer, outside Alicante, I had the 2002, which showed some of the same fruit and terroir, and was tasting a lot like aged Burgundy.
There is no doubt that Galicia is turning out truly fine whites from native grapes. These refreshingly different varieties — albariño, godello and treixadura, especially — are proving themselves capable of producing memorable wines that are fruity, spicy, often complex, dry, mineral-laced and excellent companions to food. That is a revelation in a country thought as little as decade ago incapable of making world-class white wines.
Galician Shellfish, some of the best seafood in the world
Santiaguiños (small lobster-like shellfish), camarones (camarones), nécoras (small crabs).