Winemaking in Galicia has long been associated with the tart, fruity white wines from the Ribeiro, Valdeorras and Rias Baixas appellations. Until very recently, Spanish and foreign tourists alike could be seen ordering classic Spanish reds such as Rioja in the region’s bars and restaurants, whilst snootily turning their noses up when recommended a Galician red. Thankfully, situations like this are now being consigned to the past, largely due to the heroic efforts of a number of pioneering individuals from the Ribeira Sacra, a wine producing area situated near the small agricultural town of Chantada, known as the Heart of Galicia.
VERTIGO TO GO
Loosely translated, Ribeira Sacra means something like sacred shore or sacred river bank. The River Miño, as it winds its way east from Ourense, cuts an ever deepening
gorge into the countryside. Oak, pine and chestnut forested slopes, dotted with precariously perched dwellings and the odd Romanesque church, plunge right down to the water line, and it’s on these vertigo-inducing slopes, on tiny granite terraces known as bancadas, that the local grape variety and flagship of the appellation Mencía is grown. In places the vertiente, or slope, is so steep that the only way to ‘evacuate’ the grapes was by boat, traditionally a flat bottomed, rectangular wooden vessel. Today that work is done by conveyor belts.
The area has long been synonymous with the grape. During Roman times, wines from Amandi, today one of the appellation’s five sub-zones, were regularly shipped to Rome to be served at the emperor’s table, along with that other great Miño delicacy, Slamprey. By the middle ages, the upper Miño began to attract monastic communities who carried on the tradition of planting vines and producing wines to be sold to the inns and hospices along the nearby Camino de Santiago.
FISH FARM PUMPS
After breakfast, we were met by the Deputy Mayor of the town of Chantada, Ildefonso Piñeiro, a dead-ringer for Robert de Niro. As our first port of call, he took us to a small vineyard belonging to his father-in-law. This was where we were able to catch the first of many stunning panoramic views of the Ribeira Sacra. Along the route he told us of the friendly rivalry that had always existed between the ribeiraos, vineyard owners, on both sides of the river. Tongue-in-cheek insults would fly between paperos, or papists on the Chantada side and rabudos (rabbis) on the Saviñao side. A typical case of back-breaking work made a little more bearble with a some cross-river verbal jousting, he confided.
After a few minutes meandering up and down twisting lanes, we pulled up at the gates of Adegas Vía Romana, a beautiful stone building dating back to the 16th century. The owner-director José Luís Méndez Rojo warmly greeted us, ushering us inside for a tour of the grape reception area, fermentation tanks, labelling and bottling facility, and the wonderful salon with its jaw-dropping views of the Miño. Juan Luis’s approach to wine making is firmly rooted in the pursuit of quality
over quantity, a constant of all the wineries I was to visit throughout the trip. This guarantee of quality is achieved by an exhaustive poda en verde, or pruning of the fruit before it reaches maturity, manual selection of the grapes and,
somewhat bizarrely, the use of fish-farm pumps to protect the seeds during fermentation. Damaged or bruised seeds can cause an unwanted, mouth-puckering astringency in the wine, so fish-farm pumps were evidently a wise investment for this innovative wine maker. The rest, he told us, was down to the six months of
absolute peace and tranquility the wine spends in a strictly controlled environment. About 10%of his production of Via Romana Mencía and Via Romana Selección Añada 1999 goes abroad, mainly to the USA, but more recently to Japan and Russia, with new markets being explored all the time.
A RIGHTFUL PLACE
Next on the route was Bodega Pincelo. Though the family has been making wine since the 1840s, in 1985 Bodega Pincelo became the first legally constituted winery in the province of Lugo, a crucial step in the 1993 founding of the appellation D.O. Ribeira Sacra. The owner Alfonso Regal Teijeiro said that there was still some way to go on the road to D.O. Ribeira Sacra earning its rightful place among the prime movers of the Spanish wine scene. Statistics still show that many of his paisanos or countrymen in Galicia, when ordering red wine, order Rioja instead of Ribeira Sacra Mencía. Alfonso specialises in Viño Artesano, or artisanal wine, and Pincelo, Viña Portotide and the oak-aged Pincelo 1985 are three fine examples of the genre. With an ever keen eye on the future, Bodega Pincelo is now dedicating around six hectares of its vines to the experimental production of Viños Ecolóxicos, or organic red and white wines.
QUAFFING AND NIBBLING
It was soon time to move on again and the next stop was Adegas Lareu, another family winery run by the eminently hospitable Primitivo Lareu. To describe his place as lovely would be to do it a gross injustice. The setting for this charming winery is a beautiful 18th century granite farmhouse, surrounded by huge, gnarled chestnut trees and lush fields. Our genial host showed us into the traditional Adega de Garda or storage winery, now a wine-museum, with its trodden earth floor and doors oriented to the east and tiny aperture on the west wall allowing for ventilation and a shaft of light. An ancient wooden estruxadora or wine press sat on one side, and two or three huge cubas or storage casks on the other. A couple of pellexos or animals skins, used centuries ago to transport wine, completed the display. The rest of the evening was spent quaffing his excellent Sabatelius Branco white, Sabatelius Mencía and Sabatelius Carballo , an oak-aged red, whilst nibbling away on some memorable home-made smoked chorizo. Unfortunately, all good things must to come to an end, and after some fond farewells, we set out for our last but definitely not least port of call, Adegas Moure on the enigmatically named Cabo do Mundo or Cape of the World.
THE SACRED RIVER SHORE
Cabo do Mundo means the Edge of the World. The course of the Miño here takes a dramatic 180º turn and Adegas Moure, clearly defying the laws of gravity, surveys all this awe-inspiring beauty, totally confident in the knowledge that there must be very few vineyards on this Earth that can compete with them in terms of the sheer drama of the setting. If that wasn’t enough, they’re also sweeping up award after award on the international wine circuit, with medal-snatching vinos like Abadía da Cova, Mencía Barrica, Fuga and an excellent Albariño that recently scored an impressive 90 points in Wine & Spirit Magazine, putting the wind up Rías Baixas, no doubt.
TIME HONOURED TRADITION AND INNOVATION
Evaristo Rodríguez López, Vice-President of the D.O. Ribeira Sacra and our contact at Adegas Moure echoed the words of the other wine makers we met along this most sacred of river shores. He said, “Our vineyards that descend so steeply along the Ribeira Sacra, are hundreds of years old. We’re absolutely determined to preserve our time-honoured traditions, all the things that make our wine unique, but at the same time we’re looking forward, constantly striving for the highest possible quality, investing in the latest technology and innovation and of course, focusing our efforts exclusively on improving our wine with each new vintage.” If seeing and tasting is believing, then this appellation has every reason to be justifiably proud of its wines, so the next time you’re in Spain, make sure it’s a Ribeira Sacra Mencía, you’ll be instantly smitten.