“La crisis no da en el blanco” – this headline, and quite a cryptic one for El País, a Spanish newspaper, can mean two things – that the economic crisis is not hitting the target, whatever the target is, or that the economic hecatomb gripping the country for the last four years or so is not really affecting the sales of white wine, at least not the one that Emilio Rojo makes.
Emilio Rojo’s D.O. Ribeiro wine is extremely sought after around the world. Around 5,000-6,000 bottles are sold long before they’re ready to be launched onto the market. The key to this enviable success is a ‘policy of cutbacks’ wisely applied to his vines: reducing production in order to obtain an optimum quality wine. The scarcity of the wine stimulates the obsession of the high end consumer intent on getting his or her hands on a bottle or two. Loyal customers have included the arch-famous El Bulli, Arzak and the King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Emilio Rojo diehards won’t even be able to taste it this year as the 2012 vintage won’t be available for purchase till next year. Not content with making just a great, great wine, he wants it to ‘grow up’, to ‘purge itself of the sins of youth’ during its time in the cellar.
Freeing oneself from the ‘dictatorship of time’, i.e. the local consumer preference for drinking white wines young, is a serious challenge for Galician winemakers. Casting aside oak barrel ageing, ‘sur lies’ fermentation and ‘bâtonnage’ seems to be the direction Galician white wine making will take in the future. In fact, notable D.O. Rías Baixas wineries such as Pazo de Señoráns, Pazo de Fefiñanes and Martín Codax already apply this process to their wines.
‘Lies’, or lees in English, are the yeasts responsible for alcoholic fermentation. They undergo a decomposition process in the bottom of the fermentation vats. In layman’s terms, these yeast deposits have to be stirred (bâtonnage) from time to time so they release a series of compounds which will improve the characteristics of the wine. According Galician wine guru Luís Paadín, “The yeasts reduce the oxygen level, thereby preventing oxidation so the wine keeps much longer”. The goal is that the wine holds up well in the bottle and can be consumed beyond three years, at the same time improving the bouquet and achieving a wine with more body. Every ten days, Emilio stirs the lees with a chestnut wood stick so that they settle evenly and create an infusion, conveying their rich properties to the wine. “A period of sixteen months sur lies enhances the wine giving it the character of a Vino de Pago or single estate/cru wine”, Emilio Rojo explains.
It’s the finishing touch inside the winery of a ribeiro that has been pampered right from its time on the vine. On an Atlantic climate, east facing slope, Emilio Rojo’s vines are almost as scarcely populated as the nearby deserted village of Ibedo, which is just the way he likes it, low on fruit but high on flavour. With his worn, calloused hands, this former telecommunications engineer, a combination of farmer and delicate wine whisperer, thins out branches, snipping away at bunches to obtain better grapes. He could easily make 10.000 litres of standard quality wine but prefers to sacrifice quantity for quality. “I’m a perfectionist, not an elitist”, he states. The rest is an alchemic blend of native grape varietals: treixadura – around 65% – with loureiro, lado and albariño. It’s a success formula that has this ribeiro rubbing shoulders with the most famous white wines in the world. A wine that’s served not only in the best restaurants in Spain (and that’s saying a hell of a lot), but also in the finest eateries of the USA, Japan, the UK and Denmark.
Paradoxically, the combination of shrewd ‘cutbacks’ in the vineyard and a captive export market have enabled this ingenious winemaker to ride out the storm currently battering many of his compatriots.
Xurxo Lobato from Galicia is one of Spain’s premier photo-journalists. You can view his work here: http://www.xurxolobato.es