Nacho León is a visionary. His Demencia de Autor wine is fast gaining devotees around the world, yet the guy works out of a rented warehouse near Villafranca del Bierzo. People have been making wine here in El Bierzo since Roman times and more or less continually since the 9th century. It’s the last stop before the Camino de Santiago climbs tortuously into the Galician mountains. Ailing, weather beaten, God-fearing pilgrims passed through the 12th century ‘Pardoning Gate’ here in order to receive absolution from the local priest before continuing on the most arduous stage of the journey, conscious of the fact that between Villafranca and Compostela, death, either from exposure to the elements, wolves or brigands, could come tracking them down at any moment. I’m convinced the telluric energy and power of the land, coupled with its ancient traditions, are transmitted through the earth and into the vines here. I’m digressing. A visit to Demencia de Autor a couple of weeks back fulfilled a dream and this man is a dream seller, a wine whisperer even, according to my friend Shannon. Pyjama, he told me, was the stuff of dreams… the way we walk around the house in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, those intimate family moments, not a care in the world, very typical of the people round here, El Bierzo. An intimate wine you’d love to share with the family, that’s the concept behind it, he mused. Who could possibly disagree? Alzeimer, a solidarity wine launched a month or so ago, is a fabulous gesture. At 20.00EUR a bottle, the proceeds go to the Asociación de Familiares de Alzeimer, a Spanish charity set up to help families cope with this devastating condition. And finally, Demencia de Autor. Why the name? Nacho believes the word Demencia is associated with the improbable, a slight mental disorder, but full of ingenuity and brilliance. That’s what our wine is about, he enthuses. It’s a young project, created and developed by young people who have one thing in common, they all love wine madly. We’re all demented then. I’ll be going back to El Bierzo in July, with or without my pyjamas and dressing gown.
Meet Iago Castrillón and Eva Pizarro, joint owners of Restaurante Acio in Santiago de Compostela, winners of the 1st prize in the “Revelation Restaurant” category at the prestigious gastro show Madrid Fusion 2013. The jury, made up of more than forty representatives from the Spanish gastronomic press, placed their votes in absolute secrecy. This year, for the first time, 2nd and 3rd prizes were awarded to Abadía Retuerta of Valladolid and Apicius of Valencia respectively. Congratulations are order.
Adrian: How did it all begin for you at Restaurante Acio?
Eva: We’ve always worked at high-end restaurants. While on holiday in Italy once, a dining experience we had one evening had a huge impact on us. The cook was working alone in the kitchen, calmly preparing dishes. Lamb was roasting slowly in the fireplace. Dinner that night was fabulous, most of all because the cook himself came out of the kitchen to serve us a few of the dishes he’d prepared.
Iago: It changed our perspective a little and we started thinking about having our own restaurant, for the both of us where we’d cook the food ourselves, provide a calm, unhurried service and actually enjoy doing something we like… away from haute cuisine where you have predetermined roles and a brutal pace of work. So this idea gradually began to take form till it became Acio, our restaurant, where little by little we’ve built a reputation for our cooking, unhurriedly, at our own pace, maintaining our philosophy. The awards and recognition came later, which came as a real boost enabling us to keep doing what we were already doing, without going crazy in the process.
Iago, tell us something about your experiences as a chef in Madrid and London and why they were so important to you in terms of your current success.
My time at these restaurants provided me with the basis of the cooking I’m developing today at Acio. At each restaurant, in each city, in each place I’ve spent time in, I’ve tried to absorb trends, ways of doing things, and of course, learn from the great chefs I’ve had the privilege of being trained by.
Adrian: A lot has been said in recent years about the concept of time and space, championed by people like René Redzepi, owner of NOMA in Copenhagen, until very recently the Nº1 restaurant in the world. What’s your opinion on these particular trends?
Iago: In the last few years it seems as if every restaurant has had to identify itself with one particular trend, or alternatively differentiate itself from that trend in order to have some kind of identity. I think that as chefs each of us has his or her own vision of cooking and he or she translates that vision into a set of ideas or trends that people will either identify themselves with or not.
Adrian: How do you select the ingredients you use in your cooking?
Eva: The essence of our cooking is based on Galician produce. Galicia is a magnificent, natural pantry of high quality food products. Iago goes to the Plaza de Abastos every day, the great market in Santiago de Compostela, and selects the ingredients he’ll use in his kitchen, placing great emphasis on seasonal items.
Iago: Having said that, we don’t rule out the idea of fusion so you’ll find Japanese products, for example, adapted to our dishes, rice dishes…
Adrian: How important are the local farmers when supplying your restaurant?
Iago: They’re the ones who guarantee the supply of seasonal products, the freshest ones, the ones that are in their prime. In order to achieve that, it has to be a two-way thing. You have to tell the producer what type of product you’re looking for and get him involved in your ‘cause’ so he comes up with the goods.
Adrian: Eva, what’s your opinion on natural wines?
Eva: Natural wine is wine made from the natural grape, neither adding nor removing anything from that grape. The net result will be a true reflection of the land the wine was ‘born in’. Using that definition of natural wine as a starting point and the commitment to environmentally sound growing methods, respect for the environment itself, the grower as the ‘author’, authenticity and singularity… I believe it’s the future of wine if we want unique wines that represent the terroir that produces them. In short, if we want wines to inspire and excite us.
Adrian: Do you have any one day of the week reserved for ‘special sessions’ as in other vanguard restaurants?
Eva: We don’t set aside a specific day of the week, but we do organize wine tastings, winery presentations and wine pairing dinners. It’s something extra that our customers enjoy and appreciate.
Adrian: Since the closure of El Bulli, the world of what some people call ‘molecular cooking’ has evolved substantially. Where does Acio situate itself amid all this change, new trends etc?
Iago: We do what we do, our cooking, the way we like it, the one we believe in. We don’t follow any kind of trend, we simply do what we think is best in any given moment. This means that at times you do traditional recipes that happen to sit comfortably on the menu with the very latest gastronomic techniques.
Adrian: On one occasion, Ferrán Adrià was asked if he ever ate ‘normally’. What are your favorite ‘everyday’ dishes?
Iago: I love my mother’s cooking, traditional Galician cooking, with its slowly cooked stews: el cocido gallego, with ‘all the splendor of the pig’, los callos… Traditional, home cooked food, made with all the love and affection of our mothers.
Adrian: Do you ever get customers that simply don’t ‘get’ your cooking, however much you try to explain it to them?
Eva: Normally the people that come to Acio already know something about us and our cooking. They know it’s a safe bet, a sure thing, though a very personal one. They tend to go with the flow and allow us to show them what we can do.
Adrian: Do you see yourselves opening a restaurant outside Galicia or Spain?
Iago: You never know. Right now, it’s ‘poco a poco’, the way we always wanted it to be. Taking short steps, but positive ones.
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.
Highly recommenable tailor-made itineraries in Galicia, visiting Albariño wineries in jaw-dropping locations covering all five sub-zones of the Rías Baixas appellation: Val do Salnés, Val do Ulla, O Rosal, Sotomaior and Condado do Tea. Another excellent wine making region included in this tour is the stunningly beautiful Ribeira Sacra in Lugo, where wine-lovers will have the opportunity to taste wines made from the red Mencía grape and other native to Galicia varieties such Brancellao and Merenzao. For white wine there’s Godello in its mono-varietal form and some innovative blends of Godello, Treixadura, Torrontés, Loureira and Doña Branca. In 2013 GrapeHop Tours plan to make an incursion into the neighbouring Bierzo region, internationally much talked about due to the Parker Guide 90+ ratings for mencías from splendid artisan vineyards such as Tilenus, Descendientes de J. Palacios, Pittacum, Altos de Losada and more. The gastronomy of both regions, seafood in Galicia, botillo, goat’s cheese, roasted red bierzo peppers, empanada de patacas in El Bierzo are good enough reasons for an extended stay in the region, whatever the time of year, though GrapeHop Tours offers you the chance of visiting in late spring or early autumn, when the north-west of the Iberian peninsula is at its most captivating.
Photo: Californian winemaker Richard Longoria tasting Albariño with winemaker Paula Fandiño at Mar de Frades winery.