Thursday, July 5, 2012

Looking Back at Galicia’s Green Gold: White Wines from Native Spanish Grapes

(An abridged version of this article first appeared in Wine News, March-April, 2007.)

by Gerry Dawes

The best areas in Spain to discover just how sublime Spanish native varietal white wines can be is Galicia, encompassing the northwestern provinces of Lugo, A Coruña, Ourense and Pontevedra. In addition to the now-well-known Rías Baixas Albariños, currently de rigor on most serious stateside wine lists, white wines from the other Galician regions, such as Valdeorras, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra and Monterrei, are vying to become international white wine contenders. Although some of the blends include albariño grapes, many producers are increasingly confident with their home-grown varieties, such as treixadura (Ribeiro and Rías Baixas), godello (Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and Monterrei) and loureiro (Ribeiro and areas of Rías Baixas along the Miño River), all of which contribute to some surprisingly refreshing, often terroir-laced, high quality white wines that can be exceptional food companions.

Because it is rainy and emerald-green for part of the year, has deep Celtic roots (folk festivals feature bagpipers and all the associated trappings), is seamed by stacked-granite walls that surround lush fields and boasts a very long, often breathtakingly beautiful Atlantic coastline notched with deep, fjord-like inlets, Galicia is often billed as the Spanish equivalent of Ireland. Its people even share the Irish love of potatoes. But unlike the Emerald Isle, Galicia’s more southerly latitude affords the sunshine necessary to properly ripen wine grapes, at least in most years.

Because of its high rainfall--some 63 inches annually in Rías Baixas; just under 40 inches in most other Galician D.0.s--there is considerable humidity, however vines are trained on tall wire trellises anchored by granite or concrete posts. Growing grapes several feet off the ground, high enough for vineyard workers to stand upright beneath the clusters, also allows for air circulation that ameliorates the effects of humidity-nurtured diseases such as mildew. The leaf canopy shades the grapes from over-exposure to the sun as well, a practical expedient because Galician summers historically can bring some surprisingly hot days — now being exacerbated by global warming. Even though Atlantic waters can be quite bracing and bring refreshing breezes to the vineyards, the climate is actually warm enough to support some very popular summer beach resorts.

A tasting trip through Galicia in early August provided a refresher course on the progress of the native varieties in each of Galicia’s five denominaciones de origen: Monterrei, Ribeiro, Rías Baixas, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. I encountered considerable progress since my last major trek in 2002 and a Rías Baixas sortie in 2004. In the case of several estates, I was pleasantly surprised by either world-class "made" wines or evolving wines that would soon fulfill that promise. On my previous visit I flew into Santiago de Compostela, the famous monumental city at the end of the Camino de Santiago (the medieval pilgrimage route that runs from France down into the Iberian Peninsula and then some 500 miles across northern Spain.


This time, however, I opted to drive in from the Ribera del Duero in Castilla y León to for a first visit Monterrei, a small DO comprising some 1,650 acres of qualifying vineyards located just north of the Portuguese border in the eastern mountains of Orense province. I was drawn to Monterrei by one particular adega — as bodegas are called in Galicia — Gargalo, the producer of Terra do Gargalo, a light, racy, mineral-laced, but nicely fruity wine that Iberia Airlines serves its business class passengers. Gargalo is located in Verín, a quaint, sprawling town that is watered by the Tamega River and located less than ten miles north of the Portuguese border.

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.

Adegas Gargalo is a small winery with a chic, modern cubist design that befits owner Roberto Verino, a Spanish fashion designer and Verín native. Located just down the hill from the castle and the parador, Gargalo is set amid sloping vineyards planted primarily with the native white grapes treixadura, godello and dona blanca; and native red varieties arauxa, mencia and bastarda (some wineries here also have the equally ill-named monstruosa, a white grape).

There is also a fascinating experimental vineyard planted with a wide variety of primarily white grapes that are described to me by Rosa Salgado, Gargalo’s shy, but informative enologist, who leads me on a tour of winery and vineyards. She explains that the trellised main vineyards, now some 20 years old, are predominately planted in treixadura, godello and mencia. Back in the winery, Roberto Verino’s status as a top designer is underscored by the large blowups of models wearing his clothing juxtaposed against horizontal Bucher presses and large blowups of Gargalo wine bottles.

Although I had tasted a couple of previous vintages of the Terra do Gargalo white wines at 35,000 feet, this would be my first encounter with them on terra firma. In the tasting room, Salgado pours two whites that had been opened the day before and refrigerated (I wonder if American wine writers don’t rate freshly opened bottles?). 

The Terra do Gargalo 2005, a 50/50 blend of treixadura and godello that is left on the lees to pick up flavor, was still fresh, however, and showed some sweet floral, tropical fruit and baking spice flavors, balanced by palate cleansing acidity and moderate alcohol (12.5 percent); Terra do Gargalo Clásico 2005, a blend of 50 percent treixadura, 30 percent godello and 20 percent dona branca, was still fresh and lively, too, with even more bracing acid and distintive spice, almond and mineral notes. (A Terra do Gargalo 2004 tinto, made with 50 percent mencia and arauxa, a grape Salgado calls "tempranillo de Monterrei," was a spicy, raspberry- and currant-laced, serviceable red in need of a few more months bottle aging.)


About an hour northwest of Monterrei lies the Ribeiro DO, with its production of 85 percent whites, made from 7,500 acres of vines in 13 municipalities in western Ourense province. Some of the best producers are located around the captivating medieval town of Ribadavia, located some 20 miles southwest of Ourense, the provincial capital. Ribadavia is a fascinating trip back in time that counts among its attractions the 14th-century castle of the Counts of Ribavia, a 12th-century transitional romanesque church, an evocative medieval former Jewish quarter and substantial remains of the town’s old walls overlooking the Avia and Minho rivers, the latter of which, a few miles to the southwest, flows on to form the border with northwestern Portugal.

As close as any Galician wine to being the Spanish equivalent of France’s Muscadet, the wines of Ribeiro, because of the climate, which averages 37 inches of rainfall and just over 1,900 hours of sunlight annually, have historically been lean and razor-edged; recently they have become increasingly richer, but still never overblown or heavy. Grown in granite-laced soils, often with alluvial deposits of stones and gravel, Ribeiro’s officially "preferred" white grapes are treixadura, godello, albariño, jerez and torrontés, yet loureiro, macabeo (viura), albilla, and the experimental variety, lado, are also permitted.

Treixadura Grapes 

In the past, overcropping for high production levels, not necessarily the quality of the native grapes, kept these reasonably-priced wines from achieving their full potential. In recent years, the rising quality levels of Spanish white wines have begun to lift all the vino blanco boats to higher level, Ribeiro being a notable example. In addition to racy acidity and better fruit flavors, many of these wines are also express a classy mineral quality. They are delightful with moullucs (especially raw oysters and clams), crustaceans and fish. On this trip (and in Madrid and New York), I tasted and accompanied meals with several very accessible reasonably priced Ribeiros, all of which were delicious, balanced and with refreshingly low (for these times) alcohol levels.

Emilio Rojo, a former engineer with a reputation for eccentricity, is generally recognized as the star of the Ribeiro. Several years ago, Rojo returned to his native Galicia to make some 9,000 bottles of wine from two hectares of old, low yield vines on terrace hillsides. A blend of 55% treixadura, 15% loureiro, 10% lado, 10% albariño and 10% torrontés, Emilio Rojo’s wines have racy acids, moderate alcohol, show exotic flavors (orange, lime, tropical fruits and spices), have haunting finishes laced with minerals and are, thankfully, unoaked.

Viña Meín, made from 80% treixadura, 10% godello, 5% loureiro, plus traces of albariño, torrontés, and lado, is a bracing wine with substantive pear and melon flavors and a long mineral finish that was a fine companion for grilled prawns and small, flash-fried red mullets at Rafa restaurante in Madrid. Bodegas Campante Gran Reboreda (80% treixadura, 10% godello, 10% loureiro), made by the same company as Morgadio Albariño in Rías Baixas, is inexpensive, fresh, lively, minerally and a perfect food companion for people tired of palate taxing, high alcohol wines. Even the wines from the region’s very large Vitivinicola del Ribeiro, the 70,000-case Viña Costeira and the 85,000-case Pazo, can be delightful with tapas and seafood dishes such as pulpo a la gallega (Galician steamed octopus with Spanish paprika, olive oil and sea salt).

Galicia's Ribeiro & Sanclodio, The Wine of Spanish Art Film Maker José Luís Cuerda

José Luís Cuerda, San Clodio

Just before this article went to press, at the Encuentro Verema ( wine convention in Valencia, I met Spanish award-winning Spanish art filmmaker José Luís Cuerda (Bosque Animado, La Lengua de Las Mariposas, Educacion de las Hadas ), who recently began producing Sanclodio, a delicious, complex, delightful white made with five native Galician grapes: treixadura, albariño, loureiro, godello and torrontés. In 2002, Cuerda bought several hectares of vineyard land and XV-century wine cellar near the historic Cisterican San Clodio monastery in the prime Gomaríz region of Ribeiro, one of the best wine growing areas of Galicia in northwestern Spain. 

José Luís Cuerda, San Clodio

The production of Cuerda's impeccably tended, terraced vineyards is strictly limited in order to insure the highest quality wine, resulting in a crisp, fruity, mineral-laced wine with a lingering sense of authentic terruño (terroir) that could come only from this region and these grapes. He makes about 2,700 cases off six hectares and just about 10% of his production is destined for the U.S. market. The grape composition is treixadura (67 %), godello (15 %), torrontés (12 %) loureira (5 %) y albariño (1 %).

José Luís Cuerda, San Clodio

Only the fact that Cuerda's vines are still young and thus don't exhibit quite the intensity of terroir that they will undoubtedly show as his viñas get older, keeps this superbly balanced wine from being one of the great white wines of Galicia (some would say it already is, quite remarkable for young vines, but he has an excellent vineyard man working for him. Like any great white wine, Sanclodio will improve with bottle age when stored in a cool environment. Drink from release date up to four years from the harvest.

Sanclodio and a soft Galician cows' milk cheese.

Sancolido and José Luís Cuerda were featured in a three-page, front page lead article in The Sunday's New York Times Travel Section on August 27.

The wine was also a big hit at the Sonoma Napa Wine Country Film Festival, where, according to the Festival organizer, everyone was saying that it was the "best Spanish white wine they had ever tasted." It was served under the stars to accompany the showing of his film, La Educacion de las Hadas.

Ribavia's old Jewish quarter.

All around the old Galician Ribeiro town of Ribavia, which has a charming old Jewish quarter, are picturesque wine-growing hamlets surrounded by rustic, trellised, small plot vineyards planted long ago on granite-butressed terraces. These vineyards are of another age and are among of the most picturesque in Spain. 

On this trip, when I was looking for the vineyards of Emilio Rojo in the hamlet of Arnoia, it was disconcerting to happen upon yet another suspicious Galician forest fire raging southeast of town and potentially threatening a particularly beautiful spread of old vineyards and the houses built among them. The scene became totally surreal when helicopters and fire planes began to fly overhead, racing back and forth over the vineyards to the Minho river and a nearby reservoir to collect water for bombing runs on the raging fire.

Ribavia is dotted with charming, old wine-growing villages hemmed by rustic, trellised small plot vineyards planted long ago on granite-buttressed terraces. These viñedos are of another age and are among of the most picturesque in Spain. While looking for the vineyards of Emilio Rojo in the hamlet of Arnoia, it was disconcerting to happen upon a forest fire, thought to be set by an arsonist, raging southeast of town and potentially threatening a particularly beautiful spread of old vines and the quaint stone houses that stood among them. 

The scene became totally surreal when helicopters and fire-fighting planes swooped in, flying back and forth to the Minho river and a nearby reservoir to collect water for "bombing runs." Unfortunately, this was not be the last time I came upon such a scene during this August trip. (If one tastes a smoky quality in some 2006 Galician whites, in all seriousness, it will not be from a toasted barrel.)

Rías Baixas

Pazo de Señorans, one of the top Albariño producers of Rías Baixas

To the west of Ribeiro lies Rías Baixas, characterized by the southern Galician Baixas, or "lower," fjord-like inlets that mark the Galician coast and from which both the area and the DO take their names. The albariño grape reigns supreme in Rías Baixas, and the luscious, fruity, but nicely balanced, food-friendly wines produced from it have propelled Galician whites into both the national and international spotlight. Indeed, Rías Baixas whites are some of the most versatile and least intimidating in the market; its Albariños typically exhibit lovely, green-tinged straw or light gold colors and exude typically fruity albariño aromas reminiscent of pear, white peach, pineapple or apricot; racy acid underpinnings shore up the same often luscious fruit flavors found in the nose and balance harmoniously with delicious, complex, dry mineral-laced finishes.

Pazo de Señorans & almejas, a great wine-food match. 

This attractive combination of fruitiness and dryness makes Albariños ideal as apéritif wines and equally suitable mates for a range of modern dishes, as well as for Galicia’s legendary seafood classics. Because of their inherent versatility, Albariños have become so popular with American consumers that the United States is now its most important export market (the only Spanish wine region that can claim that distinction).

Five designated winegrowing areas make up the Rías Baixas DO: Condado de Tea, O Rosal, Val do Salnés, Soutomaior and the relatively new Ribeira do Ulla. In each of these subzones, a wine must be 100 percent albariño to use the Albariño monovarietal designation on the label. This is often a moot point, since 95 percent of Rías Baixas’s more than 7,500 acres of registered DO vineyards are planted to albariño. Yet there are some very high-quality, noteworthy whites that cannot be labeled as Albariño, but can be designated Rías Baixas as long as they contain at least 70 percent albariño. In Condado de Tea and O Rosal some very interesting, sometimes very high-quality versions of these wines are made (by long-standing tradition) with up to 30 percent of the DO’s other preferred varieties — treixadura, loureira and caiño blanco (some godello, torrontés and marqués are also authorized). Small additions of these varieties to the albariño deepens aromas, adds body and, often these blends show more complexity than many 100% albariño wines.

With more than 60 percent of its vineyards registered, Val do Salnés, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic and the inlets Ría de Arousa and Ría de Pontevedra), is the most important Rías Baixas subregion, followed by Condado de Tea and O Rosal, both in southernmost Galicia along the Minho. Several major producers in Condado de Tea, along with their 100 percent Albariño wines, also make intriguing albariño-treixadura-albariño blends; most prominent are Marqués de Vizhoja’s Señor de Folla Verde, Adegas Galegas’s Veigadares and Valmiñor’s Dávila. Farther west, in the O Rosal subregion at the mouth of the Minho, Terras Gauda, Santiago Ruíz and Pazo de San Mauro are all marked by loureiro in the blend, along with smaller percentages of treixadura and caiño blanco that promote an attractive complexity and demonstrate the significant potential of these lesser-known grapes when blended with albariño.

In the literal rather than figurative sense, Rías Baixas wines are likely the most feminine in Spain. Many of the country’s wine regions have female winemakers and winery owners, but not in the numbers working in Rías Baixas, where the president of the Consejo Regulador for the past 21 years has been the dynamic María Soledad Bueno, owner of Pazo de Señorans (in 2007, she relinquished her position to grateful kudos from producers, press and a host of admirers). 

María Soledad 'Marisol' Bueno, owner of Pazo de Señorans

Among the female enologists responsible for some of the region’s top wines are María Luisa Freire (Santiago Ruíz), Pilar Jiménez (Pazo de Barrantes), Cristina Mantilla (Veigadares, Pazo de San Mauro, Valminor Dávila and Couto), Ana Martín (Condes de Albarei), Angela Martín (Casal Caiero), Ana Oliveira (Terras Guada), María del Ana Quintela (Pazo de Señorans) and Isabel Salgado (La Granja Fillaboa).

Isabel Salgado, La Granja Fillaboa

La Granja Fillaboa

Many of these producers were showing their wines at the colorful annual Festa do Albariño held every August in Cambados, the main town of the Val de Salnés district. As the first American invited to help judge this Albariño competition at this event, I was privileged to sample more than 70 wines over the course of the competition, the public tastings, official meals and impromptu gastronomic excursions around Cambabos.

Do Ferreiro and Galician oysters, a superb culinary pairing.

Gerardo Méndez of Do Ferreiro

Many superb, small-producer, 100 percent Albariño were among my favorites:  Gerardo Méndez's Do Ferreiro (one of the region's best producers), Granja Fillaboa, Lusco, Palacio de Fefiñanes, Pazo de Barrantes, Pazo de Señorans and the small artisan producers, Cabaliero do Val, Rozas, O Forrollo, Lagar de Broullón, Avo Róxo, (fortunately, most are currently exported to the United States).

Albariño grapes, Do Ferreiro

Fruity and complex, Palacio de Fefiñanes, is one of Rías Baixas’s greatest wines and one of the best Spanish whites I have ever encountered. Founded in 1904 and housed in a baronial palace on a charming plaza in Cambados, Palacio de Fefiñanes makes albariños aged in large, used oak vats (a la Alsace), which have minimal impact on the flavor, but contribute greatly to the age-worthiness of the wines, which I have beem tracking since the 1994 vintage). Fefiñanes, owned and produced by the Marqués de Figueroa, Juan Gil de Araujo (not to be confused with the Juan Gil of Jumilla), is on par with some of the finest Chablis.

Ribeira Sacra

After several days in Rías Baixas marked by some lovely wines, but also plagued by arson (fire destroyed some of Do Ferreiro’s vines, among others), I turned west toward Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. The former has some of Spain’s most spectactularly beautiful vineyards, which are planted on terraces along slate-strewn hillsides that plunge steeply to the banks of lakes created by the dammed-up north-south-flowing Miño and east-west-flowing Sil rivers. The Ribeira Sacra DO has 3,000 acres of the vineyards that snake through the Galician provinces of Lugo (in the north) and Orense (in the south) and is divided into five subzones: northernmost Chantada and Ribeiras do Minho (along the Minho River) [Use Minho, which is Gallego and Portuguese, essentially the same language], and Amandi and Quiroga-Bibei (along the Sil) — all in Lugo province — and Ribieras do Sil (along the Orense portion of the Sil).

Ribeira Sacra is producing some surprisingly good, terroir-laced red wines from mencía, Spain’s most exciting rediscovered red variety, but several promising, still little known, godello- and albariño-based whites also are grown here. Abadía da Cova, Ribeira Sacra’s top bodega, offers a delicious, complex Albariño accented by the addition of 15 percent godello and treixadura; a fine Godello, with 15 percent albariño added, is also made here. José Manuel Rodríguez, president of the Ribeira Sacra Consejo Regulador (regulatory council), makes the excellent Décima Godello, which, with its white peach and mineral flavors, is reminiscent of viognier. The Godellos of Donandrea Toxeiro y Peza do Rei are also delicious.

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.


Just east of Ribeira Sacra, with 3,700 acres of DO vineyards along the Sil valley is Valdeorras, which is showing excellent potential for fine godello-based whites that reflect their particular terroir. Valdeorras, which could very well be Spain’s Burgundy, is attracting more serious winemakers, such as peripatetic Telmo Rodríguez and Rafael Palacios (brother of Priorat-La Rioja-Bierzo winemaking star, Álvaro Palacios). They have come here to make rich, fruity, but well-balanced wines laced with mineral finishes from old vines godello vineyards terraced on well-drained slopes; the results are reminiscent of the best white wines of France.

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.
A Valdeorras godello-based wine with a longer history is Godeval, which shows the flinty, mineral terruño (terroir) from the pizzara- (slate) strewn slopes around a refurbished old monastery that is the winery. In its early years, Godeval reached depths of flavor and complexity that few other native Spanish whites achieve. It has become quite popular over the past few years, however, and, though still quite good, it may have slipped slightly as its production has grown to meet demand. Godeval also makes a more expensive barrel-fermented godello, but the oak obscures the wine’s nuances and haunting mineral flavors.

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.

– The End –

Galician Shellfish, some of the best seafood in the world
Judging, tasting and drinking these wines, often with those supernal shellfish of Galicia — ostras (oysters), almejas (clams), cigalas (langoustines), nécoras (small crabs), vieiras (sea scallops) and zamburiñas (similar to bay scallops, served with their coral) — underscored the excellence of Spain’s best-known white varietal wine.

Cigalas (langoustines, Dublin Bay prawns)

Santiaguiños (small lobster-like shellfish), camarones (camarones), nécoras (small crabs).

The range of my dining experiences while in Cambados, which spanned modern Spanish cuisine and regional specialities, underscored the versatility of Albariño, and tastings of several wines, particularly those of Pazo de Señorans and Palacio de Fefiñanes, reinforced my faith in the age-worthiness of this native white in the hands of the best producers. Yet several barrel-fermented Rías Baixas whites sampled on this trip reconfirmed my belief (formed on earlier visits) that fermenting such wines in new oak fails to enhance their natural flavors and often masks their freshness, fruitiness, charm, nuances and any terroir they may possess.

In this new oak-demented age, mercifully, the majority of Rías Baixas whites are spared brutal lashings of oak that many other Spanish wines suffer. Three of the very best, Pazo de Señorans (unoaked), Do Ferreiro and Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas (old vines) and Palacio de Fefiñanes (used barrels), see no new oak, yet age well, particularly the latter. Pazo de Señorans Selección de Añadas Albariño, a stellar wine made only in the best Rías Baixas vintages, is aged on the lees in stainless steel for three years.

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