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The Resurgence of the Sacred Shore

As published in Alquimie Magazine. The slate and granite terraces of Ribeira Sacra provide one of the most unique grape growing climates in Spain. Bree Boskov travels to the region in pursuit of the unique complexities of a grape called mencía.

—A heavy fog hangs low over the River Sil on a February day. It is five degrees and the rain clouds are dissolving into thick misty air. The landscape is coloured by varying shades of grey. The river, marked by hues of jade, sits below the charcoal terraces that curtail the southern hills of the vineyards. Forests of oak trees have reclaimed the northern mountain slopes, where there is insufficient sun to ripen grapes. Vineyard workers are burning and pruning pyres; the smoke rises into the clouds. It is winter in Ribeira Sacra.

Ribeira Sacra is one of the most inland wine regions of Galicia in Spain. Though Ribeira Sacra is in close proximity to Rias Biaxas on the Atlantic coastline, its climate is more continental than maritime. The average yearly rainfall is half that seen in the easterly winemaking regions situated closer to the Mediterranean Ocean. Rías Baixas is internationally recognised for its albarino based white wines, however, I have travelled to the region in search of Galicia’s red grape; mencía. Mencía has been at home on these perilously steep slopes for 2,000 years.

Originally, it was the Romans who made wine in Ribeira Sacra—to satiate the thirst of gold miners from the neighbouring province of Bierzo. The Romans carved steep terraces into the slate hillside to facilitate agriculture. Terraced vineyards are now the face of this land, as they have been for millennia. Farmers have raised animals, grown grain and harvested grapes for wine—subsistence crops—along the Ribeira Sacra hills for generations and the terraces are required to protect vines from the fierce easterly winds that scream down the canyon. These ruthless winds have the power to de-leaf and uproot vines. However, this is not the only hazard the vines of Ribeira Sacra have faced; the twentieth century was less than kind to this land. The Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) was accompanied by economic ruin and phylloxera—a vine louse that decimated vineyards across Europe. These obstacles deterred younger generations from pursuing a career in agriculture. In search of better lives, they fled to the cities. With an ageing population, the terraces and farms of Ribeira Sacra were eventually abandoned. Moss and forest reclaimed the slopes.

Thankfully, in the twenty-first century there is young blood returning to these slopes with determined energy. Ribeira Sacra translates to “sacred shore”. The canyons and lofty gorges of the Sil, Miño and Bibei rivers provide a surreal setting for viticulture. The region has five subzones from north to south: Chantada, Amandi, in the municipality of Monforte de Lemos, Ribeiras do Miño (the largest subzone), Ribeiras do Sil-Ourense and Quiroga-Bibei. The soil is 100% pizarra or slate stone and the region permits up to 16 grape varieties. The vineyards are scattered with a small array of red grape varieties, such as souson, garnacha, bobal, mencía and caineo. Godello, loureiro and treixadura are the most commonly planted varieties of white grape. Mencía is the most vastly planted red grape by far, making up 85% of plantings. The mencía wines from Ribeira Sacra provide a more perfumed and lighter-bodied expression with a silky balance of fruit and minerality, which can sometimes be reminiscent of Burgundy.

Dominio do Bibei is an ambitious and well-financed project that is restoring terraces and vineyards throughout the Bibei Valley—their reparations began back in 1999. A sleek and minimalist operation, the winery at Dominio do Bibei is comprised of four stark white buildings, which step down like stairs, mimicking the terraced hillsides. The establishment grows mencía and a host of Indigenous varieties. Traditionally, brancellao, mouratón, garnacha and sousón would be interplanted with mencía and the grapes would be harvested and fermented all together. However, Dominio do Bibei handles each variety separately. The estate produces two red wines. The first, a light and spicy wine known as Lalama, is designed for early drinking. The second, a more serious red known as Lacima, exhibits bold fruit and mineral flavours. In spite of Lacima’s richness, there is an underlying energy and lift on the palate that allows the wine to be densely textured and lightly poised at the same time. Diminio di Bibei also makes two contrasting styles of white wine. The fresh and lively ‘Lapola’ is a blend of four different white grapes whereas the extraordinarily creamy ‘Lapena’ is a bold varietal expression of the godello grape, which displays waxy orchard fruits.

The Amandi Valley seems to be the stage for the “rock star” winemakers of Ribeira Sacra. Wines created by many of these vintners can be found in a small tin shed owned by the parents of local winemaker, Pedro Rodriguez, whom is to be my guide during my time in Ribeira Sacra. Amongst the shed’s treasures are wines from the internationally recognised Raúl Perez, who makes El Pecado—a wine made from grapes grown in terraced vineyards overlooking the River Sil. The 2011 expression is astoundingly good; plentiful fine tannins complement flavours of polished black cherry fruit and crisp sloe berries. The wine has symmetry, focus and a tightly wound mineral finish. Portuguese winemaker Dirk Niepoort views the Amandi Valley with the same esteem. Producing one of his project labels here with the help of Rodriguez, Niepoort states, “If I didn’t think that I could make wines that could age, I wouldn’t be here.” The wine, named Ladredo, is fermented in an open wood vat with 40% whole bunches. In 2009, fermentation took three days to start and stayed in contact with the skins for 35 days. The wine was then aged for 14 months in used French oak barrels. Ladredo tastes of liqueur black cherry fruit wrapped in dark slaty earth. Smokey notes of incense weave through the wine, adding complexity and charm.

One cannot help but notice Rodriguez’s passion for his people and his land. At the age of 35, he shrugged off a career in the legal industry to rebuild his family’s vineyard by hand, one rock at a time. Reconnecting with his family estate, he now works his 97-year-old grandmother’s vineyards with the help of his parents, Manolo and Carmen. I ask Rodriguez if he buys grapes from any of these plots and he laughs; older Galicians are largely unaware that the wines are earning rave reviews in the international wine media. More poignantly perhaps, Rodriguez stresses that these wines fortify the locals for the long and cold winters. The soils of Rodriguez’s slopes are primarily slate, quartz and granite, with a touch of clay in the vineyards closest to the river. The vines sit between 300 and 600 metres in altitude. Loureiro, treixadura and albariño all suffer in the heat of summer and Rodriguez plans to combat this by carving new terraces at higher altitudes. His best vineyards were planted around the time his grandmother was born. The mencía grapes from those old vines are destined for his single site wines. According to Rodriguez, the slate and mica components are very important for soaking up the sun during the growing season, which in turn aids the ripening of the thick-skinned mencía variety. The sun bounces off the soils and radiates onto low hanging bunches. The soils have virtually no limestone or calcareous matter and are very low in acid. The cool nights assist with acid retention and are thought to be responsible for the unique, bright and earthy perfume that is typical of the region.

In a bid to reveal some of the culture in Ribeira Sacra, Rodriguez suggests exposing me to some local fair. After a quick stop in the village for some Pulpo (a local speciality of cooked octopus), we travelled to the Guimaro winery. Here, we turned our attention to Rodriguez’s solo projects. The Guimaro wines are Rodriguez’s main focus. When we arrived, the grapes from 2012 were sluggishly making their way through malolactic fermentation. The project focuses on making minuscule amounts of juicy, exotically scented, earthy reds from the mencía grape and a thimble of perfumed white from godello. Spread over 8 hectares on the steep mountain slopes, the grapes are sourced from 15 different sites. During the growing season, the sites share a hot daytime temperature that is moderated by cool nights. Rodriguez farms biodynamically—a holistic and organic approach to tending his vines in pursuit of truth of vineyard site. His methods of winemaking fly in the face of the local wine bureaucracies, who prefer winemakers to produce foursquare, inexpensive fruit driven wines for high volume sales. According to Rodriguez, the grapes react differently to each bend in the row, each angle of sun exposure and each breath of wind. Concisely put, “same grapes, different flavours.”

This recipe—indigenous grapes, unique microclimates and a passionate winemaker—culminates in wines worthy of the international spotlight. As we climb back into the car to begin the white-knuckle descent down the twisted roads of Ribeira Sacra, I turn to ask Rodriguez a question. With these slate soils and the terraced staked vines, reminiscent of the Mosel Valley, had he ever thought of planting riesling? He promised to answer me, but only if I could keep a secret. I insisted that I could … and with a cheeky smile, he admitted that he had a love of pinot noir.

The Wines of Pedro Rodgriguez

All white wines macerate on skins for 30 hours prior to fermentation and are then manually basket pressed. The free run godello juice is held in tank then split between four barrels; two American barrels—one new, one old—and two French barrels—one new, one old. The rest of the wine is made in stainless steel and bottled as a less ambitious joven style. The wine is wild yeast fermented and spends six months on lees. There is no batonnage, no malolactic conversion and no racking.

Guimaro Godello Joven 2012

The wine is a fruity expression of godello that is blended with a small amount of treixadura. The nose shows aromas of fresh grapefruit and lime pulp. The treixadura provides a slight herbal note. The palate is high in acid with great line and a mineral length. An easy drinking and deliciously crisp medium bodied wine.

Guimaro Godello 2012

This wine is more ambitious than the joven style. The wine leads with a savoury nose of mealy lees with hints of soft vanilla, peach skin and almond blossom. The palate is textural and displays flavours of almond meal with a viscous orchard fruit quality. There is an underlying minerality, giving the wine line, length and cool moderate acidity. The old oak informs the wine with texture and flavours of musk, anise and fennel. The wine is marked by a sweet and savoury interplay.

Guimaro Mencía Joven 2012 (Out of Barrel)

The grapes are fermented separately according to their soil type and then blended together once ready. The wine is fermented using native yeasts with a small part of the cuvée comprising whole clusters. The wine is maturated for approximately one year, until the following harvest; half is aged in a large 2,000 litre foudre and the other half in tank. The wine is aromatic with notes of raspberry, rose petal and pomegranate fruit. The fresh acidity and firm granite minerality on the palate echo the powerful core commonly found in top cru beaujolais. Flavours of black cherry pip and rhubarb fruit provide roundness, which is contrasted by a sappy texture. Quartz earth and white pepper dominate the finish. So delicious I forget to spit.

Guimaro Ribeira Sacra Single Vineyard Projects

2010 Finca Meixeman

If the voice of Robert Parker is heard anywhere near the wines of Pedro Rodriguez, perhaps it could be heard here. The wine is composed from a very small plot of old vine mencía. The grapes provide a very ripe and richly textured wine. The richness of the fruit allows the wine to handle a substantial proportion of new oak—this wine receives the most new oak out of the three single vineyards. The fruit is plush and voluptuous and is accompanied by slaty minerality and good acidity that freshens the wine from its immense density. The wine is not unlike cru Chinon.

2010 Ribeira Sacra Finca Capelinos

This plot of 95-year-old mencía vines comprises slate and granite soils. The southwest facing site captures the warmth of long summer afternoons. The extended sunlight gives the wines a soft and silky fruit ripeness. The grapes are foot-trodden and fermented with native yeasts—40% whole grape bunches are used during the fermentation. The approachability of capeliños makes it a gracious introduction to serious mencía. This wine is defined by its soft mid-palate with mulled red fruit and plums. The wine has a spicy appeal with notes of cinnamon bark and ample acidity to balance its structure. Exotic smoky elements and cool minerals mark the finish.

2010 Ribeira Sacra Finca Pombeiras

Finca Pombeiras has the coolest climate of the three single vineyards. The earth is a mixture of slate and granite. The wine displays whole-bunch aromatics of tree sap, pink pepper and incense. The palate is based around the purity of red cherry and cranberry fruit and this is complemented by the floral lift of violets, mineral earth and truffle, forest floor and a silky powerful core. The wine evolves every time you come back to the glass. Amazingly ethereal and incredibly sexy, this wine lends the best comparison to pinot noir.

Terraced Mencia vines down to the River Xil

Pedro Rodriguez of Guimaro in his vineyard on the Xil

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