The convergence of wine, food and culture
Galicia is not the Spain of popular conception. It is a far cry from the image of sun-soaked bullfighting many have. Cool, rainy and green, Galicia’s climate influences derive from the Atlantic, not the Mediterranean. In its language, its culture, its geography, and even in the grapes grown here, this is a different side of Spain. Here the language spoken is Gallego, closer to Portuguese than Spanish. Additionally, the ancient Celtic influence can still be felt, for example through the gaita, the Galician bagpipes that are used in the local folk music.
Grapes have been grown for wine in Galicia since Roman times, as these settlers saw the potential of the area. At times, the wines have even achieved a certain renown: wines from Ribeiro were well-loved by the English in the 17th century. Beyond that, Galician winemakers have toiled in relative obscurity, with little incentive to modernize or change their ways. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that a resurgence was seen, with updated technology and a focus on quality, driven by people who saw that Galician wines had the potential for greatness. Nowadays, Albariño is well-known to wine lovers around the world, and other Galician wines are beginning to find success as well.
And no wonder: Galicia has so much to offer. It is a region focused on its indigenous grapes – varieties such as Mencía and Albariño, but also Godello, Loureiro, Caiño, Treixadura, and countless others. It has hugely varied terroirs: from slate to granite to sand, and the climates go from nearly continental in Valdeorras in the east, to temperate oceanic in Rias Baixas on the western coast.
What unites this region throughout: the cool temperatures (by Spanish standards at least) which allow for fresh, acid-driven wines; the minerality and sense of terroir, pervasive throughout all the best wines from the region; and the focus on indigenous varieties. In the hands of talented winemakers, these features translate into some of the most singular and expressive wines of Spain.
[official D.O. webpage]
Monterrei is a small Galician D.O. located along the border with Portugal. The region takes its name from the medieval castle that dominates the landscape. The climate here is hotter and drier than it is in the rest of Galicia, as it lacks the influence from the Atlantic Ocean that is enjoyed by most of the other D.O.s in this region. The D.O. is divided into two sub-zones: Valle de Monterrei and Ladera de Monterrei.
Winemaking in the region was started by the Romans. During the Middle Ages wine production expanded thanks to the work of the local monasteries. Due to the strategic military importance of Monterrei's castle in defending the border with Portugal, the region grew in fame and became a popular export market. Monterrei even exported wines to Spanish colonies in the New World.
During the past century wine production in Monterrei started to decline. Numerous economic and social factors caused many vineyards to be replanted with more commercially viable crops and most of the wineries closed during the latter half of the twentieth century. In the 1990s efforts were begun to revitalize winemaking here. The modern D.O. of Monterrei was established in 1994.
The D.O. produces both red and white wines. The primary white varietals here are Doña Blanca, most commonly used in bulk wines, and Godello, preferred for the finer offerings. As with the rest of Galicia, red wine production is dominated by Mencía, but there are a few other varietals grown here, most notably a strain of Tempranillo known as Arauxa.
D.O. Rias Baixas
[official D.O. webpage]
This viticultural region takes its name from the estuaries that flow into the lower parts of Galicia. These waterways create a very unique ecosystem full of life, both in the ocean and on land.
The most famous of Galicia's denominations, Rías Baixas has its roots with its founding in 1984. In 1988 three sub-zones were demarcated: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea and O Rosal. Additional sub-zones were later introduced, with Soutomaior added in 1996 and Ribeiro do Ulla in 2000.
The denomination comprises 3,814 hectares and is predominantly planted with the Albariño grape variety. Other permitted varieties are Loureiro, Treixadura, Caíño Blanco, Souson and Caíño for the reds.
The soils range from decomposed granite, found predominantly in the Salnès Valley, to alluvial soils in the O Rosal and Condado sub-zones.
The dominant Salnés sub-zone, where more than 50 percent of the vineyards are located, enjoys a unique orientation towards the sea and is protected by a range of mountains that inhibits the entrence of the fog. The proximity to the ocean creates a unique micro-climate, with sea breezes lending the wines their distinct flavor profiles.
The parcels in this region are extremely small and are owned by many small growers. This creates great challenges in producing wines of any significant quantity, especially when attempting to attain a quality product.
D.O. Ribeira Sacra
[official D.O. webpage]
This area is named for the many chapels that dot the rugged landscape. Founded in 1996, the denomination currently comprises 1,270 hectares that are predominately planted with the Mencía grape. Extremely removed from the beaten path, this area was once famous for magnificent red wines. The incredible landscape, with its terraces cut out of the mountainsides, recalls an era in which labor was cheap and plentiful. Today, all that remains are very small plots maintained against the hardships of a demanding landscape.
There are two main rivers that define the area: the Miño River and the Sil River. The Sil River flows on an east-west axis and merges with the Miño River which flows on a north-south axis. These two rivers join forces in the center of the region and then flow into the Atlantic Ocean, creating the natural boundary between Spain and Portugal along the way.
This viticultural area contains five distinct sub-zones: Chantada, Riberas do Miño, Riberas do Sil, Amandi and Quiroga-Bibei.
The Chantada and Miño sub-zones are located along the Miño River and are characterized by a very wet climate. This is especially true of the Miño sub-zone. Carved terraces step down to the meandering river. This area is extremely humid and enjoys plentiful rain. Vegetation is abundant, with ferns growing alongside the vines. The soils tend to be composed of losa, a type of brown, decomposed slate.
On the Sil River we encounter the other three sub-zones. The first, on the south side of the river, is the Riberas do Sil. This area once had terraces planted all along the river, but few remain in use today. The area on the north (right) bank is the Amandi sub-zone. This is the most extreme of the sub-zones with terraces that jut down on 60 degree slopes. The soils here are also losa but vegetation is sparse. The vineyards have better exposure, facing south but receiving a great cooling and refractory effect from the river. Following the river west, the soils tend to have more granite, especially around the town of Doade, and the terraces become less steep. The easternmost sub-zone is the Quiroga-Bibei area. This area lies along the natural border with the Valdeorras denomination and is named after the Bibei River, which meets the Sil River here. The climate is completely different in this sub-zone, with much harsher and drier weather. Wild herbs such as rosemary, fennel and thyme grow throughout this area; the soils are a mix of granite and slate. Like the rest of the denomination, the vineyards are all terraces cut out of the mountainsides.
[official D.O. webpage]
Ribeiro is one of the oldest denominations in Galicia. The denomination has its origins in regional by-laws established in 1594 to govern the production and sale of wines from the area around the old market town of Ribadavia. The modern D.O., based around Ribadavia, was founded in 1956 and currently comprises 2,767 hectares. This old area was once known as the home of the longest-lived white wines of Galicia. Located on the Sil River, the town of Ribadavia rises up above the river with the old bodegas still standing in the town square. It was in these bodegas that merchants used to sell wine in barrels, roll them down the street to the docks, and load them onto the ships that would export them across Europe and even to the New World.
The predominant grape planted in the denomination is Treixadura. In addition to Treixadura, there are plantings of Albariño, Lado, Torrontés, Loureiro, Albilla for whites and Caiño for the reds. The soils here are predominantly granite. Temperatures can be quite high during the summer months. The vineyards border the rivers, where they are protected from the excessive heat of the valley floor, which tends to produce wines lacking freshness. Historically, the best vineyard sites are up on the hillsides where the cooler air refreshes the grapes and creates a longer growing season.
[official D.O. webpage]
One of Galicia's more historically significant wine producing regions is Valdeorras, located at the eastern extremity of Galicia. Inhabited since pre-history, settlements in this area greatly expanded with the arrival of the Romans who came in search of metals and ore. They founded mines within the territory and used water to bore tunnels and extract slate. In the process, they built new towns, fortresses and trade routes and began planting grapes on the hillsides.
Made up of 1,300 hectares, this denomination was founded in 1977. The principal grape variety planted here is Godello but there are many plantings of other grapes such as Palomino Fino and Doña Blanca. These other grapes were planted mainly for their productivity and not their quality after the region was devastated by phylloxera in the late nineteenth century. There are also some plantings of Mencía and Garnacha Tintorera for reds. In the 1970s Godello was reintroduced to the region and then in 1985 a major study was undertaken to identify the original clones of Godello that were best suited to the area. This study allowed a replanting of Valdeorras based on quality as opposed to quantity.
There are several different viticultural areas or zones within Valdeorras, with the predominant ones sitting between the towns of O Barco and A Rúa. The other important area of cultivation surrounds the town of O Bolo. The soils tend to vary from slate in the O Barco-A Rúa area to granite in the O Bolo area. The best vineyards are those located above the rivers, since these benefit from a cooler climate.