Interior Galicia: Carved by Water
The third part in our installment on Galicia wines focuses on the interior regions where there are nerve centers or "climates" of significant importance. We start with the Valdeaugas Valley in the southern part of Valdeorras where godello heroically survives the rugged conditions. In this "climate" two denominations coexist: Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. The winding river through this valley cuts in multiple directions creating innumerable microclimates where old vines are being brought back to life. As we continue west and cut through Ribeira Sacra, we come to another incredible area in the subzone of Amandi. In particular, the village of Doade here holds the key to the greatest wines from the region. The landscape speaks for itself with views that once seen are never forgotten. Finally, we arrive at Ribeiro. With its Atlantic climate and many waterways, this is a region where a new category of reds wines is now emerging. This is a new dawn for Galicia and one that promises to give us new magical experiences. You can find parts one and two on our Northwest Spain Series page.
When you drive from the plains of Léon towards Galicia, the first signs that you are entering a different world is in Bierzo. Here, the gently undulating hills surrounded by a ring of mountains are a far cry from the flat, dusty landscape of Castilla.
Keep going west through the mountains on the N-120, and the signs welcome you to Galicia proper. In Valdeorras, the climate remains much drier and hotter than you might think based on images of lush, cool, coastal Galicia.
And while plenty of quality wine is made in the broad Sil river valley here, it is by venturing off the main road that you get a glimpse of the kinds of amazing treasures that interior Galicia has in store. Near the town of O Bolo, the banks of the Bibei river are vertiginously steep. No vineyards are apparent from the main road. But the ancient terraces, originally carved by the Romans, completely cover these ribeiras. Phylloxera, the civil war, and Franco completely decimated wine production here, but the traditions are ancient and a hugely important part of the story of Galicia since antiquity.
Today many of the best sites have been replanted, and it is in this spirit that A Coroa produces 200 Cestos. Run by a local family with deep roots in the area, A Coroa was instrumental in bringing the godello grape back from obscurity, as Angel Lopez ran a nursery.
Their most recent project has been the recuperation of one of these ancient sites on the Bibei river. Called Valdeaugas, this steep vineyard on granitic soil at the top of the hill is the source of their 200 Cestos wine. The intense minerality this cuvée shows is part of the thematic line that runs through all quality wines from this northwestern corner of Spain.
As soon as you cross the Bibei river, you enter Ribeira Sacra. If the hillsides along the banks of the Bibei are impressive, those along the stretch of the Sil that runs through the appellation, in the area around Doade, are truly breathtaking. The primary emotion elicited by this landscape is disbelief that anyone would even think to plant vines here. Yet plant the Romans did. Here the dominant wine color is red, and the primary grape is the indigenous mencía.
On these vineyards clinging to the hillsides, the grades are so steep that dumbwaiters are used to move grapes out during harvest. There is only one row of vines per terrace. In the heart of this is D Ventura’s Viña Caneiro. Fully south facing, grapes are planted all the way down to the water’s edge, where sunlight is reflected onto the terraces. The wines that come out of this vineyard are often warm and ripe, but they are always profoundly mineral, soulful, and terroir-driven.
It’s not clear, at this early stage, if the wines of this part of Ribeira Sacra have the potential for long aging. It is clear, though, that the wines show best when they are unencumbered by pretension. It is through directness, purity, and simplicity that these wines express themselves best. Fancy techniques, manipulation in the winery - any kind of makeup, really - do not become them at all.
This concept is something Ramon Losada, owner of D Ventura, understands better than anyone. A man of the land, his wines reflect his personality. His winemaking process is as low-tech and simple as can be. Simple fermentation and aging in stainless steel tanks produce vibrant, transparent wines that pair brilliantly with the local country cuisine.
Ripe as Viña Caneiro can be, Ribeira Sacra is actually a geographically diverse appellation, and other terroirs produce other styles. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Viña do Burato. Situated further north, above the banks of the river Miño, this vineyard is much cooler and receives far more rain. A much more marked Atlantic influence makes for a fresher, crunchier wine. That both these vineyards, in all their diversity, can exist so close to each other, within the same appellation, is just another example of the wonders of interior Galicia. That we have a partner with such a dedication to expressing these diverse terroirs is our incredible luck.
Follow the Miño as it flows west, towards its confluence with the Avia, in the town of Ribadavia. It is along the banks of the Avia river that most of the grapes for the once-famous wines of Ribeiro grow. With viticulture dating back to Roman times, Ribeiro is, in fact, the oldest D.O. in Galicia, having been established in 1957. That said, since its heydays lasting into the 18th century, Ribeiro wines had languished in obscurity.
Though far less visually stunning than Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro is arguably in the sweet spot of interior Galicia. At the edge of the zone of Atlantic influence, it gets just enough maritime freshness to give the wine a light oceanic character. However, it receives only half the rainfall of its thoroughly Atlantic counterpart of Rías Baixas, which allows for a whole host of different grape varieties to ripen properly. This delicate balance, at the confluence of various climatic zones, along with an emphasis on native grapes, is what gives Ribeiro wines their particular poise. Intriguingly, we are only at the beginning of discovering this region’s potential.
In the late 1980s, Javier Alen and a group of friends founded Viña Mein and turned it into one of the first modern wineries in Ribeiro, thereby launching the revival of this area. Javier quit a job as a lawyer in Madrid to found the winery, but he is a native of the area, having been born in a house in Leiro. His first vintage, in 1993, produced just 2,000 bottles. As time went on, Javier became recognized as a pioneer and a leader. His style, with its emphasis on freshness and great fruit from indigenous grapes, made Viña Mein the benchmark for the D.O. Javier crafts his white blends around treixadura, an aromatic variety, along with loureira, torrontés, lado, godello, and albariño.
A couple years ago, when the long-term manager of the winery retired, and Javier decided it was time to bring in some young blood to move to the next level and explore new ideas. He brought on Dani Landi and Fernando Garcia, of Comando G, with instructions to shake things up. The result was change in the vineyards, with the introduction of stringent organic viticulture, and the isolation of specific sites to make single-vineyard cuvées. In the winery, more precise techniques were introduced, to create more vibrant, transparent wines. But perhaps the most important change was the development of the red wine program.
Utilizing native grape varieties such as caiño longo, brancellao, tintilla, and sousón, Viña Mein is now crafting truly distinctive red wines from Ribeiro, and the potential for further development is enormous. The unique climatic situation of Ribeiro lends itself to a style of fresh, spicy, medium-bodied red wines reminiscent of some of the best Loire Valley cabernet franc. The delicious wines on the market now are only a glimpse of what the future might hold.
Directly across the Avia river from Viña Mein is Emilio Rojo's single vineyard site. Elusive is how Emilio Rojo is often described, but transformational is more appropriate for this iconoclast who showed that world-class quality in Galicia was not only a possibility but also a reality.
In 1985, Emilio Rojo quit his engineering job in Madrid and started his eponymous winery in Arnoia. He went back to his roots to where a village once stood called Ibedo. Like many ancient Roman villages in Galicia, the physical structures were taken back by nature with granite walls crumbling underneath the weight of old vines and roads buried under centuries of overgrowth. Here he recuperated two hectares of old terraces through heroic efforts and planted them with ancient varieties. He crafts his wines by only making small adjustments to better the result. The wines are supernatural; infused with an attitude, energy, and emotion that could only come from Galicia.
Today, with Galicia at the forefront of new paths, Emilio Rojo and Javier Alen are the elder statesmen clearing the way for the new generation. Each one of these Gallegos brought to light the magic that only a true idealist can. That magic is Galicia, and we are so fortunate to be such a big part of these personalities and their land.