September 15 2010 issue

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PAGES (71-77) September 15 2010

God and Men in Ribeira Sacra Gerry Dawes

"La Ribeira Sacra is truly one of the most exciting regions in the world at the moment and poised to become one of the most sought-after."

—Roger Kugler, former general manager-wine director at Suba and current wine director at Boqueria in New York City

La Ribeira Sacra turns out some of the most intriguing and terroir-driven white wines, based on Godello (the God in the headline), and red wines, based on Mencía (the Men), that I have tasted in four decades of roaming the wine trails of Spain. As if that were not enough, this barely accessible back country of mountainous Galicia—some 350 miles northwest of Madrid and just a little more than 60 miles north of Portugal—is the most stunningly beautiful wine region I have seen in my career.

The earliest mention of Ribeira Sacra (Spanish for "sacred riverbank") dates to early-12th-century documents signed by Queen Teresa of Portugal, who called the area "Rivoyra Sacra" because of the profusion of Romanesque churches. Many of these religious sites were built by Cistercian monks from Burgundy, who were the Johnny Appleseeds of their epoch—except that the Cistercians planted vineyards as well as apple trees, other fruits, and vegetables in the areas they colonized. The Cistercians established the grand cru Burgundy vineyards of Musigny and Clos de Vougeot, as well as several plots in Meursault and Auxerre (Chablis). Over a period of 50 years in the 11th and 12th centuries, they experimented with different grape varieties in different soil types and climates, thus becoming the earliest experts on the concept of terroir. These wine-loving monks subsequently planted still-famous vineyards in other European sites and around Spain, especially in Ribeira Sacra, where the preserved and sometimes restored remains of scores of Cistercian monasteries and churches dot the hillsides.

THE TERRACES

Of course, an illustrious history and an awesome landscape do not automatically guarantee great viticulture. Making truly stellar wines also takes the right climate—the God part, nature aided by the Cistercians—along with the right grapes married to the right soil in well-tended vineyards with relatively low yields—the God and men part—and minimally interventionist winemakers, at least a few of whom know what to do with such gifts. In Ribeira Sacra, that’s where the men (and women) are truly vital, because the cosecheros (those who tend and harvest the vineyards) must also be capable of what is known as viticultura heroica .

Ribeira Sacra is one of only two areas in Spain (Catalunya’s Priorat is the other) that requires this "heroic viticulture." The region’s steeply tiered slate bancales , or terraces, have a great deal to do with why the wines of Ribeira Sacra can be so profoundly terroir-driven, intriguing, and delicious, and why this area has the potential to produce wines as great as those from anywhere in Spain.

The Romans entered Ribeira Sacra as early as 24 A.D. to extract gold from the river valleys. This required prodigious engineering feats such as the diversion of the Sil River—accomplished with slave labor by digging a 1,300-foot tunnel through what is now called Montefurado ("perforated mountain"). The Romans also used slave labor to plant terraced vineyards along the Sil and Minho riverbanks. Today, Ribeira Sacra growers still have to work like slaves to prune, tend, and harvest grapes from these improbably situated vines. A few sites, including Cividade, Marcelino, and Viña A Ferreira, are so inaccessible that when the grapes are harvested, they are lowered to boats waiting on the Sil River, brought to landings that can be reached by road, and finally hauled to the wineries. All the vineyards have makeshift rails adapted from mining, with mechanical lifts that are winched up and down, carrying one person at a time, a few tools, and, during harvest, containers of grapes.

According to the president of the Ribeira Sacra Denominación de Origen (DO) Regulatory Council, José Manuel Rodríguez, the grade of most vineyards is 30-80%, but some "are even steeper at 100% or more, except around the town of Quiroga in eastern Ribeira Sacra, where the topography is far less dramatic." (The famous Bernkasteler Doktor vineyard in Germany’s Mosel region is on a 100% incline.)

In fact, Ribeira Sacra contains 5% of all the steeply terraced vineyards in Europe. It is so well regarded for its heroic viticulture that the region’s main town, Monforte de Lemos, was chosen to host the Second International Congress on Vine-growing in the Mountains and on Steep Slopes in March 2008. This biennial congress is put on by CERVIM, the Center for Research, Study and Safeguarding of Vine-growing in the Mountains and/or on Steep Slopes, an Aosta, Italy-based organization whose members also include wineries from Austria’s Wachau; France’s northern Rhône Valley and Beaujolais; Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer; Italy’s Aosta, Piedmont, and Alto Adige; Portugal’s Douro; and Switzerland’s Valais.

THE TERROIR

Thanks to a difference in elevation of as much as 500 or 600 feet from top to bottom in the same riverside vineyard, the Ribeira Sacra vendimia ("harvest") can be spread out. It begins with the earliest-ripening vines in the warmest sections, followed by the rows at the lowest altitudes nearest the river, and continues for 10-15 days until the uppermost vines are picked.

The most direct Atlantic weather influences are felt in the western Minho River area, which receives some 35.5 inches of annual rainfall, while the more southern and eastern stretches of the Sil River get only 20-27.5 inches per year. The Minho’s median annual temperature is 56ºF, and even though the Sil is but one degree warmer, temperatures there can easily each 95-100ºF at midday in summer.

The climate of Ribeira Sacra also contributes greatly to the variety of rocky soil types and old native grapes, which, in turn, help account for the wide range of styles across the region—so wide, in fact, that the five subzones here could each make a case for being its own distinct DO. From northwest to southeast, the subzonas are Chantada, whose magical vineyards line the Minho in northwestern Ribeira Sacra; Ribeiras do Minho, with its strikingly beautiful sites south of Chantada; Amandi, whose precipitous vineyards lie in the center of the region, bordered on the south by the Sil River; Ribeiras do Sil, running along the deep canyons south of the Sil, from the Minho in the west to Castro Caldelas; and Quiroga-Bibei, including some non-terraced vineyards around Quiroga, but still more majestic, terraced blocks along the Sil and Bibei rivers in the southeast. As Rodríguez says, "There are more than 200 kilometers [124 miles] of vineyard roads in this region, and probably as many as 20 distinct microclimates that could be their own Denominación de Origen."

The old vines, burrowed deeply into the fractured stone of the terraced hillsides, impart a unique minerality to Ribeira Sacra’s wines. Soils range from mostly granite in Chantada and a granite-slate mix in Ribeiras do Minho and Ribeiras do Sil to mostly slate in Amandi and slate- or schist-laced clay in Quiroga-Bibei.

These ancient vineyards often contain field blends of Mencía and even more obscure indigenous Galician red varieties. Although the Regulatory Council has decreed that Mencía, Brancellao, and Merenzao are the "preferred" varieties for red wines, Caíño Tinto, Mouratón (also called Negrada), Sousón, the inky Garnacha Tintorera (gradually being eliminated as an authorized variety), and the seldom-encountered Tempranillo (so widely grown in the rest of Spain) are also allowed. The aromatic, mineral Godello heads the list of preferred white grapes, but the region also produces some fine, terroir-laced Albariño and the native Dona Blanca, Loureira, Torrontés, and Treixadura, any of which can be blended with Godello.

THE WINE WITH FOOD

If my generally favorable tastings of wines from more than 40 different wineries over the past five years of extensive travel in the region are any indication, Ribeira Sacra is poised to have an important impact on a Spanish wine culture that has allowed itself—like far too many other cultures—to become obsessed with overblown, overripe, highly alcoholic wines. When new-oak flavors dominate a wine that is made in the bodega—rather than in the vineyard—it is often referred to in Spain as sopa de roble ("oak soup"). But as Javier Domínguez, owner of Dominio do Bibei in the Bibei River section of the eastern Quiroga mountains, told me last year, "That is how we began: by cutting yields and working the vineyards to get them into the right condition to make good wine."

Finally, a Spanish region is emerging whose terruño ("terroir")-driven wines with moderate alcohol levels (typically 12-13%) can rival some of the great Atlantic-influenced wines of France—including red and white Burgundies and the Cabernet Francs of the Loire Valley—with their sublime, ethereal qualities. A tasting like the one I recently attended in Monforte de Lemos of the exceptional red wines of D. Ventura—elegant expressions of lovely, haunting fruit and lingering minerality, moderate alcohol levels, and no oak—should convince anyone of the quality potential of Ribeira Sacra on its own terms.

Roger Kugler, winner of the 2009 Copa Jerez competition as Best Sommelier for his wine-and-food pairings, has been a fan of the region for several years. "One of the things I most appreciate about Ribeira Sacra is the individuality of the wines," he says. "The terroir, which is unique in Spain and in the world, gives the wines great character and depth while allowing the winemaker to work with juice that needs little help to produce great wines. This is producing a very wide range of wines at an equally wide range of prices, styles, and alcohol levels."

Some of the world’s finest crustaceans, while not inexpensive, can be found in Galician restaurants. Few food-and-wine experiences are more memorable than a luncheon of the splendid shellfish of the Rías Baixas area with an Albariño made along the spectacular rías (fjords) of maritime Galicia. But I have found the Godello and Godello-Albariño whites of Ribeira Sacra to be just as good with crustaceans and bivalves served at inland restaurants, thanks to their minerality. Dishes such as crabs or Dublin Bay prawns; camarones (small, succulent shrimp); santiaguiños (divine, miniature lobster-like creatures); fresh, briny oysters; sublime mussels tinned in paprika sauce; and the addictive baby scallops called zamburiñas are superb with a Godello-based wine like the Pena das Donas Almalarga. Vieiras Santiago ( coquille Saint-Jacques ), a sea scallop baked in its shell with onion and bread crumbs, actually originated in Galicia; the recipe migrated to France with pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostela.

Ribeira Sacra red wines marry well with a wide variety of Galician dishes, including grilled fish and shellfish—especially steamed or grilled octopus ( polbo a feira ) served with olive oil, Spanish pimentón (paprika), and sea salt, for which, ironically, inland Galicia is famous. Empanadas (pastries stuffed with tuna, pepper, and onions), zamburiñas , or even small sardines are especially good with a cool bottle of red wine. Galician pork, beefsteaks, bread (the best in Spain), and soft, young cows’-milk cheeses such as San Simón and Tetilla are simple matches that show off the charm and minerality of un-oaked Ribeira Sacra reds.