Some of the most exciting wines in Valdeorras come from outsiders who fell in love with certain areas within Galicia’s easternmost wine region. The best known is Rioja-born Rafael “Rafa” Palacios, who moved there in 2004 and is behind some of the most refined Godellos in the region. But by the early 2000s, Telmo Rodríguez and Pablo Eguzkiza, friends and partners at the Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez (on a mission to rescue historic vineyards from oblivion), had already bought Falcoeira. Regarded as the area’s grand cru, at the time it was just a steep slope covered with wild vegetation and no trace of vines.
It’s not by chance that both projects are based on the most rugged valley in the appellation. The Bibei river marks the boundary between the steep slopes of Valdeorras and Ribera Sacra -on both sides heroic grape growing is the norm. Even though the As Ermidas shrine, built in the 18th century, cannot trace back its wine growing tradition to the religious orders of the Middle Age, it nevertheless adds charm to the area.
The three producers see Bibei as a historic wine producing valley in Galicia -it’s almost imposible to grow other crops here. Stone terraces were painstakingly built to prevent erosion and as a result of granite decomposition, sandy soils are prevalent in this area. “Sand filters everything: water, salt…,” Pablo Eguzkiza explains. For Palacios, Bibei is pure granite: “As elevation rises, clay gives way to pure sand.”
Rafa, a white wine specialist who steers away from rich, heavy styles, was drawn by the freshness that comes from the area's high elevation and north facing plots. “Godello is transformed here and becomes very elegant,” he adds.
Despite the fragmented ownership of vineyards in Galicia, Palacios has painstakingly managed to buy over 20 hectares. Its flagship wine, As Sortes, has been named after all the small holdings which were inherited by drawing lots or “sortes” (chance in English). O Soro, his top single-vineyard wine, is probably the best white in the Bibei right now: a refined, vibrant wine with the ability to age.
Its red counterpart is probably Falcoeira. It has taken Telmo Rodríguez and Pablo Eguzkiza over a decade to bring this south-facing slope with a 150m drop back to life. Everything has been done in the traditional way: stone walls and terraces were patiently rebuilt from scratch, rootstocks were planted first, cuttings directly grafted on site the following year. They chose the same grape varieties that had survived in vineyards nearby. While Brancellao and Sousón were destined to the upper terraces, the rest was planted with Mencía, Merenzao, Alicante Bouschet, Jerez and Godello. Falcoeira now covers 2.75Ha. In its very best vintage yields stood at barely 4,000 kg.
“It’s not just a matter of buying a property; you have to be able to make it work and keep it running, which it is twice as expensive,” says Pablo Eguzkiza. “The challenge is to make attractive and expensive wines to preserve the landscape and farm it manually”. He uses a clear comparison: a conventional vineyard requires around 170 hours per hectare; Falcoeira needs 580-600 man hours.
The wine itself is as impressive as the astonishing work behind it. Eguzkiza must have felt a happy man when at a lunch with local grape growers one of them enquired who was the crazy guy behind Falcoeira to eventually reveal that they had planted in the best area, known as “A Capilla” (the chapel). No wonder Pablo renamed the wine Falcoeira “A Capilla” (1,300 bottles, €50).
Cía. de Telmo Rodríguez grows two other traditional vineyards in the Bibei valley, both of which are cooler. As Caborcas (1,500 bottles, €45) is the chaotic slope opposite Falcoeira: “Not as legendary but there were some vines left at least,” Pablo jokes. O Diviso comes from As Ermidas, a vineyard that faces the shrine of the same name, (800 bottles, €50, it was a shame that the bottle I tried was corked). This elevated area (710m) is close to the grape growing limits and vegetation changes to chestnut trees intermixed with vines -wild boars often roam the area, looking for their share of fruit. Almost 50% of the vines had to be replanted.
All of these three wines are light-years away from Telmo Rodríguez’s seamless entry-level selections in Valdeorras: Gaba do Xil white (€12, 90,000 bottles) and red (€9, 30,000 bottles).
“It seems to me that the great wine from this area -and this is Bibei, not Valdeorras- is red,” says Eguzkiza. Interestingly, the legend on their three single-vineyard reds says “Great wine from Galicia”; their white, sourced from the white grapes intermixed in those vineyards, reads instead: “Vineyards in Galicia.” Pablo explains why: “We call it Branco de Santa Cruz rather than ‘blanco’ because we know we are still far from making a great white here.”
Consumers generally think of Valdeorras as a white producing region with Godello as its shinning star. A real favourite for wine critics like Jancis Robinson (“The more I taste this north-west Spanish white wine variety, the more I love it”), Godello conjures serious white wines with good acidity and structure. As opposed to other Galician grape varieties, it works well in oak.
A US market expert, wine producer and importer Jorge Ordóñez settled in the area in 2007. His whites and reds from Valdeorras stand among the most distinctive wines within its large Spanish portfolio with Godello and Mencía making their voices heard above the wine making process.
Pago de los Capellanes, a major player in Ribera del Duero, chose Valdeorras to make “a white wine that could match the complexity and cellaring potential of our reds,” says Estefanía Rodero, second generation of this family bodega in Pedrosa de Duero (Burgos).
Capellanes made its first 2014 harvest in rented facilities but by the 2016 vintage they had their own white-only winery in the village of Larouco capable of handling 200,000 kg of grapes. They now own 30Ha of vines and are known for paying their purveyors’ grapes well. Three whites are sold under the O Luar do Sil brand; a young Godello that was first released in the 2016 vintage (120,000 bottles, €9 in Spain); a benchmark Godello aged under lees (45,000 bottles, €18) which is my favourite, and a barrel-fermented white (4,000 bottles, €25).
Large players are also interested in the area. In November 2107, Rioja’s Cvne bought Virxe de Galir, a family winery in O Barco with 11Ha under wine and capacity to produce 150,000 bottles per year. Cvne’s marketing director, María Urrutia, confirms the demand for Godello both in national and export markets and the company’s interest in “making the most of our distribution channels by broadening the range of special wines.” While 2018 will be their first harvest in area, they are willing to go on producing reds and whites in Valdeorras.
There is increased pressure on the appellation’s 370Ha of Godello vines. Prices have risen from €0.60/kg at the beginning of the 2000s to €1.20-€1.40 with peaks up to €2 and €2.50 in the 2017 vintage due to the devastating effects of frost. Rafael Palacios stopped producing his entry-level Bolo to be less dependent on third-party grapes. In 2017 his production shrunk to 130,000 bottles compared to 300,000 bottles in 2016, his record vintage. A newcomer like Luar do Sil managed to produce 170,000 bottles in 2017.
It’s unlikely that such demand for Godello may encourage producers to seek new terroirs in this area hemmed between Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra. Despite being one of the world’s major slate producers, the diversity of soils in Valdeorras is remarkable. That's why Viña Somoza's renewed approach is particularly appealing.
Since Prudencio Villalba took control of the company, changes are afoot at this small producer from A Rúa. Javier García from 4 Monos in Gredos (Central Spain) has been hired as wine consultant. They don’t own vineyards, but they buy from purveyors across the appellation, so in their first 2015 vintage, Javier decided to ferment all the grapes separately.
The experience helped to reorganize the range starting with a basic regional Godello called Neno (30,000 bottles, €10). Grapes are mainly sourced from alluvial soils and the wine is fermented with natural yeasts. A step above, As 2 Ladeiras explores traditional vineyards in the Bibei and Xares valleys (a tributary of the Bibei, the Xares forms the smaller valley in the DO) combining schist, gneiss and limestone soils. Finally, Ededia (850 bottles, €25) is a single-vineyard Godello from Rubiá with distinctive limestone soils. Reds from Viña Somoza are also worth considering. The entry level Vía XVIII, named after the Roman road that connected Braga and Astorga, is followed by the floral, earthy O Tesouro (1,000 bottles, €25). It is 100% Brancellao, also known as Albarello, as it appears on the label. In both wines, grapes are partially fermented with whole bunches and aged in large oak barrels or foudres.
The broad and airy basin formed by the Sil river across the villages of O Barco, Vilamartín and A Rúa shapes the main wine growing area in Valdeorras. According to Borja Prada from Valdesil, Villaredo in Vilamartín de Valdeorras is one of the most interesting hills. Split into tiny plots, this south-facing slope is well protected from the risk of frost. The Prada family, who once owned land in this and other areas, has gradually recovered the vineyards. The jewel in the crown is Pedrouzos, one of the oldest Godello plots in the DO. Planted in 1885, immediately after phylloxera ravaged the region, vines were grafted onto American wine rootstocks. The vineyard was inherited by Borja's great-grandfather, a devoted wine producer who is said to have fermented his plots separately and was convinced that wines with a high proportion of Godello were long-lived.
Valdesil currently owns 20Ha under vine, most of them in A Portela (the grandfather’s birthplace) and Córgomo, both in the vicinity of Vilamartín de Valdeorras. Borja’s father, Francisco Prada Gayoso, recovered the family’s wine tradition in 1991.
Interestingly, their first successful wine was Valderroa, a light, easy-to-drink red featuring Mencía’s local herbal character. Their flagship wines now are all Godello whites: Valdesil sobre Lías (€14.5, “on lees”) is unctuous and displays zesty acidity, whereas the barrel-fermented Pezas da Portela (4,000 bottles, €24) develops an opulent, creamy style over the years. The tiny amount of grapes still produced by Pedrouzos are destined to a rare magnum bottling.
Curro Bareño and Jesús Olivares from Fedellos do Couto in Ribeira Sacra claim that while these two neighbouring wine regions have strongly focused on Mencía and Godello respectively, diversity has only been preserved in adjacent, isolated valleys.
Their new project tries to explore the area around Viana do Bolo, upstream in the Bibei valley. It’s worth noting that Viana has hamlets on both sides of the river. This is an elevated (up to 850m), cool placed south of As Ermidas that falls out of the boundaries of DO Valdeorras. As the river flows closer to the moorland, the landscape is less rugged. The main grapes found here are Mencía, Gran Negro, Mouratón, Alicante Bouschet and Bastardo in reds, and Godello, Dona Blanca and Palomino in whites. Small plots of head-pruned vines planted on bright, mica-rich soils are dominant here. Winemaking facilities are away from here, at the ancient underground wine cellars in Seadur, very close to A Rúa.
The first vintage in the market is 2016. 17,000 bottles were produced under three different cuvées. All of them follow Fedellos’s wine producing style: whole bunch fermentation and long vatting times. The fresh, tight Lacazán (3,800 bottles, lacazán means “lazy”) blends 60% of Sousón with discarded batches from the other two wines. Peixe da Estrada (10,000 bottles) tries to reflect this area in the Bibei by blending 85% red grapes and 15% whites. It’s an attractive combination of floral and dark notes backed up by a firm palate. The juiciest, most refined red is Peixes da Rocha. It comes form their two highest vineyards on granite soils in two different hamlets of Viana do Bolo.
Natural wine producer Nacho González (La Perdida) also works outside the DO, but mostly due to philosophic rather than geographic reasons. In his small winery in Larouco, Nacho makes up to 10 different wines including some experimental attempts like a Palomino pét-nat. He works 30 small plots totaling four hectares. Grape varieties are varied and downright exotic. Apart for the obvious Godello (he makes a skin-contact version), there’s an interesting, slightly oxidative Dona Branca white aged in clay jars for six months with maceration notes and a creamy palate. Some red blends include Garnacha and Mencía and Garnacha with Sumoll (extremely rare in the area given its Catalan origin).
La Perdida is a very modest project with Nacho relentlessly working his wines all the way from the vineyard to the customer, a world away from Luar do Sil, his new neighbours.
GODELLO: ORIGINS AND RECOVERY
Godello was part of the programme started in the late 1970s to recover various Galician indigenous grapes. The “Revival plan” brought this residual, almost extinct white variety back from obscurity to become the most distinctive grape in Valdeorras.
Some key names in this recovery were the late Horacio Fernández Presa, in charge of the local agricultural office and who co-founded Godeval; Alfonso Losada, now retired, who conducted the clonal selection in EVEGA (the Oenological and Viticulture Centre in Leiro); and Teodoro Benéitez, a winegrower in Santa Cruz, near O Bolo, who made the first single-varietal Godello (barely 50 bottles) in 1979 sourcing grapes from isolated vines in his Falcueira vineyard, as he explained in this interview (in Spanish) published in the DO Valdeorras blog.
Benéitez, who sold many of his vineyards to Rafael Palacios, will turn 90 on the 9th of November. Palacios himself stressed the importance of the Revival plan in an article published (in Spanish) on Vila Viniteca’s blog: “Newcomers and young producers can now work with 40+-year-old vineyards enabling us to make distinctive, high quality wines with the ability to age.” No doubt that the first producers who planted Godello in their vineyards -namely Godeval or Guitián- enjoyed a privileged position in the area.
But where does Godello come from? It seems this variety is unrelated to other Galician grapes. A 2013 research on genetic origins done by a group of Spanish vine experts concluded that Valdeorras’ Godello, Rueda’s Verdejo and Rioja’s Maturana Blanca were descendants of Traminer Rot (aka Gewürztraminer or Savagnin; Gewürztraminer is a mutation of the latter) and Castellana Blanca.
For the researchers, this origin explained the aromatic character of the three Spanish grapes. Rafael Palacios disagrees and argues that Godello is “neither aromatic nor terpenic”. For him, its main features are “its thick skin and marked vegetative growth, not unlike a Christmas grape”. He also notes that “it adapts well to drought” and the fact that its character can vary enormously when grown in poor, extreme soils compared to rich terrains to the point of behaving like two different varieties. Funnily enough, Godello is often confused with Verdejo in Valdeorras and is occasionally called Verdejo or Verdello to refer to the highly-productive clone. Some producers confessed that the same yeasts that are used in commercial Verdejo in Rueda are also present in Valdeorras.