Viña Caneiro is a steep vineyard with stone walls and vines that plunge towards the Sil river in what is presumably one of the most picturesque and famous spots in Ribeira Sacra. In this unsuitable place for anyone suffering from vertigo, Ramón Losada prefers to speak of "man-farmed vineyards" rather than "heroic viticulture". "We don't want anyone to risk their lives here, but to be able to visit and enjoy the vineyards. We must be practical”, he explains.
Ramón practises what he preaches. The vineyard is accessed via a well-kept stone staircase and a piece of land has been evened out to build a picnic area for guests. He has a secret weapon: his two full-time field workers are also bricklayers, so when they are not tending the vines, they focus on the “architectural” part of the vineyard.
The story of Ramón Losada and many other producers in the area is similar. A trained vet, in 1999 he and his sister refurbished the cellar in the ancient family house in Pantón to start bottling and selling their wines, which until then were for self-consumption. Current production stands at 35,000 bottles. Grapes are sourced from six hectares they own in the Miño and Sil valleys. The range includes a blend and three single-vineyard reds sourced from various soils and plots. Wines are made in stainless steel tanks, hence their pure, straightforward expression.
What sets him apart is his ability to go beyond the local market and sell the wines in Madrid and the US (New York Times critic Eric Asimov included Viña Caneiro in a tasting of Spanish wines in the US held last year at Alimentaria food and wine fair in Barcelona). This is no easy task in a region where 20% of producers make fewer than 5,000 bottles and the wines that have captivated the world account form a really small part of the just over 1,200 hectares of vines planted on the banks of the rivers Sil, Miño and its tributaries in this remote area of inland Galicia.
Despite a thousand-year-old tradition dating back to the Romans and the subsequent expansion by religious orders in the Middle Ages -Ribeira Sacra houses the largest concentration of Romanesque churches and monasteries in Europe-, the region’s wines never gained fame beyond Spain’s borders as did neighbouring Ribeiro.
In the 1970s, grape growing in Ribeira Sacra had declined -most vines were destined to self-consumption and the region’s identity was rather blurred. In Ourense, the book El Viñedo Español, published by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1975, distinguished between Ribera del Sil and the Bibei and Xares river valleys near Pobla de Trives and Viana do Bolo, but listed them as “vineyards without clearly defined areas”. Surface under vine at the time was 629 and 776 hectares respectively. On the other side of the river Sil, in Lugo, the book explains the grape growing tradition in 12 villages of “Monforte-Quiroga” (75% of the vines), and "Miño" areas. At no time is the name Ribeira Sacra mentioned.
The picture was gloomy. “Despite the quality of the grape varieties and the fact that the vines are not old, grape growing is unprofitable. A large amount of manual work is needed beyond the usual tasks of digging, pruning and harvesting; since access to most vineyards is difficult, grapes must be carried on foot (...) The trend is clearly regressive as 30% of the existing vines are estimated to be semi-abandoned or poorly tended.”
There were some catastrophic predictions too. “Over time only a few vineyards producing quality wines (...) capable to command high prices will remain, particularly in Quiroga [the current subarea of Amandi was included here]. There won’t be any new plantings except for minor replantings or substitutions; standard, low quality vineyards will be eventually replaced by fruit trees.”
Fortunately, Fernando González Riveiro, the founder of Algueira, had not read these gloomy words when he started recovering the Carballo Covo vineyard in 1979. He was determined to restore the former splendour of this steep hill overlooking the Sil which had been swallowed by the forests. A relative newcomer to the area, Fredi Torres from Sílice Viticultores, marvels at how “this patchwork of small, family projects managed without professional training has been able to survive.”
Recognized as an appellation in 1996, Ribera Sacra produced young reds for local consumption. Mencía is the most widely planted variety in the area accounting for 5.2m kg out of a total red grape crop of 5.7m in 2018. Rectoral de Amandi, the largest producer in the area, strictly followed this model until 2014 when they bought 72 300-litre barrels to age 15,000 bottles of red wine. With 70% of sales in Galicia, they will produce over 2m bottles in the 2019 vintage.
Algueira and Guímaro were the pioneers of oak aged wines with a strong focus on local varieties and terroir. Both benefited from the experience of Raúl Pérez, the maverick producer from Bierzo. Pérez in facts sources grapes for his reds El Pecado and La Penitencia from two of Guímaro’s most renowned vineyards and has teamed up with Rodrigo Méndez (Forjas del Salnés) in a separate project in the Miño valley. (Apart from Méndez, other terroir-driven producers from Rías Baixas like Eulogio Pomares, Alberto Nanclares or Xurxo Alba have set their eyes in the area).
On a small scale, Ribeira Sacra seems to have ticked all the boxes to become a top player: breathtaking landscapes with dizzying vineyards, a great array of local grape varieties in the process of being recovered, the complexity derived from the diversity of soils, exposures and elevations, and a generation of terroir-driven, quality-focused producers determined to leave behind the attitudes and short-sighted views of yesteryear.
I visited many of them in mid-October during a week of “typical Galician weather” (rain and fog with fleeting, joyful rays of sunshine). It was soon obvious to me that before reaching a spectacular setting, drivers must first negotiate the region’s narrow, steep and winding roads.
These old terraces present a double-edged sword. Behind the idyllic headlines describing Ribeira Sacra’s “heroic viticulture” the day-to-day work is plagued with difficulties and exploring the vineyards takes its time. “Big producers don’t come here”, Madrid-born María José Yravedra points out. Although she trained as an architect, she settled down in the area to live near her winery, Ronsel do Sil, on the Ourense side of the river Sil. “The villages here are empty; it's not easy to hire people and then you have to train them. There is a significant lack of support for grape growing,” she says.
Ramón Losada estimates that recovering a single hectare of a traditional vineyard, including stone walls and a railing system to transport harvest cases uphill, costs between €80,000 and €100,000. “It makes no sense to produce young wine from hills with gradients of 85%; you need at least two kilos of fruit per plant. There’s no terroir in this style of wines,” adds Fernando González Riveiro from Algueira.
The 21st century alternative consists of replacing stone walls with soil terraces. This technique has been used by Guímaro in some recent plantings and by Rectoral de Amandi on a larger scale. According to its vineyard and winery director Antonio Vida, “it is unfeasible to build stone walls on a 60-hectare vineyard; instead, terraces are secured by slopes built between them so that the ground does not fall apart; their height varies according to the slope gradient, but it usually is two to three metres.”
Stone walls vs. soil terraces.
Most producers agree that traditional vineyards require some sort of protection. “The appellation’s labels are the same for steep vineyards and those planted on flat land,” Losada complains. And González Riveiro adds: “newcomers are not interested in tending vineyards but buying grapes”. In his view, “the only way to ensure consistent quality over time is by growing your own grapes.”
Last year a long-awaited request was accepted as new regulations published in October 2018 revoked the mandatory use of Mencía as the dominant grape in “Summun” blends, an appellation seal for high quality wines. Instead, 85% of the wines must include “main varieties” such as Mencía, Merenzao, Brancellao, Sousón and three Caíños: Longo, Tinto and Bravo. As for whites, Branco Lexítimo and Caíño Branco were added to a list featuring Godello, Loureira, Treixadura, Dona Branca, Albariño and Torrontés. Alicante Bouschet, which has been used to a certain extent by some leading producers, is still considered a secondary grape alongside Mouratón, Tempranillo and the red-coloured pulp Gran Negro.
Until then, producers had devised all sorts of imaginative ideas to explain what was inside the bottle without ignoring the rules. Fedellos de Couto inspired themselves in the Portuguese synonym for Merenzao and named their wine “Bastarda”; Dominio do Bibei wrote BM on the label of their Brancellao blended with Mouratón; and Guímaro chose the code name B2M on a Finca Meiximán 2008 I had the chance to try during my trip. “B” for barrel, “2” for the brand’s second wine to be aged in oak; and “M” for Meiximán as vineyard names were not allowed on the label. Pretty crazy, right?
There is also a new category called “Guarda” meant for wines aged in large oak vessels, concrete or other materials. Until now, the word “Barrica” was only allowed for barrels with a maximum capacity of 500 litres for reds and 600 litres for whites.
With the new measures in place, Xavi Seoane from Fazenda Pràdio (Chantada) has decided to bottle his 2019 wines with the DO seal again. But it is unlikely that producers like Fedellos de Couto, Envínate, Sílice or Da Terra Viticultores will return as they abandoned the appellation -some never even bothered to join- because the Regulatory Board rejected some of their wines for style issues.
The recent acceptance of rosé wines may cheer up sales. Abadía da Cova launched a successful trio of rosés made with Mencía, Caíño and Merenzao (great right now) earlier this year, whereas Ponte da Boga and Pràdio are also making their own cuvées. Pràdio started producing a rosé wine in 2011 and in fact this was one of the reasons why they abondoned the DO. Meanwile, Laura Lorenzo produces a Mencía rosé for his US importer José Pastor and Fredi Torres (Sílice) is working on a new release from the 2019 vintage. Judging by what we tasted, Ribeira Sacra could build a rather unique character for rosés.
Leading producers have focused their top cuvées on varietal and single-vineyard wines. Godello among whites and particularly the red Brancellao and Merenzao have led the way but there are a few more in the pipeline like the various Caíños, and the white Branco Lexítimo (I tasted two interesting examples of this variety, seen by many as the next big thing in the region), as well as Dona Branca and Treixadura. The red Espadeiro is not authorized by the Consejo but there are some impressive wines made with this variety in Rías Baixas.
Algueira and Pràdio are set on recovering Galician grape varieties in its broadest sense. González Riveiro claims to grow more varieties than anyone else in the area and Xabi Seoane is re-grafting Mencía with local plant material and cuttings provided by leading producers in Galicia: Espadeiro from Albamar (Rías Baixas), Loureira and Sousón from Cume do Avia (Ribeiro) or Dona Branca from Quinta da Muradella (Monterrei). After all, grape travelling within Galicia should not respond only to trends (Albariño and Godello are good examples of this), but to find unique flavours and additional nuances in the wines.
For French winemaker Dominque Roujou, who consults for Ponte da Boga (part of the brewery group Estrella Galicia), “Brancellao, Mencía and Merenzao are the best grapes to capture freshness and elegance in Ribeira Sacra.” He believes that varietal wines are a great tool to build an identity. Ponte da Boga produces Albariño, Godello and Branco Lexítimo whereas their neighbours Ronsel do Sil have even tried single varietal wines made with Dona Blanca and Treixadura.
Blends, as a way to gain complexity, are the next step, be it in the winery (the mix of Mencía, Sousón, Brancellao and Merenzao made by Ponte da Boga for Expresión Histórica worked really well) or in the vineyard. As well as field blends from traditional vineyards, there are some new plantings such as Guímaro’s A Ponte. This plot with 3.2 hectares crowns a steep hill overlooking the river Sil and is planted with identical amounts of Caíño, Sousón, Brancellao, Merenzao and Mencía. A Ponte was meant to produce varietal wines but given the small crop of the first harvests, grapes were all blended together. Despite the youth of the vines (the vineyard was planted in 2010), there is something new and fascinating in its complexity, savoury flavours and elegance. It also opens the way to almost infinite combinations of grapes in different proportions.
Retail prices for Ribeira Sacra’s top wines, most of which are produced in small quantities, range between €25 and €45 in Spain. Among single-vineyard wines, it is worth mentioning those made by Guímaro and Algueira in the environs of river Sil, Castro Candaz in the Miño valley, the white Lapena by Dominio do Bibei and outside the DO, the wines of Envínate, Daterra and Sílice’s tiny productions -just one or two barrels: Romeu, Rosende and the fascinating Lobeiras. With price tags of €85 to €90, these three reds have set record prices in the area. Fredi Torres, the driving force behind this strategy, would like others to follow. “This is not arrogance; it is the result of giving back to the region what it deserves,” he says.
Note: Click here for a detailed map of the area.