Ribeira Sacra’s rugged topography is one of the reasons behind the fascinating expression of its top wines. In his 1843 book Observaciones sobre el cultivo de la vid en Galicia (Observations on grape growing in Galicia), Antonio Casares, professor of Chemistry and Natural History, writes about the superior quality of wines made from grapes grown on the banks of the rivers as opposed to the valleys: “The banks of rivers Miño, Sil and even Avia are so steep that, at some points, plants need walls to hold the necessary amount of soil to grow.”
Ribeira Sacra is shaped by rivers Sil and Miño and their tributaries. The Bibei marks the border with DO Valdeorras; the Cabe goes through Monforte de Lemos, the main city in the area and follows southwest. We visited some steep vineyards on its banks grown by Adega Saíñas in the village of Pantón. The river Sil is the border between the provinces of Lugo (to the north) and Ourense (to the south). The south-facing vineyards in Amandi on the right bank of the Sil (Lugo province) were regarded as the jewel of the crown in Casares's time. “Despite sharing similar soils and grape varieties, the wine produced here is better than its counterpart on the opposite bank: vineyards are exposed to the sun almost the entire day, while the other bank only gets some sunlight in the afternoon,” wrote Casares in the mid-19th century.
At Guímaro, owner Pedro Rodríguez, who knows this side of the river well, says: “on same soil vineyards, exposure is the most important feature in areas where full ripeness is difficult”. In any case, he thinks that climate change has benefited the region as a whole and particularly its less favoured areas. “People have always sought protection from the north, but that’s changing now,” he adds.
But not every producer favours the same factors. In line with the delicate style of his wines, Curro Bareño at Fedellos de Couto values altitude “because it lengthens the growing cycle” and morning sun exposures “not only because they are cooler, but also healthier because dew disappears earlier.” At Algueira they find it difficult to choose: “It's everything: soil, altitude, exposure...,” says Fernando González Riveiro. He adds new elements: “I have noticed that the wind is the main factor in the vineyard where we source our red wine Pizarra; Atlantic winds flow through a natural corridor in the vineyard cooling it down in the morning.” For his part, Fredi Torres stresses the human factor: “People are more important than soils. This is something that has not been taken care of in an area where wine has been a subsistence product. I rely on people and I need to gain their trust; I care first and foremost for the area’s growers,” he concludes.
As part of the Galician-Leonese Massif, the soils of Ribeira Sacra feature igneous (mainly granite) and metamorphic rocks (slate, schist and gneiss) rich in minerals. For Alfonso Torrente at Envínate, the most distinctive factor in their Seoane plot, in the subarea of Amandi, is a quartz vein.
In terms of the soils, producers have their own preferences. Schist or slate from Ribeira Sacra is interesting, says Torres, but it is less fragmented that in Priorat, where he has been producing wine for some years now. “At Sílice we look for decomposed granite. As Mencía is low acidity, I find that cold, granite soils are best suited for this variety,” he adds. Meanwhile, González Riveiro (Algueira) looks for hilly vineyards on schist, quartz or gneiss soils such as Doade, the only spot with metamorphic rocks in the subarea of Amandi, and Abeleda on the opposite bank of the river Sil.
Bareño mentions the existence of clear differences in the terrain. “There is an angle than crosses the Sil and is visible on both banks: one side is granite, the other metamorphic rocks; the same occurs in the Bibei, with a large granite tongue across the river.”
After our trip last year to DO Valdeorras, on one of the banks of the Bibei and now to DO Ribeira Sacra, the differences between this narrow valley and surrounding areas both in Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra are obvious, starting with the large granitic vein crossing through the slate and the higher elevation of its vineyards.
The Bibei is one of the most uninhabited areas of Galicia and Spain. “The average age of grape growers here is 80 years so most of them ask us to work the vineyards for them,” explains Paula Fernández, winemaker at Dominio do Bibei. Launched by businessman Javier Domínguez in 2001, this project manages 150 hectares of land, 36 of them under vine. The property looks like an isolated orchard amid hundreds of abandoned terraces which have been swallowed by the forest.
“Electricity companies are the only one that have shown an interest in this area,” says Laura Lorenzo, formerly at Dominio do Bibei and now with her own project called Daterra Viticultores. Insanely high production costs have restricted grape growing to just a few plots meant for home consumption. Laura produces 30,000 bottles, a tiny amount compared to the 120,000 of Dominio do Bibei. In 2015 Laura lost all her grapes from Manzaneda in the Bibei valley, so she had to start the range Portela da Vento sourcing grapes from Amandi. In 2018 she won’t produce any wines from Manzaneda either.
Despite its isolation, the Bibei has caught the attention of producers in other areas of Ribeira Sacra. Eulogio Pomares buys grapes in Manzaneda for Xabre, a négociant wine within his Fento Wines range that blends 85% Mencía with other grape varieties. Also in Manzaneda, Ronsel do Sil relies on very old Mencía vines planted on north-facing, schist soils to produce 1,500 bottles of their red Arpegio. According to María José Yravedra, “slate soils in the Bibei have nothing to do with those found in the Sil”.
Except for their single-vineyard Cortezada wine (sourced from Abeleda, Ribeiras do Sil), Fedellos de Couto works with grapes from the Bibei valley. “We no longer look at both banks as different wine regions; we think the valley should be seen as a whole,” says Curro Bareño. They don’t work under any appellation so they have the freedom to do so. Grapes for Peixes, their latest project in the Bibei, comes from vineyards upstream, on both banks of the river in the vicinity of Viana do Bolo. In this area, which lies beyond the boundaries of the Regulatory Boards of Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra, vines are grown up to 850 metres above sea level.
The Bibei valley is officially part of the Quiroga-Bibei subarea but there are striking differences between this narrow valley and Quiroga, which is the natural extension of the Sil valley westwards with its distinctive slate soils. With its gentle orography, this area holds the strongest vineyard growth in the appellation -the ancient vineyards grown on steep slopes are now covered by forests.
In Quiroga, Rectoral de Amandi grows over 100 hectares of terraced slopes with gradients of at least 35% and plans to plant further. “This is the only subarea in Ribeira Sacra where vines can be planted on flat land,” says vineyard and winery director Antonio Vida. Godello will be the first variety planted by Rectoral de Amandi in this new terrain. Algueira praises the mineral character of Quiroga’s slate soils and grows several vineyards in the area destined to young wines.
In Quiroga the climate is marked by sharp contrasts and high risk of frost, according to Pablo González from EDV, a small family winery producing Mencía and Godello (this was the first nocturnal harvest ever in the DO) wines under the brand Don Cosme and currently working with Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet). The cellar occupies one of the remaining caves of the ancient Roman gold mines in Margaride. This is an altogether different landscape which speaks of the diversity and the rich past of Ribeira Sacra.
The most prestigious producers are based southwest, following the course of river Sil in the subareas of Amandi (vineyards facing south-southeast in the province of Lugo) and Ribeiras do Sil (on the opposite bank, in the province of Ourense: see the map above). They often own or work vineyards of both sides of the river as is the case with Algueira. Envínate tend vineyards in three areas. Apart from their two classic single-vineyard wines Camiño Novo (lovely expression in the 2016 vintage) and Seoane, both in Amandi, I tasted the fresh, structured Rosende from Ribeiras do Miño and the floral, delicious Parcela A. Costa from Ribeiras do Sil. As opposed to their premium labels, the entry level Lousas Viñas de Aldea is a blend from different plots.
Apart from Quiroga, the Ribeiras de Miño subarea -stretching alongside the right bank of the eponymous river- appears quite often in blends. Ponte da Boga owns a 17-hectare vineyard called San Vitorio where they grow grapes for their Albariño wine and Mencía to blend with other Mencías from Amandi and Alaïs (the vineyard next to the winery in Ribeiras do Sil) to make the red Bancales Olvidados. Losada Fernández also blends grapes from Amandi and Ribeiras del Miño for his flagship red Don Ventura.
A long-standing producer in Ribeiras do Miño -it was established as a distillery in 1958- Abadía da Cova is taking a significant shift with a new generation at the forefront. Brothers Paloma and Adrián Rodríguez are breathing new life into the range of wines with the help of young winemaker Nacho Álvarez. Recent additions include the new rosé trilogy, a carbonic maceration white made with Loureira and a range of reds set to be released soon. Apart from their own vineyards surrounding the winery, Abadía da Cova sources a great deal of grapes from Montefurado in Quiroga, not far from the border with DO Valdeorras. Following the narrow, windy roads lined with chestnut trees, Abadía da Cova emerges on a green, lush setting with wonderful views of the river Miño.
Most of the producers from Rías Baixas who have started to work in Ribeira Sacra are doing so on the banks of the Miño river. No doubt the climate (rainfall goes from 700mm. in Amandi to 1,000 mm. here) is similar to what they are used to. Eulogio Pomares (Zárate) who now has a small winery in Pantón, makes his top cuvée Penapedre from a historic site in O Saviñao called Esperón. Wines from this site featured in Benito Vicetto’s 19th century historic novel Los hidalgos de Monforte (The noblemen of Monforte). Penapedre is fresh and firm and blends Mencía with different types of Garnacha and 15% of white grapes so the wine is made outside the DO. Grapes are sourced from a steep slope planted withsome vines over 150 years of age.
Raúl Pérez and Rodrigo Méndez buy grapes and work with rented vineyards in Belesar (O Saviñao), also in Ribeiras do Sil. After 20 years consulting for Guímaro and Algueira, Pérez looked for a place to make Atlantic, Burgundy-style reds. Around 80% of the wines are made from Mencía and include the top single-vineyard A Boca da Demo and two cuvées made with the remaining plots. The first selection goes to El Curvado and the rest is bottled as an entry level red bearing the name of the project: Castro Candaz.
In the opposite bank, in A Peroxa (subarea of Chantada), a few kilometres down the confluence of rivers Miño and Sil, Xavi Seoane talks of a distinctive character for this area -for him, it has a stronger influence from the Sil than the Miño. With Fazenda Prádio, Seoane wants to reconnect with the historic, multi-varietal vineyard of 200 or 300 years ago and recover the idea of the fazenda, the family farm which used local resources. Therefore, in addition to wine, he plans to produce in the short-term honey, marc from the wines’ pomace and vinegar.
Along with these diverse landscapes, there is the little-explored ageing ability of Ribeira Sacra wines. During my trip to the region, I was delighted to witness the fine development of red wines which were not necessarily meant to be aged, albeit they were all made with high quality grapes. This is the case of the spicy Bancales Olvidados 2009, a Mencía from Ponte da Boga which ten years later retained the vivacity of fruit. From the same winery, I tasted a complex Merenzao 2008 and their first 2011 Brancellao which opened up to dried flowers aromas and offered a striking herbal explosion on the palate.
Although it took a while to develop, Guímaro Meiximán 2008, which was fermented with whole clusters in stainless steel tanks, revealed itself as a serious, firm red. The oldest wine I tasted was Algueira 2006 (now sold as Pizarra) which had a lot of everything and was in great shape.
At the end of November, I attended a vertical tasting of different bottlings by Pràdio at Alkimia restaurant in Barcelona. It included Brancellaos and Merenzaos produced between 2013 and 2018 and four vintages (2014 to 2018) of their top cuvée Pacio (mainly Brancellao and Merenzao with small amounts of Caíño and Mencía). Beyond the specific characteristics of each vintage, none of the wines showed the slightest sign of oxidation or fatigue.
Many of the best reds we tasted on our trip are not made with Mencía. It seems that, in the recent history of Galicia, isolation and self-consumption helped to favour early ripening varieties. But the quality approach of recent years together with the threat of climate change has shifted the trend in the opposite direction to late ripening grapes. “Diversity and future prospects are the driving forces behind the recovery of grape varieties,” explains Emilia Díaz Losada, researcher at EVEGA (Galicia’s Viticulture and Oenology Research Laboratory).
According to Díaz Losada, two big families of grape varieties coexist in Galicia: the western varieties linked to the family of Caíños and eastern varieties related to other grapes from the rest of Spain (Godello, which is a descendant of Traminer/Savagnin and Castellana Blanca, is an example). The trend among Galician DOs is to broaden the spectrum of authorised grape varieties. “In the future, differences will be marked by terroir rather than grape varieties,” she predicted.
Caíños. Four of them are included in the new regulation approved by the DO Ribeira Sacra: Caíño Tinto, Caíño Longo, Caíño Bravo and Caíño Branco (the first three are red, the fourth is white). According to Díaz Losada, they are all genetically related to Caíño Bravo but there are missing links preventing to draw an accurate genealogy. Caíño Branco, a descendant of Caíño Bravo and Albariño, is an exception. The original growing area for Caíños is western Galicia and the north of Portugal. All of them are late ripening varieties and produce wines with good structure and acidity.
According to the EVEGA expert, there are two different varieties grown under the name Caíño Longo. One of them has higher acidity and doesn’t ripen well; the other one, which is the most common in Galicia, shows higher quality. Caíño Longo (the name refers to the elongated shape of clusters) ripens earlier, has higher yields and gives fresh wines. Caíño Tinto, on the other hand, is the same variety as Tinta Femia del Morrazo found in the Ulla area in Pontevedra.
Very few producers bottling this variety separately distinguish the type of Caíño they work with. Abadía da Cova uses Caíño grown in the cool area of Ribeiras do Miño to their rosé but prefers the powerful, colour-rich grapes grown in Montefurado (Quiroga) for the herbal, rather wild red Caíño set to be released soon. Algueira produces a few bottles under the brand Amaral; grapes are sourced from schist soils in Ribeiras do Sil.
Xabi Seoane, who also bottles it separately in Pràdio, says that Caíño is rich in alcohol and acidity; it is also the variety with the lowest pH in his portfolio. It used to be the traditional grape in A Peroxa together with Brancellao. In fact, local growers distinguish between Caíño Longo, Bravo, Da Terra and Redondo. He labels his as CL (Caíño Longo), but has set his eye on Caíño Bravo whose profile, in his opinion, comes close to Brancellao.
At Ronsel do Sil, María José Yravedra says (and Díaz Losada agrees) that locals apply the name Caíño to any unknown varieties. Yravedra made experimental vinifications with Caíño Longo, Caíño Bravo and what she calls Caíño Freixo to discover that “they were completely different form each other”. Their commercial brand Al Pie del Cañón (only 1,500 bottles are made) is a blend of the three of them.
Brancellao. This light-coloured, late ripening variety with high acidity produces aerial, Burgundy-style, delicate reds full of nuances and marked persistence. For Paula, winemaker at Dominio do Bibei, “it behaves like a white grape variety: its vegetative growth doesn’t stop when the ripening cycle is completed and its high acidity is similar to white varieties.”
In the mid-19th century Antonio Casares wrote: “This is the most widely planted variety in Galicia, grown in most vineyards in Rivero, Amandi, Lemos, Quiroga, Valdeorras and the Monterrei valley. Despite its low yields, this variety is long-lived and produces strong wines capable of ageing. Given the long time it takes to ripen, it is only suitable for warm areas.”
The only contrasting data we have found in the 20th century comes from El Viñedo Español: in the 1970s, Brancellao accounted for just 5% of the total surface under vine in Lugo. At that time Mencía only represented a mere 25%, compared to 20% of Alicante and 10% of Garnacha Tintorera which were surprisingly listed as different varieties. According to Emilia Díaz Losada, Brancellao is genetically in-between the Caíños and the western varieties of European origin and it has been proved that is the same grape as Albarello.
Some outstanding Brancellaos include those made by Algueira (Serradelo, which was formerly sold as Albarello), Ponte da Boga (Porto de Lobos), Ronsel do Sil (Alpendre) or Pràdio (BRZ). Dominio do Bibei blends it with 15% of Mouratón.
Merenzao. This is the same as French Trousseau, Bastardo from Portugal, Verdejo Negro grown in Asturias and Tintilla from the Canary Islands. Merenzao was first described in Spain in 1855 by Abela who spotted it in the province of Ourense. It can be described as the opposite of Brancellao: a short-cycle, early ripening grape. A favourite among minor grape varieties, it is produced by Fedellos de Couto (Bastarda), Algueira (Risco), Ponte da Boga (Capricho de Merenzao), Ronsel do Sil (Alpendre) or Pràdio (MRZ).
Espadeiro. It is not authorised in Ribeira Sacra, but as one of the most promising Galician grape varieties, some producers have already shown a real interest for it. Related to Galicia’s eastern grape varieties, it matches the long-cycle pattern, shows an aerial, evocative character and a complexity comparable to Brancellao, but its polyphenol content is much higher, according to EVEGA.
Sousón. Powerful and tannic, Dominique Roujou describes it as “the Cariñena of Galicia when grown in poor soils.” Others call it the “Galician Graciano.” It is the only grape variety apart form Mencía grown by Rectoral de Amandi to improve the colour and structure of their wines. A secret weapon in blends, it brings an additional punch to reds (is this the indigenous alternative to Alicante Bouschet?), but it is seldom bottled on its own. Algueira has released a few bottles under the brand Castagaia, setting aside some batches destined to Fincas which blends equal parts of Caíño and Sousón even if Sousón calls the shots. According to Emilia Díaz Losada, it is genetically related to the family of Caíños.
Garnacha Tintorera or Alicante Bouschet. Part of the post-phylloxera invasion, this variety with coloured pulp (its white equivalent is Palomino) quickly expanded throughout Galicia. Many plants have been regrafted or replaced with indigenous varieties, but the potential of the old vine heritage that remains has attracted the attention of several producers. A regular presence in vineyards of a certain age, it is usually seen in blends and plays a relevant role in the wines of producers like Daterra Viticultores. Dirk Niepoort’s Ladredo, made from the eponymous vineyard owned by Adegas Guímaro, includes 30% of Tintorera. Being outside of the list of preferential varieties, the DO does not allow it on its own. Nevertheless, we tasted a couple of interesting experimental wines set to be released soon by Abadía da Cova (powerful, high acidity, great texture provided by intensive work with lees) and EDV.
Branco Lexítimo. This is the same Albarín Blanco grown in Asturias. According to EVEGA, it could be related to eastern Galician varieties, but there are no conclusive data in this sense. All the producers we talked to value its bright acidity, but for Díez Losada this is conditioned by where the variety is grown. On our trip we tried a floral, dry, vibrant Branco Lexítimo by Ponte da Boga; Algueira’s was made in Italian ceramic amphorae and showed a restrained aromatic profile and high acidity.
Other white grapes. Godello has emerged as a favourite variety in the area, both on its own or blended with Albariño, Treixadura or Dona Branca, but there are also examples of Loureira (Abadía da Cova makes a carbonic maceration version), Dona Branca (Pràdio and Ronsel do Sil), Treixadura (Ronsel do Sil) or Albariño (Ponte de Boga). Consultant Dominique Roujou believes that Ribeira Sacra is great for whites and Fredi Torres from Sílice Viticultores, which currently produces an entry level white blend, thinks that the region’s great white wine remains to be produced. Palomino, which is still grown in the area, is not accepted in the DO, but some producers use it to a certain extent (Da Terra Viticultores is the most obvious case) or include a small amount in their blends.