• Ribeira Sacra: discovering a Spanish wine jewel
  • Ribeira Sacra (Spain), Nov 14 (efe-epa).- Ribeira Sacra, in the northwestern extremity of Spain, is among the last regions in the country to hand-pick its bunches and with the harvest all in, the grapes were slowly undergoing their transformation to wine, local authorities confirmed on Wednesday.

    The region is fast being recognized as one of Spain’s most promising, set as it is, in a steep valley that cuts through many types of stone, most especially slate.

    "Ribeira Sacra, like other regions in Europe, was, at the end of the 19th century, devastated by Phylloxera," said José Manuel Rodríguez González, the president of the region's regulatory council.

    Most experts who have recently visited this beautiful, forested and mountainous region have come away with an important conclusion: the universe of winemaking has a new star.

    Its journey to this status and recognition has not been easy.

    Vine cultivation in Spain was hit by an infestation of a tiny mite imported from America that destroyed vineyards across the whole of Europe.

    Tucked inland of Galicia's rich but dangerous fishing coasts, Ribeira Sacra was hit particularly hard, due to its relative isolation.

    A winemaking culture that many locals attribute to the Romans was brought to its knees and nearly disappeared.

    The region derives its name from the monks who some time after the Romans left established chapels, churches and monasteries along its steep valleys and hillsides in the Middle Ages, planting vines to make the wine needed for the sacrament of mass.

    Its geography is that of a V-shaped valley with sides so steep that terraces, locally known as "bancales," had to be carved into a terrain made up of slate, granite, schist and some sandy clay.

    The Phylloxera catastrophe wiped away virtually all of the region's ancestral vines, which were replaced halfway through the 20th century with high-yield varieties such as Palomino brought up from the sherry making region of Jerez in the southwest.

    The object of this exercise was to reestablish winemaking, with a view to producing large quantities of low-quality wine that could provide local farmers with some income.

    Still, locals with long memories remembered some of the great wines of the past and traced a few remaining vines of the original varieties that used to grow there before the infestation.

    Some had dwindled to just a few examples of each plant.

    Through careful selection and painstaking propagation, the great grape varieties of old were recovered.

    The white grapes Godello and Albariño were among the first two to be replanted in the stunning landscape of Ribeira Sacra alongside the red Mencía.

    Later on came the white Loureira, Treixadura, Dona Branca and Torrontés, as well as the red Brancellao, Merenzao, Sousón, Garnacha Tintorera and Mouratón, with the list being added to periodically.

    "Today, we are beginning to make wines with the less-used grapes as well as those most typical of the region, but it is the Mencía which stands out in Ribeira Sacra, representing 85 percent of our production of red wine," Rodríguez González said.

    He added that today, some 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of vineyards were cultivated by some 2,300 growers.

    Of those, 700 growers did not sell either grape nor wine, but consumed it themselves.

    The rest sold grapes or belonged to more than 90 wineries in the valley.

    At the smaller end of the scale, there is Fernando Álvarez Fernández, who tends cows and makes cheese at his farmhouse on the slopes of a steep mountain.

    He makes small amounts of red and white wine with the help of friends and relatives.

    "I work on a small scale, which many might say is not financially viable, but I manage to make a modest livelihood, stop erosion, limit the likelihood of forest fires and keep the mountainsides alive, so it is worthwhile," said Álvarez Fernández.

    Like him, most producers in the valley tend to make young wine made to be consumed within less than five years.

    However, no one now doubts the tremendous potential of the grape varieties of Ribeira Sacra to make spectacular wines.

    Some, like Rodríguez González, have made wine that has been aged in oak barrels, a technique that through a process known as polymerization adds complexity and stability to wines, thus enabling them to age well in bottles for many years.

    Rodríguez González experimented with oak for his "Décima, D. Furioso in Memoriam" wine in 2011, but said he still prefers the freshness and transparency of unoaked wines.

    "We have a tiny continent within our wine region, with soils that contain from clay to granite, slate, schist and alluvial stones," he said, adding that this unusual mineral wealth allows for exceptional wines that when drunk young have no need for added complexity.

    However, there are some producers who have chosen to push the limits as far as possible, with spectacular results.

    Javier Domínguez, a successful clothing entrepreneur who was born locally in Mendoya, had always believed that the upper reaches of the valley, where the Bibei River flows, could make exceptional wines capable of aging and supreme complexity.

    He established the Dominio do Bibei winery on a steep hillside there.

    Xuan López, a winemaker at the property, said a combination of the exceptional vineyard soils and the wonderfully aromatic grape varieties had vindicated Domínguez's vision.

    "The philosophy of Dominio do Bibei is to make wines that can be aged, but we try to make wines that preserve the aromas of the varieties, not making oaky wines," he said. "So, we try to use barrels that have been used previously so as to reduce the aromas of oak."

    López said that he had recently tried some 2002 and 2003 vintage Godellos made at the winery and they were, "superb, some of the best white wines made in Spain."

    Rodríguez González agreed that the Godello made at the winery was the best white wine he had ever tried, and added that the red wines were also approaching the upper echelons of quality.

    "We are talking of a place that has all the possibility to make very different wines, such as maybe nowhere else on earth," Rodríguez González said of Ribeira Sacra.

    By Harold Heckle