On the second day of our exploration of the wines of Galicia we headed to the inland region Ribeiro, which is quite unlike coastal Rias Baíxas (http://arvidrosengren.com/2013/06/19/travelling-man-galicia-part-i-rias-baixas/). The night was spent at the fabulous countryside manor at Casal de Armán, which cannot be recommended highly enough. This old priest manor dates back to 1727, and now houses an ambitious enoturismo along with restaurant and winery. Ribeiro is the most historically prominent of the Galician wine regions. Today around 2700 ha remain, but the whole region used to be covered with vineyard. The ancient romans first planted vines here and for centuries Riberiro was famous for its tostadas, dense sweet wines made from dried grapes. Another synonym for these wines was Ribadavia, which is also the name of the main town, situated by the river Avía, one of the hitherto unofficial subregions of the area today, and also where Casal de Armán is located.
The region is topographically diverse with the better grapes grown in hillside vineyards, and high yielding grapes like Alicante Bouschet and Palomino on the flatter valley floors. Soils are mostly rich and sandy with granite subsoils. There is a certain Atlantic influence, but much less compared to Rias Baixas, and higher diurnal variation to show for it.
Albariño grows here but the focus lies more on the Loureiro and especially Treixadura.
Loureiro literally means laurel, which refers to the distinct herbal character this grape can impart to wines. It is likely to have originated in Minho, in northern Portugal. It is much more widely used in Vinho Verde (keep an eye out for the powerful wines from Quinta do Ameal for a good example), where it yields very fresh, flowery wines.
Treixadura is also of probable Portuguese provenance, and is known as Trajadura across the border. The wines made from this thin-skinned grape are much lower in acidity than Albariño with a distinctive fatty mouthfeel combined with fresh orchard fruit character.
There are a multitude of other varietals allowed, with Souson and Caiño being the most important for red wine. Dull, high-yielding grapes like Alicante Bouchet and Palomino are also widely planted, but thankfully on the decrease.
Casal de Armán
Although the building housing the restaurant and rooms dates back to 1727, the winery is fairly new, dating back to the end of the last century, although the family behind the bodega has been growing grapes and making wine for local consumption for much longer. Winemaking here is straightforward, yielding honest and distinctive wines. As we tasted the wines throughout a lovely dinner involving more delicious Polbo á Feira, I do not have any real tasting notes, so a general comment will have to do. Although the reds were juicy and well made, I generally preferred the whites here. The basic Casal de Armán Blanco is an almost varietal Treixadura with a touch of Godello and Albariño. It is fresh with aromas of grapefruit and white peach, with that rich mouthfeel Treixadura imparts. The Finca Os Loureiros is a pure Treixadura (the name, perhaps confusing, comes from the laurels planted in the vineyard), fermented in larger barrels with lees stirring for five months. The wine is rich yet fresh, with a delicious creaminess imparted by the lees.
Coto de Gomariz
Like Casal de Armán, Coto de Gomariz is located in the Avia zone of Ribeiro. The soils here are mainly granitic with sandy topsoil, but there are outcroppings of schist not found elsewhere in the DO, which certainly makes for some interesting wine. Here Ricardo Carreiro and Xosé Lois Sebio make some of the most idiosyncratic wine in Galicia. The vineyards are farmed biodynamically with inspiration from Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming principles, such as abstaining from fertilizing and tilling, although I am unclear as to what degree (among other things, Fukuoka also recommends not pruning, which seems nigh impossible with grapevines), and at the time did not quite have the wherewithal of mind to inquire further.
Xosé presented us with most of the current portfolio, again referring to his wines as “proyectos”, implying that there was a lot more to be had as well. Generally speaking, the quality level is extremely high, as is the value in most markets. Their entry level label “Flower and the Bee” is lovely in both red and white editions, and the white wines were spectacular all-through. I found a few of the reds a bit constructed and overly rich and oaked, but nonetheless on a high level.
Treixadura. Intense, waxy orange fruit character with medium acidity. Still maintains freshness and even finishes on a mineral note. Great value. Would like to see this in a few more months.
Albariño + 5% Trexiadura from a single vineyard on schist soils, which is rare in Ribeiro. This is rich, opulent and really sunripe, but in combination with high acidity. Drinks like great Pfalz Riesling, with that eyebrow-sweat inducing mineral intensity.
70% Treixadura + Godello, Loureira & Albariño, fermented in steel. Wonderfully complete, aromatic and rich. Flavors of ripe stonefruit, orange and grapefruit. Creamy mouthfeel.
A blend of 12 grapes, but primarily Treixadura from a single vineyard “Finca O Figueiral”, planted in 1978, fermented and aged on lees in barrel. Rich, waxy, golden and intensely mineral. Not oaky at all. Fantastic
2010 Coto de Gomariz “Salvaxe“ A
Old vine seleccion of local grapes like Lado and Silveiriña, together with the usual suspects. White flowers and stone fruits. Intense and powerful with great acidity and dusty minerality. Drinks like a great dry Vouvray.
Sousón. Dark colour, typical of the variety. Soft with light berry flavors. A bit prickly on the tongue, like a serious Beaujolais.
Sousón, Brancellao, Ferrón, Mencía, matured in second fill oak barrels. My favourite of the reds, both in terms of drinkability and unique personality. This is dark in color, filled with blackberry and spicy oak notes on the nose. The body is surprisingly light, very elegant and fresh. There certainly is structure, but the tannins are well tamed here.
Sousón, Caiño longo, Caiño da terra, Carabuñeira (Touriga Nacional), matured in new oak. Still very young and bright. Oaky spice notes and dark cherries. Good purity and elegance. Certainly a good wine, but not all that exciting.
Sousón, Carabuñeira, Caiño. In new French oak for 30 months. Dark, opulent, dense. Very powerful stuff. Roasted coffee and spice notes and tough tannins. Would impress and please a lot of people.
Sousón, Garnacha, Carauñeira. The first vineyard that was converted into biodynamics, vines trained en vaso. Only one barrel made of this. Opaque. Opulent, roasted nose with dark fruit aromas. Palate is leaner and drier than the nose would imply, with a lovely peppery greenness. This really carries the oak better than the previous wines. This will need time.
2009 Coto de Gomariz “HUSH” A
Very old vines. Blend of local grapes, primarly Sousón. 14 months on 500-L French oak previously used for white wine. Dark. Dense nose with dark fruit and a powerful floral element – violets. Smooth palate with great purity.
I had expected the landscape to gradually become more dramatic as we headed towards Ribeira Sacra and its notoriously dramatic steep vineyards, but the change was rapid, and all of a sudden we were just there.
This region covers the rivers Miño, Sil and Bibei and the vineyards that hug the steep slopes on their banks. The name of the region literally means “sacred riverbanks”, and it is easy to see why. Much like Ribeiro this region used to be covered by vineyards, many of which are abandoned now. It is a powerful sensation gazing into the deep forest on an impossibly steep slope and seeing the roman terraces everywhere. But phylloxera and nematodes destroyed the winemaking business and many abandoned the vineyard. Today 2500 hectares remain divided by 2800 growers. Much of the expertise that the historic people had has been lost in and it is only in the last decade that talented producers, many of them foreign to the region have begun mastering the expression of the Mencía grape here.
There is a distinct backwater feeling to Ribeira Sacra. You can feel the poverty and the backbreaking work that goes into living here. Again and again we heard the story of young people moving as far away as they possibly can. Maybe the economic crisis will change that, much like it has in Greece, where youth disillusioned with cities, education and “the market” return back to the countryside.
Mencía is a difficult beast to tame. It combines rather fresh aromatics; it has been likened to both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc in the past, although with tough tannins and a propensity for high alcohol. Hardly a recipe for success. And perhaps more devastatingly it was forced into an image it could never live up to for many years, when winemakers made dense, opaque wines marred by heavily toasted oak, essentially making a bleak, austere copy of the wines of Ribera del Duero or Toro. It seems now that Mencía is finding its place, making fruity, middle-weight wine with lovely floral and spicy aromas. The comparison with Cabernet Franc is not entirely valid, but there are at least parallels to be drawn on the aromatic spectrum.
Our first visit was at Regina Viarum, in the central Amandi subregion of Ribera Sacra. This producer controls some of the best vineyards, and certainly one of the best views in Ribeira Sacra (if not the world!). This is a giant in comparison to most of the smaller ventures here, and there were plenty of domestic tourists pulling up into the courtyard as we enjoyed the imposing view over the river with proprietor Iván Gómez Veiga.
No doubt Regina Viarum, with their fruity, easy-going wine have turned a lot of domestic wine-lovers on to Ribera Sacra wines. However, these are mass market wine, and even though they are decent value and well made for their category I did not find the wines here of particular interest and will abstain from boring you with the complete notes. The best wine was an organically grown Mencía in a striking engraved black glass bottle, aged for a few months in barrel. This wine is fresh and aromatic but with a substance and structure I felt lacked in the other wines.
José Manuel Moure is a grand old man of the appellation and head of the Consejo Regulador. His bodega lies in the subregion Chantada, in the northwest of the appellation, overlooking a bend in the Miño river below. The winery was founded in 1958, but the family had been growing grapes for as long as anyone could remember.
When we met up with José he was noticeably distressed, on and off the phone with what my rudimentary Spanish led me to believe was a cork supplier. Apparently a batch he had received was no good. One of the many situations on this trip where my romantic notions of winemaking got reality-checked.
José lightened up during the tasting, and his wine, although a tad rustic, expressed a lot of life and purity.
30 year old vines. Includes 15% Godello. Burly and rich nose, jumps out of the glass. Ripe and big on the palate, yet with piercing acidity. Almost feel acidified.
Purple. Plum, blackberry on the nose. Ripe and pure. Zingy acidity and a touch green on the palate.
6 months in barrel. Lots of oak on the nose; coconut and vanilla. This is opulent and rich, with juicy sweet fruit flavors. Pleasant, but simple.
90% Mencía + Tempranillo. Top wine of the estate, and usually highly among the topwines of the region. This has plenty of sweet notes, but is fresher and more distinct than the previous wine. Well balanced in that classic Spanish style with plenty of oak notes. Might age well, into an elegant balsamic, dried herb state.
Unfortunately we did not get to visit Guímaro, but instead we tried these wines with Raul Perez the day after in Valdeorras. Raul makes his Ribera Sacra wines (El Pecado and La Penetencia) with Pedro Rodriguez Pérez at Guímaro, and was instrumental in making Pedro realize the huge potential there was in his family’s old vines.
Pedro is one of the young that have returned to the country, in what is now Spain’s demographically oldest region. He works his family’s old vineyards in the Amandi subregion, some of them with a steepness of 50 degrees, together with his parents Manolo and Carmen. It is hard to fathom working vineyards like that on a warm day (or any day, with my fear of heights).
The bodega was created in 1991. Until then the wine was only made for local consumption. It was one of the first to join the D.O. when it was created in 1996. They are now working on organic certification.
In the winery, traditional methods reign; wild yeast fermentation, foot treading of grapes, inclusion of stems and predominantly old barrels. This gives a lighter, more elegant style of Mencía compared to the ones from Bierzo and the modernists in Ribeira Sacra. All in all, lovely, expressive wines that I would love to see more of, although the production is very small. I think they could seriously change the way many perceive Spanish red wine.
Godello and Caiño Blanco from 50-70 year old vines. Aromatic, mineral. Loaded with flavor and already now drinkable and expressive, although I would love to see this with more age. Finishes with a steely, mineral acidity.
Un-oaked Mencía from ~40 year old vines. Heady, clean nose loaded with red fruits and oriental spice. Lovely purity here.
Mencía from 70 year old vines in a single 1.2 ha vineyard on schist facing south-east. This is dark and rich, with fairly potent alcohol, darker fruit character and floral notes. Very serious stuff. Not quite as pleasurable as the simpler wine, but will age beautifully.
Next up in this installment, my favorite part of the trip: Valdeorras.