Part three of this Galician travelogue brings us Valdeorras, which definitely marks the high point of the whole trip for me. Over the last years I had tried a handful of wines from this area that have been stunning, but I was nonetheless surprised about the level of quality that I encountered. And the people who make these wines left powerful impressions. Perhaps the quality potential is as great or greater in other parts Galicia, but at this moment, Valdeorras benefits more than any other region from the combination of an obviously noble, yet still fairly unknown grape and the bubbling enthusiasm and ambition of a young generation of winemakers. Valdeorras straddles the border between Galícia and Castilla y Léon, with the region on Bierzo on it’s immediate east. Bierzo and Valdeorras share the red Mencía grape as well as the white Godello, athough in distinctly different proportions, with red grapes dominating in the much more continental Bierzo. Both of these grapes are quickly proving their worth in a market that is demanding more elegant, light wines as opposed to alco-juice with too much makeup.
The key difference in the climate and potential for grapegrowing lies in the Sil valley corridor that stretches all the way to the Atlantic ocean, allowing cool winds and 1000 mm of rain annually to reach Valdeorras. Most of the classic vineyards lie on the fairly flat Sil valley at an altitude up to 450 meters above sea level, but some, including Rafael Palacios as well as Spanish superstar winemaker Telmo Rodriguez have planted at altitudes as high as 750 meters. This is something they might have regretted in 2013, when frosts decimated the potential harvest by as much as 70%. Spring frosts and hail are major issues, as is rot and mildew during summer. In short, making wine here is not a simple, stress-free life.
Soils in the region are varied, but there is a high proportion of black and grey slate, as is evident from the roof tiling of the houses. Valdeorras is in fact Europe’s foremost producer of slate.
The name Valdeorras comes from ”Valley of Gold” and even though many might want to associate that to its wines, it really refers to ancient roman mining activity in the area. The miners needed something to drink, and as a result, Valdeorras can lay claim to being the oldest winemaking region in Galicia. Over time, the vineyards fell into the hands of monastic orders and it is only in the last 30 years that the huge potential here has been realized.
In the pretty little village of Portela in the north-west of Valdeorras, you find Valdesil, vintners for seven generations, who have been instrumental in bringing the fantastic potential of Godello into the limelight. In fact, José Ramón Gayosa, ancestor of the family that runs the winery, was probably the first to really see something special in the grape and planted a whole vineyard exclusively to Godello, unheard of at a time when field blending was the best way to insure a harvest every year. His work still lives on today, in a vineyard called Pedrouzos filled with healthy and still productive vines dating back to 1885, making them the oldest Godello vines in the world, and the genetic source of much of the Godello that is being planted by quality-minded vintners today. All of Valdesil’s young vineyards are propagated with massal selection from this vineyard.
The fruit harvested at Pedrouzos goes into a special bottling of a couple hundred magnums, and is unfortunately not among the wines tasted. Judging by the quality of the other wines tasted, I would jump on any opportunity to taste it.
Almost needless to say, no systemic treatments are used in the vineyard and cover crops are used throughout to create competition for the vines and keep the soil from eroding away.
We tasted these wines in the old family home. And by old I mean 14th century, although there have been additions over time. Just being in this wonderful old house, with different rooms and areas representing different centuries of construction, was a majestic experience in and of itself. The close quarters made it very hard to capture on film, so I can only recommend a visit Valdesil, and hope that they bring you there.
As a general statement, I think these wines are amazing. They are pure and fresh, with a great sense of place and honesty about them that I admire. They also represent astonishing value, and I recommend them wholeheartedly.
2011 Valdesil ”Godello sobre lías” A
30 year old vines from several plots, vinified individually and blended together. Aged for four on lees in steel vats without malolactic fermentation. Intense, stony minerality on the nose. Ripe citrus and cool orchard fruit. Soft, creamy lees-driven palate, without becoming dull. Finishes with a herbal, fennel-like note.
2008 Valdesil ”Godello sobre lías” A
Very soft, leesy nose, like fine Chablis. Riper fruit notes, such as apricot and white peach. Rich, opuent palate, but surprisingly fresh, mineral finish.
2010 Valdesil ”Pezas da Portela” AA
Selection of 11 ”pezas”, or plots, from the slate soils of Portela. Plots vinified individually and aged for 6 months in French oak vats of different sizes, and then 6 months in steel for integration. No malo.
Very dusty, reductive nose – wet stones, liqourice and hard, green fruit, along with a touch of toasty oak. Creamy, smooth palate. Very Burgundian in style. Perhaps a bit less “distinct” when compared to the steel/sur lie Godello, but extremely pretty, and will age very well no doubt.
2009 Valdesil ”Pezas da Portela” A
Dusty, autolytic nose. Herbal notes with anise and dried rosemary. Fresh acidity and a mineral sense. There certainly is fruit here, but this is very much structure-driven. Beautiful.
2011 Valderroa, Mencía
Clean, light. Very floral. Berry character on the palate, with a prickly hint to it on the tongue. Finishes with fennel and violets. Complex for such an affordable wine.
“Rafa” Palacios has all of a sudden become a superstar in the winemaking world. His story has been retold so many times in the last year that I am almost reluctant to do it again. Wine flows in Rafa’s blood. The Palacios family comes from Rioja Baja, where they still have the Palacios Remondo estate. Older brother, Alvaro makes some of Spain’s most prestigious red wine in Priorat, and nephew Ricardo is responsible for some equally great Mencía in Bierzo.
Rafa however, is a lover of great white wine, as is evident from the bottles lining the shelves of his office. Grand Cru burgundy, Lopez de Heredia, old Maximin Grünhaus, Didier Dageneau and many more. I have said it before, but one of my must trusted ways to estimate a winemakers character and personality is to ask what he drinks. When you know that a winemaker drinks truly great, iconoclastic wine, it’s a safe bet that he himself will make something interesting and unique.
Rafa discovered Godello almost by an accident, and instantly saw the potential. After a stint with Valdesil he began acquiring small plots on the side. In 2004, he vinified his As Sortes Godello for the first time. The name refers to a Galician hat, sorte, from which is was customary to draw lots to settle inheritance, leading to the fragmented vineyard that is evidente all of Galicia. Today, 26 plots and little over 20 hectares, all in the subregion O Bolo are under his control. The landscape here is more mountainous and rugged compared to the lower altitudes towards the Sil river. We are in fact in the part of the region more influenced by the Bibei river, just around the corner from the Quiroga-Bibei subregion of Ribeira Sacra and the topography reflects that.
As we drove up towards the vineyards, it was evident that Rafa, although welcoming and passionate, had more important things on his mind than to cater to visitors. He was noticeably distressed and gloomy. Slowly, he begun telling us about the terrible frost that had hit his vineyards in May. The frost lasted for five hours, rendering all of his expensive protection systems useless. He estimated that 60%-70% of the potential harvest had been lost already, and flowering was not going well, adding to his problems. He even feared for the life of his oldest vineyards, which at 93 years of age had not tackled the frost well. Seeing the look in his eyes as we inspected the vines was gut-wrenching. Not only may his whole years harvest be in ruins, but imagine having to grub up and replace vines with such a history? For someone who may have romantic notions of becoming a winemaker, take a second to think about that. I am not sure I could take that level of stress.
(I have since, heard that flowering in fact has gone better than he originally feared and that the damages may have been overestimated. Joy!)
Rafa’s wine represent the pinnacle of Spanish white wines for me. They have a level of refinement and that paradoxical combination of power and elegance that is found in truly great Burgundy. The fact that he has only been doing this for a few years makes it even more remarkable. The wines are still affordable and fantastic value, especially the medium-level Louro do Bolo. I recommend all wine lovers to seek these wines out, especially in the 2011 vintage. They drink fairly well now, but do show a reductive streak, and will do well with a few years of cellaring.
2011 Rafael Palacios “Bolo”
Entry level, steel fermented. I have not been terribly impressed by this in the past, but I feel I have to re-evaluate. It has always felt too primary, too much like “generic white wine”. Perhaps I have just been tasting it too close to bottling, because this is pretty good! More more real wine, with great body and acidity with just a hint of that pear drop aroma spectrum. Recommended, but perhaps go for the second-latest vintage?
2011 Rafael Palacios “Louro do Bolo” AA
Fermented in 3000-L oak foudres from Normandy (because of the tightness of the pores and neutral flavour). This has been one of my go-to wine for quite some time now.. I liked the 2009, loved the 2010 but 2011 is head and shoulder above in terms of refinement and balance. What a beauty. This is subtle yet rich. Powerful yet sleek. Juicy yet mineral. A bit reductive on the nose, leave this for a year or two or decant before serving. A contender for “best value wine in the world”.
2011 Rafael Palacios “As Sortes” AAA
Fermented in 500-L barrels. Smoky, reductive Burgundy-like nose. Great acidity and powerful, bold flavours of citrus and orchardfruit. Dense and complex. Finishes on a mineral, almost salty note. This is perhaps the most immediately impressive of the wines, even more so than the O Soro, which is definitely harder to taste. A beauty. If you call yourself a wine lover and you’re not drinking this yet, you’re doing something wrong.
2011 Rafael Palacios “Sorte O Soro” AAA
From a single vineyard, on sandy soils, biodynamically tended. This is one of the highest plots, at 740 meters altitude. This somehow feels lighter than As Sortes, but I think it is a question of acidity playing a trick on me. It is so complex and dense, yet weightless in a paradoxical manner. The minerality is almost fierce and so intense that is induces eye-brow sweating, like a great Chevalier-Montrachet. My notes on this are barely coherent, and I have made no mention of fruits or other actual flavors. This is a true sophisticated beauty, and will need a few years to really show what it has to offer, but I believe there is true greatness here. There are a little over 2500 bottles made. Please, try to get your hands on a few.
Now, go get some Godello!