Category Archives: Spain

Why Ancient Roman Vineyards Are Reopening in Eastern Galicia

Vineyards of Guimaro in Ribeira Sacra.

In case you missed my article in The Independent, here’s your chance to read…

I’m perched on the retaining wall of a narrow vineyard in Ribeira Sacra, sipping a glass of local red wine made from mencia. Joined by winemaker Pedro Rodriguez of the Guimaro vineyard, we peer over the ledge into the canyon, perhaps hundreds of metres down, to the thin ribbon of river below. I toss a rock. It disappears.

We stroll through his vines, careful with our footing. Rodriguez explains he’s in the process of attaining organic certification. “We practise farming like they did in the past,” he says. He’s not kidding – the first people to make wine here were the Romans. Two thousand years ago, the Roman army worked this same site. They built the stone terrace Rodriguez has rehabilitated – as well as others – to grow grapes and make wine.

Rainy and green, Galicia was incorporated into the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus, around 29-19BC. To slake the thirst of troops forging the largest gold mine of the era – Las Medulas in nearby Bierzo – they created their own industry. In this mountainous zone there was no flat land; instead, they carved cascading terraces in surrounding canyons and down the steep riverbanks of the Sil and Mino to plant vines.

The vineyards were abandoned during the Dark Ages, but in the centuries to come, monks moved into the valley and replanted. Land passed from church to civilians, but after plant disease was followed by the Spanish Civil War, their owners abandoned both the vineyards and the countryside. Galicia is full of ghost towns.

To see the region is to understand why they left. While Ribeira Sacra has one of the most breathtaking landscapes in Europe – think of the Mosel Valley in Germany – its beauty belies the treacherous work required to tend its fruit.

Working manually on an incline is backbreaking and dangerous. Many sites are remote and barely accessible to small vehicles, let alone tractor equipment that could mechanise planting and picking. Myriad roads remain unpaved, combining hairpin turns with steep angles. These improbably difficult conditions can yield only tiny quantities of wine. Not large fortunes.

Steep vineyards make picking laborious.

Yet over the past two decades, the Roman vineyards have been making a comeback.

Fernando Gonzalez Riveiro, who owns the Adega Algueira vineyard, spent nearly 30 years buying up fragmented abandanados (what locals call the abandoned vineyards) to quilt together enough land worth farming.

“People talk about ‘handmade’ wine, but for most, that’s a marketing term,” he says. “We have to work by hand – there’s no other option. For example, in the white-winemaking region of Rueda in Castile and Leon, producers can plant thousands of verdejo vines in a day. For us, three.” A former banker, he admitted the numbers don’t make sense, but he is guided by passion, not money. “Passion is like a windscreen wiper – it doesn’t eliminate the storm,” he says. “It allows you to move forward.”

Like Guimaro, Algueira produces fresh, perfumed reds from mencia, the valley’s predominant, most promising grape. They can be pinot noir-like in their delicacy, occasionally sanguine and iron-like, but eminently singular. From the unique circumstances of its cooler climate and soil, Ribeira Sacra reds renounce the richer, riper expressions of Spain’s warmer, southerly climes to produce lighter, elegant, more restrained styles.

Following the Sil river east, I reach the neighbouring, less dramatic landscape of Valdeorras. The name means “golden valley”, a moniker likely attributed to the importance of its precious ancient metal mines. Today, the region mainly trades in wine. The grape that drives this revitalised industry is a white one, godello – another variety that was nearly lost when people abandoned the countryside.

Wine geeks tracking the next “it” grape offering high quality for low prices find godello fits their bill. The finest wines made from this compare to French chardonnay. They can be rich, round, and similarly textured; yet Valdeorras remains a secret. Its remote location has protected it from mass tourism. Not even Spaniards have alighted on the bucolic villages lining the 80-mile stretch of river.

In the hills above the river sits another vineyard, Adega Valdesil. A visit provides important historical context to understanding Valdeorras. Sixth-generation owner-winemaker Borja Prada shows me the thick, gnarled trunks of his great-grandfather’s 1887 godello vines. Propped up with rocks and string, they take on an anthropomorphic quality. Though they barely produce enough fruit to bottle, he keeps them “as a living legacy, hoping to one day put Valdeorras on the world map”.

As the wine world grows increasingly homogeneous, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras fulfil the promise of heritage wines that express a unique time and place. That’s why winemakers have returned – and oenophiles are right behind them.

Visit UNESCO site and ancient Roman gold mine Las Medulas, nearby.

Travel essentials

Getting there 

Ryanair flies direct from Stansted to Santiago de Compostela – expect to pay around £130 return during the summer. From there, it’s easiest to rent a car for the 90-minute drive to Ourense. Use this small city as a base for exploring the surrounding landscapes and vineyards of Ribeira Sacra and its Canon do Sil (Sil River Canyon). O Barco de Valdeorras and Las Medulas are a 90-minute drive east from Ourense.

Staying there

A converted monastery overlooking the Canon do Sil, Parador de Santo Estevo is the best option in Ribeira Sacra. Doubles from £90, room only.

Pazo do Castro is the best option in Valdeorras. Another restored historic hotel, rooms are a touch spartan, but antiques provide authentic charm. Doubles from £65, room only.

More information

Adega Algueira

Guimaro

Valdesil

Galicia Tourism

Winery visits and tastings are by appointment.

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Finding Soulful Spanish Wine in a Monastery: The 2017 Espai Priorat Exhibition

Winemaker bringing bottles into Scala Dei Monastery for the Espai Priorat Tasting

Twenty years ago, I fell in love with wine as a student of Thomas Jefferson’s college, the University of Virginia. As America’s first wine lover, his spirit lived on in the surrounding vine-covered hills of Albemarle County where I tasted the first bottle that sparked my curiosity, a Viognier from the aptly named Jefferson Vineyards. On a student budget, I had limited money for sampling the great wines of the world. Instead of drinking Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Champagne, I read about them in my monthly subscription of Wine Spectator. Around that same time, the late 90s, an issue of the magazine praised an up-and-coming region I’d never heard of: Priorat.

Not long after noting to watch out for this Catalan DO, I embarked on a summer adventure across Europe. I found myself in Barcelona for a few days and nearing the end of my trip, stopped in a wine shop. Scanning the shelves for anything labeled Priorat, I found three bottles and purchased them. Of course, I had no idea what they were; apps like Vivino, to scan labels for clues as to what flavors lay inside, didn’t exist. The clerk packed them neatly in a three-pack box, as the luxury of carrying alcohol into the cabin at the time remained. Thrilled to return to Virginia with the bottles, I carried them on the train to Madrid for the last leg of my trip before flying home. And it was on that train, at my feet beneath the bench, that I left that box as I scrambled off the car to avoid missing my station.

I would not return to the wines of Priorat for nearly a decade after. I graduated, moved to New York, and finished law school. I worked miserably as a lawyer before exchanging that career for a less lucrative but more honest, happier one in wine. And I wouldn’t alight upon one of Priorat’s mountain villages until nearly two decades later, which is where I sit now, typing this story.

Village of Porrera, where I stayed during the exhibition.

As a Master of Wine student, I received the honor on an invitation to attend the fourth annual Espai Priorat this year. The three-day exhibition encompassed 44 wineries from 9 villages and featured vineyard visits, intimate dinners, and winery tastings, culminating with the presentation of all the wineries inside the ruins of Scala Dei Monastery.

Scala Dei is considered the birthplace of present-day Priorat’s wine industry.  As with many renowned wine regions, we have religion, namely monks, to thank for their existence. As with many renowned wine regions, we have religion, namely monks, to thank in part for their existence. In Priorat, the Carthusians from Provence settled in the foothills of the Montsant mountain range in the 12th century, and were the first to recognize the suitability of the land for grape cultivation.

But this remote, hardscrabble area southwest of Barcelona would see de-population in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First, the phylloxera louse ravaged vines; later, the economics of rural life coupled with the socio-political effects of the Spanish Civil War drove flight to urban centers. Only a fraction of the region’s families remained behind to tend the Grenache (Garnatxa/Garnacha) and Carignan (Cariñena) vines – today’s 80- to 100-year-old wizened beauties. Little else could grow in the poor, rocky soil. To see Priorat is to understand this reality.

And this week, I finally saw it. After scrambling to the top of a steep and slippery Mas Doix holding, my eyes swept across the landscape first painted by words inside that oversize glossy wine magazine. Hemmed in by the beautiful Montsant in the north, evocative of the American West in its steel and bronze striations, I beheld Priorat’s impossible vineyards. Broken slate called ‘licorella’ defined the soil. Hillsides as precipitous as roller coasters or carved into narrow terraces, defined their difficulty. And the small return for all this labor, yields as low as 300 grams of fruit per vine, evidenced growers’ tenacity.

A stunning but hardscrabble landscape.

A lot has happened in those twenty years. The arc of my life and search for my identity is perhaps not so different from the evolution of Priorat since modern pioneers like Barbier, Baste, Pérez, and Palacios propelled the region out of obscurity and into a DOQ award by 2000. Since then, winemakers have separately and collectively searched for their wines’ authentic voices against the pressure of market trends, economic realities, and style preferences, especially from certain influential critics whose baritones now, thankfully, wane. Debates over ripeness versus elegance, new versus used oak, modern versus traditional winemaking and farming techniques, irrigation versus dry farming, and using international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon versus showcasing the native grapes of Grenache and Cariñena, persist, with the addition of a new concern: climate change.

But my takeaway from interviews and tastings across the week is this: having spent the better part of a rapid ascent to the top looking in all directions, producers are now refocused inward — to the truth of their land, their fruit, and themselves — to answer these questions. And from introspection springs wine with soul.

Later this week, I will publish my top ten wines from the Espai Priorat Exhibition.

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