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Wines From Galicia

Ian and Irene (RibeiraSacra)

The viticulture scene in Galicia defies comparison with any other region in Spain. This is due to its traditions, climate, soil characteristics and the diversity of grapes. The latter is a lovely point to raise, in these times where many successful wines have become globalised. It now seems that all areas are focused on producing very similar types of wines.

Galicia has always been the territory that has provided the whole of Spain with the white wines that are normally consumed with the fish and seafood dishes. As the majority of the Spanish “Denominación de Origen” (D.O.) became globalised, introducing the most famous grapes into their catalogue of acceptable varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc), Galicia did not allow this to happen. Here they have not only maintained the traditional variety of grapes, but they have also managed to retrieve others that were on the verge of extinction. The story of the Godello grape is probably the best example; after being rescued it started to be known as a white wine of great elegance and is now rivalling with those from the Rias Baixas D.O., where the mythical Albariño variety grows.

Vines in the Sun of Galicia Spain

Vines in the sun of Galicia

Although there is no doubt about the indisputable quality of the white wines from Galicia, the case is not quite the same for the red wines. It is only very recently that the value of these reds has begun to be acknowledged.

The reasons for this relative obscurity are diverse. On the one hand, the celebrated Galician white wine was enough to eclipse them to such an extent that most consumers were under the erroneous impression that Galicia was a land of white wines only. And on the other hand the fact is that Spain had two very definite and very large areas where good red wine was already produced; Rioja and Ribeira del Duero. Both areas have lead the commercial demands for Spanish reds for many a year. It has proved to be hard to break this association with excellent red wines. The last point that seems to add to Galicia’s red wine woes is that in the later 20th century fully aromatic wines became trendy and this meant wines with a clear Mediterranean taste, not something that Galicia produces.

However, it now seems the consumers are looking for something a bit different. This is where the red wines from Galicia fit in, with the Mencía grape. Galicia’s reds, mainly from the D.O. Ribeira Sacrá, bring a distinctive sort of palette to the red wine trade making their differences very clear. Especially when competing with products that are becoming more homogenised and globalised every day.

Here I shall attempt to explain the particularities of the five Denominación de Origen in Galicia. There are links to every D.O. region. However at the time of writing some were either not available or were not available in English.

D.O. Rias Baixas

The D.O. of Rias Baixas has obtained great fame internationally; it is said by some people that it is the only Galician wine. But after reading this article you will understand that this is not true. The Albariño is the star grape of the Rias Baixas; the white wines produced from this variety of grape are highly respected.

Like most areas of wine production in Galicia cultivation dates back to around Roman times and yet the D.O. for this area has only been recognized since 1988.

The geographic area encompasses parts of the Province of Pontevedra bordering with the Province of A Coruña. The area is divided into five distinct sub-zones, Val do Salnès, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Soutomaior and Ribeira do Ulla. The area covered by the D.O. is the largest in Galicia with about 3,500 hectares.

Weather conditions give this wine from Rias Baixas a definite “Atlantic” character. The predominant grape is Albariño, some others are approved too. Production of red wines is small and dominated by the Caiño grape.

The white Albariño wines are characteristically a brilliant yellow/straw in colour. The bouquet has a fine and has a distinguishable floral and fruity aroma. These wines are fresh and soft to the palette, with an aftertaste that is pleasurable and perfect.

The main characteristics of these wines are partly due to their surroundings. The land is typical lowland, with a maximum altitude of 300 metres, close to the sea. These Atlantic characteristics result in mild temperatures, heavy rainfall, evenly distributed throughout the area and a dryer climate during the summer. The soil is poor, acid, sandy and thin. All of these conditions together contribute to give these grapes from this “Denominación de Origen” their own particular aroma and freshness.  

D.O. Ribeira Sacrá

There have been vineyards in the region of the Ribeira Sacrá for thousands of years. Originally started by the Romans, the main stimulus for this type of agriculture came from the presence of important medieval monasteries in the area. It was the tradition of the monasteries to donate land to settlers and nobles, demanding a part-payment in wine: thus, viticulture became extensive in a well defined form.

This is still a young D.O., it was established in 1995. There are about 1,500 hectares dedicated to wine produce in this area.

The production zone of the Ribeira Sacrá covers parts of the provinces of Lugo and Ourense, located along the riversides of the Rivers Miño and Sil and their tributaries. Some of the land upon which the vines are grown is impressionably steep.

The geographic area of this D.O. is divided into five differentiated sub-zones: Amandi, Chantada, Quiroga-Bibei, Ribeiras do Miño and Ribeiras do Sil.

This is one of the “Denominación de Origen” in Galicia in which red wines are predominant over white. In recent years these reds have surprised national and international experts with the quality and originality of the wines. The most extensively cultivated is the Mencía grape, and in order to help give the wine a longer shelf life, blending with Garnacha grapes is permitted.

The characteristics of these wines are clearly defined by the personality of the Mencía, which is said to have a brilliant cherry colour with purple undertones.

The North American magazine "The Wine Advocate,” written by the wine guru Robert Parker Jr, has given The Ribeira Sacra red wines some outstanding praise over recent years. Up until this point he had only shown interest for the white wines of this D.O.

But the Ribeira Sacrá is not only about red wines. Recently some manufactures of white wines have been beating the Rias Baixas at their own game and producing world-class merchandise Albariño wines too.

D.O. Monterrei

The Denominación de Origen Monterrei was created back in the 1960s; in spite of this it was suspended until 1994. The total production area only amounts to something like 750 hectares.

The Monterrei DO has a number of local wines; the dominate production is of white wine and the main grape being Godello. Some others are authorized as a complementary grape(s). The red wines grape most commonly used is Tempranillo (also known as Aralixa).

The area that the D.O covers is in the south east of Galicia, in the province of Ourense on the border with Portugal. The D.O. is divided into two sub-zones: Val do Monterrei and Ladeira de Monterrei. There are about 25 commercial bodegas (wineries) in total.

The first sub zone is characterised by its higher temperatures, which make it especially good for the cultivation of late-maturing grapes. The second sub-zone is higher, up has milder temperatures and, for this reason, is more suitable for the cultivation of early-maturing grapes.

There are three types of soil. One is full of schist and slate that is suitable for dry weather conditions; this gives the wine a clear mineral aroma. There are also large areas of granite and sandy soils. This soil composition, having very low pH levels, is especially good for the cultivation of white wines grapes. The third category of soil is the muddy soil, more compact, which proves best in times of drought, as it retains more humidity and produces fuller bodied wines.

Monterrei D.O. enjoys a special microclimate, influenced by the geography of the district, through which the River Témega flows, an area marked by huge differences in altitude. Al1 these factors produce a near Mediterranean climate, but also some influences of the Atlantic Ocean. During the grape ripening season there are important temperature fluctuations. This contributes to producing a wine that is more fruity and concentrated.

The wines from Monterrei have had their moments of glory; Federico Justo Méndez, the author of the book "Brote de Raíces Históricas" tells us that “the wines from the valley of Monterrei, due to their excellent quality, can be compared with the wines from Oporto.”

D.O. Ribeiro

The Ribeiro Denominación de Origen is one of the ones with a long history and tradition. It is said to be the second oldest in Spain (after that of Jeréz), having been officially recognized in 1932. The production area is round about 3,000 hectares.
This D.O. is to be found in the southern area of Galicia, specifically on the eastern borders of the Province of Ourense, in the valleys formed by the rivers Miño, Avia, Araoia and Barbantiño.

The geography of the region causes notable variations in the altitude of the vineyards, ranging up to 400 metres above sea level. They are located in valleys as well as on the slopes of the mountains. Just like those of the Ribeira Sacrá some of the land is very steep, which has involved the land being terraced. The composition of the soil is fundamentally the result of granite erosion, with an abundance of stones and gravel.

Terraced Vineyards in Galicia

Terraced Vineyards in Galicia

At the present moment, the most famous wines from Ribeiro are the white wines, which are produced with mainly the Treixadura grape; truly the real star of these vineyards. The grapes grown in Ribeiro produce a very aromatic and intensely fruity wine, balanced by a high degree of acidity, thus making a fresh tasting wine.

Ribeiro “Tostado” Wine

One of the most unusual wines to be found in Galicia is a sweet wine called Tostado del Ribeiro. This wine is produced in a natural way only using the juice obtained from a selection of the best grapes that had previously been dried under cover. The production process is complex and on a small-scale basis. There are many ways to describe this wine ranging from dried fruits or roasted coffee, right through to honey or ripen melon. You make up your mind!

D.O. Valdeorras

The Denominación de Origen Valdeorras, the second oldest in Galicia (formed around 1945), is located in the north eastern part of the province of Ourense in the valleys formed by the rivers Sil and Xares totalling roughly 1,400 hectares.  History of wine making goes back many centuries but because of its close proximity to the Camino de Santiago the development of vineyards and the production of wine was secured over the years.

The soil conditions are predominantly of slate, granite plus clays that are rich in iron and alluvial sediments. The climate in this region is deemed as a Continental climate (under influence from the Atlantic). Production land is between 300 and 700 metres above sea level.

Amongst the white wine grapes the Godello and Doña Blanca are mainly used. The reds are predominately Brancellao grapes. Again other grapes are used at times. Whites are usually said to have a refined fruity aroma, and have that typical yellowish - golden straw colour.

Summary

The red wines from Galicia still have to be fully discovered, although that situation is changing rapidly.  Only a few red wines can boast of having a mark of 98 out of 100 points in the Parker Guide, as is the case of the El Pecado, from the Bodega (winery) Guímaro (D.O. Ribeira Sacrá). This was the red wine from Galicia that obtained the best marks from the critic twice in recent years, who also awarded good marks to Algueira (D.O. Ribeira Sacrá).

The Ribeira Sacrá is the Denominación de Origen in Galicia that has the largest production of red wines. The production of red wines is also thriving in the much smaller area of D.O.Valdeorras, although in this case the D.O. is much better known for its white wines.

Mencía accounts for about 90% of the red wine production in the Ribeira Sacrá and 50% of the red wine production in Valdeorras. Red wine is produced in other areas, but this is in very small quantities.

In Galicia there are two aging process for red wines in wooden casks. Both give good results. The one known as "crianza" (quality wine aged for at least 24 months, 12 of which should be in oak casks) is only found in small quantities and is by far the superior process. This method must not be confused with the other way of aging reds in oak casks, which is done for only 12 months. This is the method used for the five wines highlighted by Parker. This article is also proof that the market for Galician red wines is developing. According to the experts they have a bright future ahead of them.

The owners of the bodega Forjas del Salnés are a good example of what is currently happening in Galicia. They have searched a lot of vineyards in their region to be able to buy a traditional type of grapes. Now these old vines are presently used for production of another acclaimed wine. This is a real example of what red wines from Galicia are all about: anchored in tradition, but using modernised production for you to be able to drink consistently excellent wines.


This article has been written with the cooperation of Ian & Irene. They both reside in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where they run a casa rural, Casa Santo Estevo. Ian is English and worked for the majority of his life as a Civil Engineer designing everything from roads to sewerage treatment works. Irene is Dutch and has worked in the tourist trade before her last position in the computer industry. Having met, they lived in The Netherlands before getting married. Six years ago they moved onto their new venture in Spain. Neither of them knew too much about wine production before moving to the Ribeira Sacrá, but they are learning fast.

© SlowTrav, 2010

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