I’ve been back from Ribeira Sacra for two weeks now and the beauty of the region and the sheer effort involved to produce wine there still hasn’t sunken in.
’d heard the term “Heroic viticulture” applied to the region for some time but I never realised the scale of heroism required to produce wine here. But it’s not just heroism you need to be a wine producer in Ribeira Sacra either; passion, love, obsession, desire, understanding, these are all character requirements I realised you needed during my trip…with a hint of craziness of course!
Let’s be blunt. It shouldn’t be possible to produce wines in many parts of this region.
With 70% riverside slopes, craggy and rugged vineyard terraces, bumpy single-lane roads carved into the mountain sides and a climate that dramatically changes year on year at will…just to make life that little bit more difficult.
But wine does get made here…amazing wine in fact.
Before we go any further, let’s go back a couple of months. Back to June this year when Coravin UK ran a competition to send one lucky person to the dream wine destination of their choice.
The requirements were pretty simple; comment your dream wine destination, dream winery and dream wine. My answer was fairly simple and a pretty easy choice, “I would go to Ribeira Sacra in Galicia to see Alma Das Donas and drink their limited edition Menica in their vineyards on the banks of the River Sil”.
I won the competition and 4 months later I was doing exactly that!
I wrote about Alma Das Donas for my very first article for The Vintner Project. I love all of their wines and everything they represent about Spanish and Galician wine; artisanal, hand-crafted, passionate, soulful, as well as forward thinking with a respect to tradition.
It was an easy choice for me and when my visit had ended it I knew it was the best choice I could have made.
When we arrived in Galicia at Santiago de Compestela airport we picked up the hire car for the 2 hour drive to the town of Montforte De Lemos, known as the gateway to the Ribeira Sacra wine region. It is a wonderful town dominated by a large medieval monastery at the top of a hill in the centre of town which also happened to be our hotel.
We had already planned to meet Lara and Roberto from Alma Das Donas the next day in a local restaurant called O Grelo, a wine-focused restaurant owned by local bodega Don Bernardino. I was due to visit the winery and the vineyards that day but this is Spain and before that could happen there was something more important to tackle – lunch!
I hadn’t met Lara or Roberto before but as we rambled through 3 courses of amazing food and 2 bottles of their fabulous wine in a combination of broken Spanish and English I felt as if I’d known them for years. I’d always felt that good wines are made by good people and after our first meeting I knew this applied to Lara and Roberto.
There’s something about the Galicians. It’s something we noticed throughout our trip. The warmth, generous hospitality and general friendliness of the people there. I’d spent a lot of my childhood in Galicia and despite not visiting this particular region before it felt like home.
As we made our way towards the winery I got the chance to speak to Lara and Roberto about their new project. They are a husband and wife duo that purchased the winery as recently as 2017. I told you it was a new project!
Roberto is a proud Italian from the region of Abruzzo and Lara a native Galician. Having spent time living in Italy, England and in Madrid they decided to settle down making wine in Ribeira Sacra despite having no ties to the region.
I asked them why they would leave a comfortable life in Madrid for wine-making in Galicia, and not just wine-making…wine-making in one of the most inhospitable regions in the world.
Lara smiled and responded “It’s our passion”
We arrived at one of their vineyards near to the winery to be greeted by Roberto’s father and team of workers scurrying around the vineyard picking Mencia grapes. As I wandered forwarded to investigate I was met with my first view over the stunning River Sil. It was breath-taking.
The production at Alma Das Donas is 100% faithful to the term Heroic Viticulture and this was evident as workers around me climbed up steep and ragged slopes carrying 20kg boxes of ripe Mencia grapes with complete ease.
Just to make things a bit more interesting this was all done at 32 degree heat. Ribeira Sacra had experienced some strange and extreme weather this year. Some regions had already seen intense hail, so much so that winemakers like Laura Lorenzo at Daterra had seen most of their crop destroyed. This particular area had also suffered, this time from mildew with Alma Das Donas losing 30% of their fruit this vintage.
Not only is it heroic viticulture, it is unforgiving.
I started to wander around the vineyards and take photographs. It was like a scene from Bambi on the ice as I slipped and slid around the makeshift pathways looking like a complete amateur. There was an air of concern and laughter in equal measures as I clumsily made my way through the vines.
It was suggested that we create a video of me carrying a 20kg box of grapes up the banks of the River Sil to truly get the full experience of Heroic Viticulture. On the basis I has already fallen over 7 times simply holding my iPhone, I quickly declined.
Lara and I left Roberto in the vineyard and made our way the short drive to the winery and their surrounding vines in the area of Pombeiro in the municipality of Panton.
The winery itself is integrated into the banks of the River Sil surrounded by a vast mixture of vineyards and trees. It’s a common feature of the area as the vineyards are almost incorporated into the surrounding forestry.
Another feature of the region is the various parcels of vines sitting side by side and often owned by various different people. It’s extreme parcelling like I’ve never seen where tiny parcels of vines owned by one person are embedded within a larger collection of vineyards owned by a completely different person.
It’s the reason why organic and bio-dynamic farming is so difficult to practice in the region and why transportation is such a crucial consideration as vineyards location are dotted around the river beds, sometimes well away from the bodega.
Standing outside the winery looking over the vines to the River Sil was an amazing sight
One of the most peaceful, serene and humbling regions I have ever been to.
Despite the busy work going on in the winery the vineyard was silent.
Within the vineyards that surround the winery there is no mechanisation aside from a simple rail system that aids the transport of grapes from vineyard to the bodega – very slowly I might add!
The winery itself is fairly small but busy with activity. I met the rest of the team, Oscar and Xiao who showed me around the various steel tanks and barrels to see the end to end process and the newly fermenting 2018 Godello. Lara and Roberto have big plans for the project and have already started extending the winery building with a key focus on Eco-tourism. As interest and visitors to the region grows at an alarming rate every month it’s a smart move.
As the sun started to fall we made our way to another local vineyard and to meet up with local vine grower Jose Manuel who turned up like a rock star on his 4x4 quad bike. Jose Manual is well known in the region and understands the area better than most. As well as providing grapes to local wineries he also works with Alma Das Donas to provide them with additional crop above their own 3 hectares of vines. As we travelled through the gravel roads through a sea of vineyards Lara asked me what I thought of the region, “its crazy” I said. Lara laughed and responded “Everything is crazy in Ribeira Sacra!”…she wasn’t wrong.
he day ended back in the winery, the building that Lara and Roberto call home during the harvest season. Lara had a special bottle for me to try and a bottle to take home; their new barrel aged 2017 Godello which at the moment is un-labelled and un-released. Made from the same grapes as their standard Godello but with a completely different structure and flavour profile; it’s elegant with subtle fruit flavours and very sophisticated.
A few days later I returned to the winery to see Lara and Roberto. I arrived early evening and they were still working de-stemming the latest harvest of Mencia and pumping them into large stainless steel vats to start the fermentation process. Their young daughter Lola (only 4!) was busily brushing up grape stems and Lara was arguing with a local truck driver who wouldn’t accept any money for 3 trips he had made transporting their latest crop to the winery (Lara eventually won)
They both looked exhausted but happy and Roberto had injured his arm from working the harvest. They are not winery owners that stand off and let others do the work; they both get stuck in, particularly during harvest.
Despite this they both smiled warmly when they saw me arrive at the bodega.
At this point I had been in Riberia Sacra for five days and had visited four separate wineries. At each winery I visited, including Alma Das Donas, I was astounded at the lengths these people had to go to produce grapes here.
Because of all the manual effort involved the profit margins were tight. A bad vintage could be catastrophic in terms of survival.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with Roberto when we first met. I had asked him why they priced their wines so low considering the effort and costs involved to produce them. He explained, “This is Spain. We have to be competitive with other regions.
Ribeira Sacra isn’t like any other region is Spain. It’s not like Rioja or Ribeira Del Duero where you have huge acres of vines in one area where the manual harvest is easier or you can mechanically harvest. We have the additional costs for labour and the harvest takes longer but we have to be competitive”.
Sad but probably true.
This all stems back to my original point on what is required to be a wine-producer here… passion, love, obsession, desire, understanding…with a hint of craziness of course! Financially driven people would need to look at a different region.
When I was driving down to the winery that night I had a list of questions in my head to ask Lara and Roberto. The main question I wanted to ask them was why? Why here? Why voluntarily choose this region over any other in Spain to produce wine? Why pick the most difficult place in the world to grow grapes and on top of that pay money to call it your home?
As I arrived at the winery I left the car and walked up the steep slope to the winery. As I looked back over the banks of the River Sil the sun was setting over the banks of the river, the land was perfectly still, tranquil and quiet, there was a smell of pine cones and fermenting wine in the air and I felt a sense of peace.
I never asked them why.
In that short 60 second walk from my car to the winery I already knew the answer.
Every time I open a bottle from this region I will never forget the effort and sacrifice that these people endure to produce the bottles of wine we love.