While the opening week of the 2015 Vuelta saw the peloton roaming through the hot, arid climate of Andalucía in southern Spain, the first week of this year’s race looks completely different. If you’ve been watching the coverage of the 2016 Vuelta, you’ve no doubt been impressed with the magnificent scenery of Galícia, in far northwestern Spain: slow-flowing rivers cutting through cordons of granite; dense pine forests that cloak the hills in velvety green; and remnants of medieval architecture that dot the landscape. Truth be told, Galícia looks more like Ireland and Scotland than it does the rest of Spain. Its wines are different too, made from grapes that we’re more likely to find in neighboring Portugal than in places like Rioja or Ribera del Duero. In my last Vuelta post I zeroed in on the lovely wines of Rías Baixas, paying particular attention to Albariño, Spain’s (deservedly) most famous white varietal wine. Today I’m widening the focus a bit, to talk about a few other regions, equally worthy of a wine lover’s attention.
The Wines of Ribeiro
Traveling northeast from the heart of Rías Baixas, you will reach the DO Ribeiro. This region boasts a long history of winemaking, stretching back to the Middle Ages, when it began exporting wine to England. A thriving business was interrupted when the English set their sights on the fortified wines of Porto, directly to the south. The death knell sounded with the arrival of phylloxera, and vineyards in this corner of Spain were abandoned or converted to other crops. For many years, the craft of winemaking languished. When local vignerons turned back to growing grapes, it was to replant their fields with Palomino, the grape of Jerez, which was not well-suited to the terroir. Eventually winemakers forged a new direction, resurrecting the region’s indigenous grapes and taking advantage of modern viticulture and vinification methods to produce world-class wines.
Today, Ribeiro is best known for its cadre of aromatic white wines made from the likes of Albariño, Loureiro, Treixadura, Torrontés, and even some Godello. But the real energy in the region is directed at red wine production. Winemakers here have dedicated themselves to commercializing indigenous and largely forgotten varieties such as Brancellao, Caiño Redondo, Carabuñeira (aka Touriga Nacional), Ferron, and Alicante Bouschet. It will probably be much easier to find an example of Ribeiro’s luscious white wines, but if you come across a bottle of one of these rare red birds, by all means, buy it. (And please, jot a tasting note in my comment section – I’m all ears!)
Ribeira Sacra – A Region on the Rise
Get back in your virtual tour bus and head east again, this time to the DO of Ribeira Sacra, and home to some of the most dramatic hillside vineyards this side of the Mosel. Grape growing here is a true labor of love, given the difficult terrain. Vines must be tended by hand, situated as they are atop steep slate terraces that tower over the Sil and Miño Rivers. And the wines of the region reflect both the dramatic topography and the tender loving care of their pedigree: they are full-bodied but well-balanced, an hour of melodrama in a five-ounce glass.
Godello is the queen of white grapes in Ribeira Sacra, giving rise to aromatic wines of complexity and structure. Compared to Albariño, which gives off notes of peach and apricot, I find Godello to be more floral, with aromas more akin to honeysuckle. It’s also got a bit more weight, and the mouthfeel is more silky.
As for red grapes, Ribeira Sacra specializes in one grape: Mencía. Oh, how I love Mencía! It is so lovely and fragrant, with notes of cherry and red berries, with an herbal undertone. If you enjoy Cabernet Franc (one of The Derv’s favorites!) you will probably like this as well. In fact, it was once believed that Cab Franc and Mencía were the same grape, or at least genetically related. Not so! While they share many of the same descriptors, they are two different grapes. Mencía, it turns out, is identical to the Portuguese grape known as Jaen.
Ribeira Sacra’s affinity for growing complex and extremely aromatic Mencía has turned it into something of a sensation. Producers from other parts of Spain have opened facilities in the region, and many of the best examples of varietal Mencía wine come from here.
Along the border with Portugal lies Monterrei, Galícia’s warmest and most mountainous region. Modern winemaking has lagged behind here, compared to nearby regions but, just as in Ribeiro, growers have rediscovered indigenous varieties. Matching local grapes with modern winemaking techniques has resulted in the resurgence of unique wines made from grapes like Monstruosa, so named for the large size of its berries. Mencía and Tempranillo also grow here, Monterrei being the only part of Galícia warm enough for the latter to ripen.
Valdeorras and Godello
By the 1970s, winemaking in northwestern Spain had all but disappeared, except for high-yield crops of Palomino that were uninteresting to drink. Many of the indigenous grape varieties tottered on the brink of extinction, including Godello, the hallmark white wine of Valdeorras. Diligent farmers worked to reestablish Godello plantings, believing that it was uniquely suited to the terroir there. Boy, were they right! These wines, less well-known than the Albariños from Rías Baixas to the west, exhibit a racy minerality juxtaposed with full, ripe fruit. These wines, some of which are barrel-aged, have weight and alcohol and complexity, to boot. While their star is on the rise in wine markets the world over, they remain relative bargains. Jancis Robinson sums them up this way:
“The more I taste this north-west Spanish white wine variety, the more I love it. . [It] combines the structure of white burgundy with the finesse of a juicily mineral grape. . . Godello is a variety that is well capable of making wines that improve with age.”
I couldn’t agree more!
While Valdeorras is clearly white wine country, a little red wine, mostly from Mencía, is made. And, as with Monterrei and Ribeiro, there is new-found interest in cultivating indigenous Galícian grapes like Merenzao (aka Bastardo.)
So, Back to the Vuelta . . .
I’ve been watching the recap show of each day’s stage and, thus far, I’m finding it a little disappointing. Why? Much as I love the climbing stages, when I marvel at the seemingly impossible feats accomplished by the tiniest members of the peloton, I miss the big sprint finishes. The big personalities of Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel, and original gangsters like Fabian Cancellara. Day in and day out, not much changes in the standings. But on the bright side, we’re getting to know some of the up-and-comers of the cycling world: the guys who will drive the sport forward for the next decade.
One of my favorites is Darwin Atapuma, currently in the red jersey of the overall leader. He’s from Colombia and can climb like a . . . well, you know! It’s been fun watching him stand atop the podium each day, receiving his bouquet and new jersey from the Amazon gazelles (podium girls) who tower over him. And how cool is his name? If I had a kid, I’d name him Darwin Atapuma. Hell, if I had a dog I’d name him that. His countryman, Winner Anacona, has a pretty good moniker, too. What a way to send your kid into the world! For those who say that a name is destiny, what do you think of Winner? Now that I think about it, the Colombians have brought a lot of flash to the Vuelta, most of it surrounding the estimable Nairo Quintana. As yet, he hasn’t made a big splash but tomorrow the peloton breaks into the mountains, where they will remain for approximately two months (I’m kidding – sorta) until the next sprint stage in Madrid. That’s Nairo’s milieu, so I’m expecting him to emerge and kick some butt. I hope Spain’s Alberto Contador will be in the mix – he’s such a tough competitor – but he was involved in a crash yesterday that looked eerily like one he experienced in the Tour de France, and caused him to abandon the race. Fuerza, Alberto!
So forget what I said about the Vuelta being less-than. It’s about to get “real in the field,” as Snoop Dogg says. The mountains await. Pour yourself a glass of Galícian wine and pull up a chair.