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Ribeira Sacra: wines of river & gorge

Neil´s Martin Article in The Wine Advocate (01-03-2013)

Those Romans were a clever bunch. As the president of the Consejo Regulador, José Manuel Rodriguez, drives me through Ribeira Sacra for the first time, I find myself gazing in awe at the ancient bridges that span the river Miño as effortlessly as they have spanned two millennia; nowadays transporting cars and commuters from one side to the other instead of chariots and centurions. And of course, it is said that the Romans expanded their empire up to the point where grapes could no longer be turned into wine, after all, why conquer a land that cannot return pleasure? Here too, Ribeira Sacra continues to profit from their ingenuity. The Romans painstakingly “chiseled” the south-facing inclines of the vertiginous gorges of the winding Miño and Sil rivers into terraces to support vines. They were not seeking “XCV+” points from critics like myself. They simply sought to make better wine and fortunately that philosophy carries through to today.

Ribeira Sacra, which translates as “sacred river,” is perhaps one of Spain’s “secrets.” A cursory glance at the picturesque landscape dotted with medieval villages and churches gives little hint of viticulture. It is only within its breathtaking valleys that you discover vines, seemingly tucked away out of sight in a giant fissure of the Earth’s crust. Although it is a region steeped in history like no other I have come across, Ribeira Sacra can be viewed as a recent addition to Spain’s numerous D.Os. Phylloxera decimated both its wine industry and culture and the consequent abandonment of vineyards, followed by the Spanish Civil War, rendered winemaking little more than a memory. Uninhabited terraces are a testament to its precarious past, just as they are in Priorat and elsewhere.

Fortunately, Ribeira Sacra has undergone a renaissance over the last three decades. The number of grape growers farming its 1,265 hectares has steadily expanded from 800 to 2,896 by 2011. Most sell their fruit to local co-operatives or bodegas, of which there are presently 94. That is not a huge number compared to other regions but significantly more than the 17 that existed in 1994. There are five sub-regions in Ribeira Sacra: Amandi, Chantada, Quiroga-Bibei, Riberas do Miño and Riberas do Sil and each is marked by numerous micro-climates dictated by the extreme topography, altitude, soil, orientation and regulatory effect of the rivers. Ribeira Sacra enjoys more sunshine hours than further west toward the coast in Rias Baixas and you need only walk in the vineyards to see how the broken stones and steepness ensure that they are supremely well drained.

In terms of grape varieties, red Mencía vines reign supreme with just shy of five million kilograms produced in 2010. (My title refers to similarities in relief rather than the wines produced..) Ribeira Sacra is virtually the antithesis of Ribera del Duero: it is paler in color, the nose less fruit-driven, fresh and often herbaceous with Chinon-inspired bell pepper scents, the palate is usually between 12.5 and 13.5% alcohol, medium- rather than full-bodied, and has racy acidity and linear finishes. Ribeira Sacra reds are about freshness, freshness and freshness. White Ribeira Sacra wines are also produced predominantly from Godello, complemented by Treixadura and Louriera.
I found the wines of Ribeira Sacra immediately attractive, not because they are powerful, ineffably complex or built for the long-term. No, I enjoyed their sense of purity and their complete lack of pretention. I enjoyed these wines because they spoke of their place, harnessing the Mencia grape variety to conjure crisp, fresh, vivacious wines that are born to marry with the local cuisine. The finest wines are those whereby I could envisage one finishing a bottle and yearning for another drop – a virtue all too often forgotten in this day and age. The tannins are often very fine, recalling some Pinot Noirs on occasion, imparting silky textures that at best were beguiling. As I have mentioned, it is when they offer attractive raspberry fruit infused with bell pepper notes that I find Ribeira Sacra most “true.” And whenever they aspired to be something else, by means of heavier extraction of greater application of oak, they were deprived of personality and typicity. I felt that the Ribeira Sacra’s whites were generally stronger than I expected, with a clutch of excellent examples from Adega Alguiera and Dominio do Bibei, even if generally they do not reach the heights down toward the coast in Rias Baixas. Ribeira Sacra is comparatively inexpensive and thankfully there was an absence of “icon” wines designed to fish for label collectors, which is refreshing to see.

It is impossible to visit Ribeira Sacra and not fall in love with it. There exists a pervasive sense of timelessness because so much of its history as remained intact. What I also appreciated was the idea that their wines have no need to conform to international expectations. If you desire bigger, more fruit-driven, alcoholic wines then this is not where you should come. You could argue that such solipsism can lead to a region being stuck in its ways, anachronistic. But in remaining true to their style, one that I suspect has remained little changed from Roman times, Ribeira Sacra is more relevant than ever to what wine-lovers seek in their glass.

Ribeira Sacra was a discovery for my palate. I think it will be for yours.

As usual, my regional focus means that my tastings embraced a far wider spread of wines than has been covered in previous reports and therefore not all of these producers are imported into the United States. Again, I must thank the Consejo Regulador and especially José Manuel Rodriguez for organizing the tasting, accompanying me on my visits and the bag of chestnuts.

Neil Martin


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