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Ribeira Sacra for irresistible Spanish Wines

La Ribeira Sacra, a barely accessible, exquisitely rural wine region in northwestern Spain's vast, mountainous Galicia (some 350 miles northwest of Madrid), is exhibiting potential more exciting than any emerging region, says our Spanish wine expert, Gerry Dawes who has traversed Spanish wine roads for over four decades.

The largely godello (a local grape varietal)-based whites and mencía-based reds are so irresistibly delicious, enticing and often profound that Ribeira Sacra is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling wine regions on earth.

In the bargain, it may also be the most strikingly beautiful for its terraces of indigenous dry-farmed, old vines that plunge precipitously down the majestic slopes of the damned-up canyons of the Minho river, which meanders from the north and defines the western zone, and the Sil, which flows from the east and marks the southern tier.

Such radical terrain requires Ribeira Sacra growers, like their Priorat peers, to practice "heroic viticulture," dangerous and laborious vine tending on steeply inclined terraces.

Wines of Ribeira Sacra

Ribeira Sacra has been growing wine since the Roman occupation (and possibly longer), yet over the past five years, this former backwater has awakened from its centuries-long slumber and appears poised to make a long-term impact on the Spanish wine world. It has already become a moderating force in a national wine culture with a predilection for overblown, inky monsters. Refreshingly, Ribeira Sacra's wines display a sense of terruño that can rival the ethereal, sublime qualities of great, Atlantic-influenced red and white Burgundies and the cabernet franc-based reds of the Loire.

Stephen Metzler, president of Seattle's Classical Wines and importer of Ribeira Sacra's Peza do Rei and Finca Millara, observes, "My view of Ribeira Sacra is as a Northern European terroir whose wines have structure and acidity, so the pursuit of extract here - but not over-ripeness - is advisable. It is the opposite of most of Spain, where they need to seek acidity to provide support for fleshiness."

Roger Kugler, former wine director of New York's Suba and Boqueria, and a Spanish wine specialist, disagrees. "There is a tendency to over-extract some of these Ribeira Sacra reds at the moment," he asserts. "But I think that will pass as the winemakers catch up with the trend against such over-extracted wines, which is now gaining ground all over the world."

More than any other place in Spain, the wines of Ribeira Sacra are being produced by people trying to get it right in the vineyards rather than manipulating the juice in the cellars. Dominio do Bibei owner Javier Domínguez explains, "We began by working the vineyards, cutting yields and getting them into the right conditions to make good wine."

A Dramatic Contrast

Indeed, much of Ribeira Sacra winemaking stands in dramatic contrast to practices that have characterized a large portion of the Spanish wine scene for the last 15 years - such as extended macerations, barrel fermentation, bâttonage, barrel toasting and extended aging in new oak - that produce fat, jammy, high-alcohol, low-acidity wines. Rather than emulate a formulaic flavor profile designed to impress wine critics, Ribeira Sacra reds, when produced sans gimmicks, may be the longed-for antidote to some of the more exaggerated wines that finally seem to be falling out of fashion.

Domínguez, who recently shared a bottle of one of his early wines, Lalama 2003, with me at New York's Boqueria Soho tapas restaurant, affirms the welcome trend: "We are beginning to see a group of people in Ribeira Sacra trying to make wines with a stamp of authenticity. This is totally contrary to what has been going on in the rest of Spain for many years."

Tiered slate and/or granite bancales (terraces), some dating to the Roman occupation nearly 2,000 years ago, have a great deal to do with why Ribeira Sacra wines can be so profoundly terruño-driven, intriguing and delicious. The old vines, which delve deeply into the fractured stone of the terraced slopes (composed mostly of granite in Chantada, a granite-slate mix in both Ribeiras do Minho and Ribeiras do Sil, mostly slate in Amandi and slate- or schist-laced clay in Quiroga-Bibei) impart a marked minerality to the wines.

Vineyard Slopes and Terroir

The inclines of most Ribeira Sacra vineyards range from 30 to 80 degrees, but, in some cases, they can be as steep as 100 degrees or more (comparable in pitch to Germany's storied Bernkasteler Doktor vineyard on the Mosel river). Because of the extreme differences in altitude, which can vary as much as 500 to 600 feet in the same vineyard, harvests are graduated with the earliest-ripening vines in the lower, warmer rows nearest the river picked first. The harvest typically takes place over two weeks, until the uppermost vines are picked. Climate varies from the more direct Atlantic weather influences in the western Minho, where the median temperature is 56° F and an average of 35.5 inches of rain falls annually, to the southern and eastern Sil areas where significantly less rain - 20 to 27.5 inches - falls, but the median temperature is only one degree warmer (midday summer temps can still reach 100° F).

Ribeira Sacra Blends

Grapes in the oldest Ribeira Sacra vineyards are often field blends of mencía or godello mixed with little-known ancient Galician red varieties. The Ribeira Sacra Regulatory Council has decreed that the "preferred" red varieties are mencía, brancellao and merenzao, but also allowed are caiño tinto, mouratón (also called negrada), sousón and the inky garnacha tintorera (gradually being eliminated as an authorized variety) and the seldom-encountered tempranillo (widely grown in the rest of Spain). Preferred whites are the dominant godello together with albariño, dona blanca, loureira, torrontés and treixadura.

Unique Wines

Many Ribeira Sacra wines already enjoy a clear identity: Their persistent terruño minerality is more apparent here than in any other region in Spain, including Priorat, where inherent minerality is often obscured by new oak. The best Ribeira Sacra red wines exhibit memorable, slate-driven, graphite flavors derived from distinctly different grapes than Priorat, primarily mencía, often blended with small percentages of the other unique indigenous varieties. And because Ribeira Sacra's grapes are grown in a cool, Atlantic-influenced climate (as opposed to a hot Mediterranean one) and are almost never left to over-ripen, the wines possess lively, fresh-fruit flavors.

Some Ribeira Sacra wines still offer the rustic country touches, such as slight barnyard hints and pronounced minerality, that characterized the region's wines for generations, but only in overcropped wines with insufficient fruit are these qualities a problem. With every passing vintage, the wines have become increasingly sophisticated, often without completely losing that charming rustic thread that imparts a sense of place and is considered by many adherents a virtue, rather than a flaw.

The reds are usually quite delicious with a depth of ripe, juicy red and black currant, red berry and/or pomegranate-like fruit, evocative minerality and moderate 11.5 to 13 percent alcohol levels, all beautifully integrated and balanced by fine acidity. Plus, oak is not at all employed or used so judiciously that it isn't a noticeable flavor component. Taken altogether, these attributes make for eminently drinkable, exquisitely well-balanced and seamless reds in the best examples, which also display an exceptional affinity with a wide range of dishes.

Age-worthy Whites

Although Ribeira Sacra whites, made predominantly from godello, comprise less than 7 percent of the region's production, they, too, show notable promise. While there are some delicious blends of godello with albariño, treixadura and other native Galician white varieties, the single varietal Pena das Donas Almalarga Godello, from 80- to 100-year-old vines, illustrates the potential of Ribeira Sacra whites.

Almalarga impresses with all the complexity and haunting minerality of a fine white Burgundy, albeit with mixed granitic-slate-imparted mineral flavors, as opposed to chalkier calcareous qualities. Happily, Pena das Donas's owner Antonio Lombardia so far does not subscribe to the current trends in Spanish white winemaking - fermentation in new oak and frequent bâttonage - that can obliterate the inherent fruit and mineral tones that are so enchanting. It is, unequivocally, one of the greatest white wines I have tasted in Spain.

Reds with a Potential

Over the past decade, I've recognized similar potential in reds such as José Manuel Rodríguez's Décima, Javier Seoane's Pradio, Primitivo Lareu's Sabatelivs and even such rustic wines as Viña Cazoga, Cividade and Os Cipreses. Even inexpensive reds from some of the region's larger wineries - Vía Romana (Chantada), Abadia da Cova (Ribeiras do Minho), Rectoral de Amandi (Amandi), Ponte de Boga (Ribeiras do Sil) and Val de Quiroga (Quiroga-Bibei) - are very drinkable, though they are primarily intended for local consumption.

At the Chantada wine fair in March, I encountered several little-known yet very promising reds: Diego de Lemos, Pincelo, Quinta de Albarada and Terras Bendaña. And over a lunch with Ribeira Sacra DO president José Manuel Rodríguez at his friend's small hobby bodega overlooking the Minho, we drank an unlabeled red that was gorgeously rich, but had only 12 percent alcohol. In July, I tasted Adegas Costoya (Alodio and Thémera), Peza do Rei and Chao do Couso (Alcouce and Soutollo) at the Castro Caldelas wine fair; all are available in the U.S., and several more reds (Sollio, Adega Vella, Bellaleira, Viña Pederneira and Solaina) are well worth seeking.

Outside Winemakers

Outside winemakers are further validating Ribeira Sacra's promise. Such notables as Bierzo's Raúl Pérez, Priorat's husband-and-wife team René Barbier, Jr. and Sara Pérez (Dominio do Bibei), Rías Baixas maestro Gerardo Méndez (D. Ventura) and Dominique Roujou de Boubee (Ponte da Boga), a French consulting enologist living near Barcelona, are now helping refine Ribeira Sacra wines.

Increase in Media Attention and Exports

Fueling its rising status were several significant articles about Ribeira Sacra that recently appeared in The New York Times, GQ and The Wine Advocate, and have had an explosive effect. Even in a market in which leading Spanish wine Web site reports that Spanish wine exports were down in the first six months of this year by a staggering $162 million (13 percent) compared to the same period in 2008, Rodríguez notes that his region's wines sales were up 35 percent over roughly the same period.

Some Notable Producers

Counted among the exceptional wines making it to our shores are three truly superb, very reasonably priced organic reds from a vineyard in Ribeiras do Minho and two other sites in Amandi. Winemaker Gerardo Méndez, owner of top-rated Rías Baixas Do Ferreiro Albariños, is the palate behind these wines. He advises Ramón Losada on his D. Ventura Viña do Burato, Pena do Lobo and Viña Caniero ventures. Fermented with native yeasts, the resulting wines are among the most fruity, balanced, terruño-driven and gloriously delicious wines crafted in Spain; they are entirely unoaked and none exceed 13 percent alcohol. Also in Ribeiras do Minho, from sharply inclined vineyards overlooking the Sil river (which intersects nearby with the Minho and Bibei rivers), Antonio Lombardia and his partners at the Pena das Donas produce, along with the lauded Almalarga Godello, a first-rate Mencía, Verdes Matas.

Javier Domínguez, a native Galician, is the owner (with his wife, Maria) and artistic inspiration behind the striking Domino de Bibei tucked away in the tortuous mountains of the Quiroga-Bibei area. Priorat husband-and-wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier Jr. (Clos Mogador) consult on Domino de Bibei's four critically acclaimed wines: the godello-based Lapena and Lapola, and the red Lacima and Lalama. Locals Suso Prieto Pérez and Laura Lorenzo Domínguez diligently manage the vineyards year-round and monitor the developing wines. Upright, epoxy-lined cement ovals and larger neutral wood tanks are used here, while ultra-long macerations and a surfeit of new oak are against Domínguez's philosophy.

"Even if I don't make any money for ten years, what concerns me more is making the greatest wine possible from these grapes and this land," Domínguez asserts. One of his reds, Lalama, is approved as "experimental" by the DO; indeed, it's an unconventional blend of mouratón and garnacha tintorera (an inky grape reminiscent of alicante bouschet). Domínguez is also tinkering with brancellao, a grape he enthusiastically says "produces pretty, light-colored, elegant red wines that remind me of Burgundy."

Raúl Pérez, an energetic, 38-year-old traveling winemaker who zips around northwestern Spain in a Mini Cooper, has his hand in more than a dozen idiosyncratic wines. Pérez began making what have since become critically acclaimed wines from his family's Bierzo vineyards. In Ribeira Sacra, his style is evident in Alguiera, Chao Do Couso (Alcouce, Soutollo), Guímaro and El Pecado, which is sold in Spain as Guímaro Barrica (barrel aged). The 2005 El Pecado - 85 percent mencía, 10 percent caiño tinto and 5 percent brancellao (the latter two grapes impart a rustic, exotic touch) - was recently rated a very generous 98 points in The Wine Advocate.

When asked about his role, Pérez says simply, "soy enólogo de viña" (I am a vineyard enologist), but as his fame skyrockets, it could be said that he is also "enologist de prensa" (prensa translates as both a wine press and a periodical). Pérez adheres to the great-wine-begins-in-the-vineyard philosophy and prefers four- to five-year-old barrels with no pronounced char or toast. Pérez's wines can be quite good, and his rise to fame has helped spotlight the Ribeira Sacra, but his individualistic winemaking approach sometimes seems more about the DO "Raúl Pérez," than about exemplary wines from any one region.

Because of climate, soil differences and vineyard orientation, Ribeira Sacra's five subzones can produce wines that are markedly different in character. "There might as well be 20 different DOs," Rodríguez offers. Mapping the official ones from northwest to southeast, there is magical Chantada, whose vineyards line the Minho; Ribeiras do Minho, with its strikingly beautiful vineyard sites, lies south of Chantada; Amandi, with strikingly steep vineyards in the heart of the region, is bounded on the south by the Sil river; Ribeiras do Sil, occupies the deep canyons on the southern side of the Sil; and Quiroga-Bibei, whose non-terraced eastern vineyards contrast with its more majestic, steep, terraced vineyards along the Sil and Bibei rivers.

Dominio do Bibei's Dominguez, notes, "One thing I like about the Ribeira Sacra is the differences between the subzones. For instance, the wines of Chantada are much more fruity. The wines of Bibei, where I have my vines and bodega, have much more minerality and the fruit is not as exuberant. I am not fond of wines with pronounced fruit. What I prefer are the mineral components."

Roger Kugler elaborates, "The steep vineyards and slate soils produce mencía with a deeper minerality and richness than can be found in Bierzo. The region has been called the next Priorat, for good reason: Many Ribeira Sacra red wines are showstoppers."

Although the bolder, more extracted wines naturally exhibit certain characteristics evocative of Priorat, and the more restrained ones can be reminiscent of the Loire Valley and even of Burgundy, Ribeira Sacra wines are largely distinctive. Yet because of the region's geographic isolation and its plethora of indigenous varieties and climates, becoming familiar with its nuances requires an inquisitive palate. Dipping into this river of wine is a refreshingly rewarding experience.

Ribeira Sacra DO Labeling Requirements

o Wine labeled Ribeira Sacra must contain at least 70 percent of the endorsed varieties.

o The Ribeira Sacra Summum designation is reserved for reds made from a minimum of 85 percent endorsed varieties, 60 percent of which must be mencía. Summum whites must be made entirely from endorsed varieties. Both reds and whites can only be called varietal if composed of 85 percent of said grape. - GD

Tasting BAR

The wines that follow were tasted open by the author in September. Scores are based on the BuyLine rating system. "Adega" is Galician for bodega or wine cellar.

Adega Algueira, Doade-Sober (Lugo), Amandi (Raúl Pérez, consultant)

Adega Algueira, 2006 Summum - $35: (90% mencía, 10% merenzao; aged 10 months in 3-year-old oak; 14% alcohol) Somewhat shy nose of fruit, oak and mineral. Rich, tannic, juicy, mineral-laced; somewhat oaky yet balanced. Needs three years in bottle. Score: 92

Adega Moure, Escairón (Lugo), Ribeiras do Minho

Abadia da Cova, 2008 Albariño Summum - $22: (100% albariño; 12.5% alcohol) White peach and melon nose. Like flavors are dry and well balanced. Long, stony, mineral finish. Score: 89

Abadia da Cova, 2008 Mencía Summum - $25: (100% mencía) Pleasant nose of ripe fruit and graphite. Cabernet franc-like flavors of sweet black currant, dark chocolate and mineral; bitter finish. Score: 88

Adegas Chao do Couso, Pobra de Trives (Ourense), Quiroga-Bibei (Raúl Pérez, consultant)

Alcouce, 2006 Mencía Summum - $25: (13.5% alcohol) Nose of oak and mineral. Big and rich with sweet, smooth, wild black and red currant fruit; oak tannins obscure minerality. Score: 88

Soutollo, 2007 Mencía Summum - $30: (13.5% alcohol) Mixed aromas of ripe black currant, graphite and horse barn rusticity. Smooth, sweet black currant fruit with graphite minerality. Score: 89

Bodegas y Viñedos Raúl Pérez, Sober (Lugo), Amandi

El Pecado, 2007 Ribeira Sacra - $75: (80% mencía, 10% caíño tinto, 10% garnacha tintorera; 13.5% alcohol) Ripe nose of red fruit, oak and mineral. Deep, attractive, extracted black currant flavors with oak and mineral accents, rustic touches and very juicy acidity. A laudable modern Spanish wine made to fit a commercial profile. Score: 92

Adegas Costoya, A Teixeria (Ourense), Ribeiras do Sil

Alodio Mencía, 2007 Summum - $15: (13% alcohol) Nose of graphite and red currant. Delicious, full flavors of red currant, cherry, pomegranate, darkchocolate and generous minerality balanced by bright acids and moderate tannins. Exceptional value. Score: 92

Thémera, 2005 Summum - $25: (mencía; 13% alcohol) Complex nose of light oak, ripe red fruit, dark chocolate and mineral. Delicious, deep flavors of rich cherry, cranberry, pomegranate and dark chocolate; superb balance of acid, fruit, light oak and mineral. Outstanding value. Score: 94

D. Ventura, Losada Fernández, Ferreira de Pantón (Lugo), Ribeiras do Minho (Gerardo Méndez, consultant)

Viña do Burato, 2008 Summum - $20: (80-year-old mencía vines; 12% alcohol) Pleasant nose of pomegranate, red currant and mineral. Flavors of pomegranate and red currant fruit with a core of bracing minerality. An exemplary, delicious and eminently drinkable young Ribeira Sacra with loads of flavor, no oak and low alcohol. Score: 92

Pena do Lobo, 2007 Summum - $23: (mencía; 13% alcohol) Enticing nose of ripe red currant and pomegranate tinged with graphite. Superbly balanced, perfectly ripe red currant and pomegranate flavors with a compelling minerality reminiscent of Graves or Chinon. Score: 94

Viña Caneiro, 2007 Summum - $26: (mencía; 13% alcohol) Lovely nose of red fruit and mineral. Rich, complex flavors of red fruit, including pie cherry, red currant and pomegranate. Long, lingering, mineral finish. A stunning, steal-of-a-wine. Score: 96

Dominio do Bibei, Manzaneda (Ourense), Quiroga-Bibei (Sara Pérez and René Barbier, Jr., consultants)

La Pola, 2008 Godello Summum - $30: (some dona blanca grapes; 12.8% alcohol) Subtly tropical nose. Spicy and rich with sweet white peach flavors and bright acidity. Score: 93

La Lama, 2004 Summum - $36: (mencía, garnacha, moratón; 13% alcohol) Nose of exotic fruits and mineral. Impressively balanced palate of raspberry/ black cherry fruit, fresh acidity and moderate alcohol. Score: 91

Finca Míllara, Bodegas y Viñedos, Pantón (Lugo), Ribeiras do Minho

Finca Míllara, 2007 Mencía - $45: (13% alcohol) Nose of graphite, ripe fruit and oak. Soft and upfront, but rustic with some ripe red fruit and oak in the finish. Score: 87

Guímaro, Pedro M. Rodríguez Pérez, Sober (Lugo), Amandi (Raúl Pérez, consultant)

Guímaro, 2008 Mencía Summum - $15: (some caíño tinto; 13.5% alcohol) Lightly toasty nose of red fruits and mineral. Gutsy, rich and fruity with black currant, cherry and slate minerality shored up by tannins and light oak. A delicious crowd pleaser and a terrific value. Score: 90

Guímaro, 2007 B2M Summum - $29: (mencía field-blend with small amounts of caíño tinto; 13.5% alcohol) Nose of deep, ripe pomegranate, oak and mineral. Brassy, gutsy, big, sweet cola and pomegranate flavors; oaky and minerally. Delicious, but a bit too much of a good thing. More like a Bierzo than a Ribeira Sacra. Score: 91

Guímaro, 2007 B1P Summum - $50: Similar in character to the aforementioned El Pecado, but less pricey. Very extracted, exotic, black currant and mineral flavors. A big, stylized mouthful-of-a-wine that some will love, yet it lacks the alegría of many Ribeira Sacra wines. Score: 93

Pena das Donas, Pombeiro, Pantón (Lugo), Ribeiras do Minho

Almalarga, 2008 Godello Summum - $21: (13% alcohol) Beautiful nose of lime, white peach and mineral. Soft, silky and well balanced with sweet white peach fruit and a lingering, bitter almond and mineral finish. Score: 93

Verdes Matas, 2007 Mencía Summum - $21: (100% mencía; 12.5% alcohol) Pretty nose of pomegranate, red currant and mineral. Balanced and perfectly ripe with plenty of juicy cranberry, pomegranate and red currant fruit accented by dark chocolate. Long, mineral-laced finish. Score: 93

Peza do Rei, César Enríquez Diéguez, A Teixera (Ourense), Ribeiras do Sil

Peza do Rei, 2008 Blanco - $23: (70% godello, 20% treixadura and 10% albariño; 13% alcohol) Nose of white peach and mineral. Delicious, sweet white peach fruit with notes of lime, honeysuckle and mineral. Long, acid-laced finish. Score: 89

Peza do Rei, 2007 Colheita - $40: (mencía; 13.5% alcohol) Oak and ripe fruit nose. A big mouthful of rich black currant fruit and tarry licorice; shy on acid. Minerality vies with oak. Lacks Ribeira Sacra typicity. Score: 88 – GD

Gerry Dawes

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand prize in 2009 and received the Association of Food Journalists 2009 Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

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