Words Madelaine Riley
Ribera del Duero ¦ Monday, 21 October, 2019
On a high plain about two-thirds of the way from Madrid to Burgos lies Pedrosa de Duero, a diminutive municipality that gives its name to Vina Pedrosa, one part of the Perez Pascuas undertaking. This was to be the first winery on our itinerary, and an excellent chance to taste some top-quality Tinto Fino. It was apparent from the drive to the winery just how much investment has gone into Ribera del Duero over the past few decades – the rolling vineyards were pristine, the winery buildings impressive, and the purpose-built tasting rooms slick.
At the Perez Pascuas winery itself, we learn that, despite the trappings of modernity, there are many aspects to how these wines are made that are resolutely traditional. The harvest (all done by hand) had only finished a week previously, and the smell of fermenting musts filled the winery buildings. The maturation room was quite the cathedral to oak, some of it French, some American (and even a tiny bit of it Hungarian, for experimentation purposes), and much of it new.
When we moved to the tasting room, and to the samples of Vina Pedrosa in its Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva iterations, it was noteworthy that all this oak hadn’t remotely overwhelmed the wines, which (although young) were impressive in their integration and balance, requiring only time to round off the tannins’ rougher edges. Balsamico was the word that appeared again and again in my tasting notes – the English doesn’t quite do it justice.
Our next stop was also dedicated to Tinto Fino (called, among other things, Tempranillo, in other parts of Spain), though this time the vineyards lay just beyond the Ribera del Duero D.O. While this matter of boundary-drawing would certainly cause consternation to some, Mariano Garcia is not a man easily fazed. Involved in a number of projects in different areas, he founded this one, Bodegas Mauro, back in 1978. It produces wines that fall into the Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla y Leon denomination, though there’s no doubting that they are a qualitative match for the best Ribera del Duero I’ve had the opportunity to taste. Three reds are produced (Mauro, Mauro VS and the single-vineyard Terreus) alongside an extraordinarily good, small-production Godello. Production is organic, with certain influences from biodynamics applied across the 70ha of vineyards. Mariano was quite the host and, though we had reservations for lunch together in a nearby town, it was almost impossible to pull him away from this vat or that bottle that he wanted us to sample. After a delicious lunch that only overran by an hour, we had to rush off, leaving the land of red wine behind as we set our sights on Rueda.
Rueda’s landscape probably doesn’t inspire a thriving local postcard industry: dry, stony and flat, its distinctly unromantic vineyards seem to stretch out interminably towards the horizon. Outside investment by large companies is notable here, with local ownership appearing to be the exception rather than the rule. It was, therefore, particularly interesting to visit one of these exceptions – Bodegas y Vinedos Organicos Menade, a committed flagbearer for the Verdejo grape.
Our guide, with boundless enthusiasm, explained that Menade’s mission was to show that Verdejo can make much more than the fairly simple, fruit-driven wines one generally encounters. Steadfastly organic, Menade’s winemakers were evidently quite the experimenters, and we tried a vast array of different takes on Verdejo in their atmospheric cellars, ranging from straightforward numbers to complex skin-contact bottlings, some brought up in oak, others in amphorae made with clay from their own property, and even some solera-system wines (many of which would have been very much at home in a number of London wine bars). The hallmark of all these many and varied wines was the passion and curiosity of the winemakers, something that I’m sure is immediately apparent to the oenotourists they’re making efforts to attract.
Valdeorras ¦ Tuesday, 22 October, 2019
Despite the rather terrifying banks of cloud and/or fog that bar the winding mountain roads, October is a wonderful time to visit the undulating landscape of Valdeorras. There’s no need to ask anyone about vineyard planting methods here – the crimson leaves of Garnacha Tintorera jostle the green ones of Palomino and Godello (among others) in vineyards that line the slopes and broad terraces of the hillsides – testament to the traditional mixed planting that evidently still makes up a significant (though diminishing) proportion of the area under vine.
The landscape itself couldn’t be more different from the wide-open stretches we’d seen near Ribera del Duero and the flatlands of Rueda: these oscillating hills throw up steep vineyards – many at 600-700+m above sea level – of a hundred different aspects, giving wines of subtly different fruit profiles, as evidenced by the samples tasted here and with Rafael Palacios the following day.
Bodegas Godeval (a portmanteau of Godello and Valdeorras), was our first stop in Valdeorras, where they own 21ha of vineyards. These are planted to Godello, as befits a winery that’s been at the heart of the grape’s resurgence in recent decades from the start of the Revival programme (“Reestructuración de Viñedos de Valdeorras”) onwards.
Though Albarino is Galicia’s most famous vinous export, Godello is often touted as Spain’s noblest white grape, and has made a particular home in the Mediterranean-cum-Continental climate of Valdeorras, in the region’s south-east. From making up a tiny percentage of plantings forty years ago, Godello now ranks third among Galicia’s white grapes, making up 10% of production (Albarino, by comparison, makes up an enormous 65%).
In the right hands, Godello is at once weighty and appetisingly refreshing, its characteristic amargor building subtly on the finish. Luckily, we were in the right hands – Godeval manager Araceli Fernández was an insightful guide to the estate and its history, and the samples we tasted with her were excellent: young examples were textured and fresh, ranging from floral to citrussy, with just enough phenolic grip on the finish; older examples were fascinating too, with honeyed, nutty notes crowding out the fruit, but that great texture ever-present. To my mind, overt oak doesn’t suit Godello, so the 1986 cuvee wasn’t my favourite, but the Revival bottling produced in excellent years was a delight (and a bargain, if I heard the ex-cellar pricing correctly).
We finished the day with a visit to the local Consejo Regulador – an excellent opportunity to experience a little of what is produced in Valdeorras besides its flagship Godello, including the inky Garnacha Tintorera we’d seen so much of in passing vineyards, and peppery Mencia: “un brindis de sensaciones” (as Valdeorras’s slogan goes), indeed.
Wednesday, 23 October, 2019
Our guide to this area on the morning of 23 October was someone I’d been particularly excited to meet, having tasted his wines previously: Rafael Palacios. I’ve often met winemakers from winemaking families who seem to see their role as that of custodian of an inherited reputation, carrying out duties with professionalism and care, but lacking the fervour of many newcomers. Rafael Palacios, on the other hand, has the passion of the true zealot.
Driving us around the hills of the Bibei Valley, stopping to show a viewpoint here, an old press there, his attention to detail was something to witness. Somehow simultaneously managing to drive, point out special plots, and give rapid-fire trellising instructions over the phone to vineyard managers, he seemed to have the energy of at least three ordinary people. Going from the plot of hundred-year-old vines that go into Sorte Antiga toparcels dating from the 1980s, via plots Rafael himself planted when he first bought land back in 2004 and new vineyards of adolescent vines, the morning was as much an education in the area’s past as in its present.
Of interest to a (one-time) linguist like myself was the derivation of the term Sorte: used in the names of Rafael’s wines, it refers to specific sortes (“plots”, but also “fate” or “luck”), so-called after the ballot process by which they were traditionally inherited in this part of Galicia.
On returning to the winery, we tasted turbid tank samples (they hadn’t quite finished fermentation) from various plots; they vibrated with energy, running the gamut from lime to passionfruit to supercharged nectarine according to their particular terroir, but sharing a common minerality and density of flavour.
Finished wines tried later in the tasting room were transcendent: vini da meditazione, as the Italians might say. Proof, if proof were needed, that Godello can be one of the world’s great grapes.
Rias Baixas ¦ Thursday, 24 October, 2019
Upon arrival in this eastern part (or rather, parts) of Galicia, we discovered that the reputation for rainfall was not misplaced. Feeling very much at home, we drove south, past plot after plot of pergolas heavy with Albarino vines, almost as far as the Portuguese border, to visit the area of O Rosal. The scent of eucalyptus in the damp forests here was heady, and a note we’d later pick up in one of the wines tasted at Pazo de Senorans, further north.
In O Rosal, we visited Lagar de Cervera, part of the La Rioja Alta group, and a producer of monovarietal Albarino as well as typical O Rosal blends of Albarino, Caino, Treixadura and Loureiro. The wines were eminently sippable, and obviously an excellent pairing for local seafood.
Our second visit of the day meant returning north to the Salnes Valley and Cambados, where the historic Palacio de Fefinanes is found. I’d previously tasted wines from the producer, and always been impressed, particularly as I knew of their reputation to age well. We were graciously received by the estate’s president, Juan Gil de Araujo, who told us about the history of his family and the palacio, as well as noting two features that would come up again the following day at Pazo de Senorans – the ageability of Albarino, and the significant fragmentation of land ownership in this part of Galicia. Alongside more recent vintages, we tasted a 2011 and a 2006 Albarino that had taken on lovely nutty notes alongside the characteristic citrus. While I’m even less convinced, personally, by overt oak on Albarino than I was on Godello, every non-oaked example was outstanding, with the III Ano bottling we tried being of particular note.
Friday, 25 October, 2019
After spending the previous days with small and medium-sized producers, it was quite a change to visit the higher-production Martin Codax cooperative winery. High-production did not mean impersonal, however, and the welcome we received was as warm as anywhere else. The facilities were very impressive, and the winery is obviously used to receiving tourists from nearby Cambados. This was our first – and only – chance to taste a sparkling Albarino, which was impressive, as was the basic Albarino. To produce wines of quality at such volumes was really testament to the emphasis on standards. The style was a little different from other examples tasted, with a certain creamy softness resulting from a predilection for putting a higher percentage of wine through malolactic fermentation, but this approach clearly suits the large national and international audience. Smaller production bottlings including a heavily lees-aged example, an oaked Albarino and a botrytised late-harvest wine were fascinating to taste.
Our final visit was to a winery that probably gets mentioned more than any other in the context of top-quality Albarino, and it did not disappoint. Pazo de Senorans only make Albarino, much of which comes from estate grapes. There are three release types: the Albarino, the Albarino Coleccion, and the Albarino Seleccion de Anada. The Coleccion is a late-release version of the normal Albarino, while the Seleccion de Anada is made from grapes from one vineyard site, with no malolactic fermentation, and over 30 months on the lees.
That the estate became what it is today seems remarkable good luck for wine drinkers everywhere: Marisol Bueno and her husband bought the historic estate in the late 1970s when she was still working as a scientist. She ended up running the estate and playing a key role in establishing the Rias Baixas D.O. She and one of her daughters, Vicky, were brilliant guides and lunch companions, showing us around the significant vineyards (including an interesting experimental plot), and opening a number of older bottling for us to taste. The 2010 Seleccion de Anada was astoundingly fresh and concentrated, mineral and exceedingly long and belying its age. This was the one bottling that showed exactly why growers in years gone by had thought Albarino to be the same as Riesling – the intensity of the lime fruit combined with the extraordinary acidity could have come straight from the Rheingau or Mosel. Other bottlings were no less impressive, with the Coleccion wines showing charming honeyed quince notes.
Santiago de Compostela ¦ Saturday, 26 October, 2019
We managed to squeeze in a few hours in the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela before our flight home, and proved to be just about the only foreigners in Galicia not on a pilgrimage (or rather, on a pilgrimage of a very different sort…).
Special Note of Thanks
I couldn’t possibly finish this report without giving special thanks to Maria Jose Sevilla – our guide, Caballero, writer of Delicioso: A History of Food in Spain (among other books), one-time Director of Foods and Wines of Spain, occasional television presenter and all-round excellent companion. That someone with such a long list of accomplishments and such depth of knowledge could be so humble and charming was quite amazing, and I’ve rarely spent time with anyone with the saint-like level of patience required not to get angry when the Sat Nav sent us around the same two roundabouts in Valladolid four times in a row!