Camp De Maison in Galicia
Viña Caneiro at D. Ventura in Ribeira Sacra
Danielle recently returned from De Maison Selections’s Galicia Camp, which she photographed and writes about here. Thanks Danielle!
This year’s De Maison Camp ventured to Galicia where I expected to drink crisp Albarino after rappelling down the steep vineyards of Ribeira Sacra, which would have been rewarding enough. However, Galicia turned out to be the land of Godello, Mencia, weird-looking shellfish, poundcake soaked in Arujo (Northern Spain’s answer to grappa) and drinking from the porron as though it were a competitive sport, because it is. Only a man like André Tamers can put 30 people who think they know a thing or two about wine on a bus and in a mere six hours from Madrid take them to a place where they’ve never been, may never be able to go back to, and show them that they know nothing.
What follows are notes from a lecture given on day one, in a vineyard in Monterrei by Luis Paadin, a professor of viticulture and oenology at the University of Vigo. After a lunch of freshly boiled and perfectly pimento-spiced polpo, washed down with cool clear Godello from Amizade, we gathered around the ancient stone Lagar and took a lesson from Luis on the history of viticulture in Galicia.
Viticulture in Galicia started 2,000 years ago, when Roman soldiers came through Portugal in 125AD and introduced the Etruscan method of trellising. People have always thought that trellising was employed to avoid infestation, but this isn’t true; trellising is an ancient tradition. As the Romans came to Galicia they brought in more vitis vinifera, which joined the indigenous varietals, either by human intervention or otherwise, and soon Galicia became home to 120 varietals, 70 of which were native to the area, totaling more varietals in this tiny northwestern pocket of Spain than the rest of the country.
With a climate so cool and balanced, the grapes develop a high acidity, thick skins and highly developed aromas. The first wines to hit the North American coast and other locations were actually Galician because the fruit’s acidity and skins yielded wines that were actually suitable for transport at this time. The only other wines that were able to travel such distances were fortified Sherries and Ports.
Sandy Vineyards in Monterrei
When phylloxera arrived from North America in the 19th century, Galicia was a monoculture. The arrival of phylloxera was so economically devastating that whatever wine remained became more of a food product or trade commodity than a luxury item of high quality. As a result, growers started planting international varietals that were resistant to mildew and high-yielding. Soon, these hybrids that aren’t great for winemaking became the norm and Palomino made its first appearance, giving way to a new plentitude that was marked with mediocrity. Such was the plight of Galicia until the 1970s when winemakers, mostly native to this area, came back and started to replant the indigenous grapes again, shunning foreign varietals and taking aim to restore Galicia to its former glory, resulting in today’s wines that are relatively recent with an ancient story.
André Tamers with Luis Paadin in Monterrei
As Andre was translating Luis’ talk, we were standing on a huge rock formation called a lagar, which is essentially an ancient wine press. Here, in the valley of Monterrei, there are 32 of these sites. With no organic matter to date them it’s hard to be certain, but Luis believes that they originated somewhere between the 2nd to 5th centuries and were used until the 17th century. Little more than a hole in the ground where grapes were deposited, the lagar would have been topped by two wooden beams, which were counterweighted to help press the grapes. The white wine would have been removed immediately and the red wine would have been held to macerate in the stone.
So sincerely diverse, Galicia’s vineyards –while only a few hours apart –look to be from different worlds. The fog and ocean breeze in rocky Rias Baixas doesn’t make it as far east as Valdeorras where the Godello sings sunshine. In Ribeira Sacre, one can bronze from the light reflecting off the river Sil in D. Ventura’s lush Vina Caneiro, and then get snowed on the following morning (true story) while in the vineyards of Dominio do Bibei where people have actually died (also true story) four-wheeling up the dirty barren mountainside. Having spent only six days exploring this terrain on a physical, social and sometimes emotional level, I feel that the adventure is only beginning.