Dominio do Bibei – “The Grand Experiment”
The vineyards at Dominio do Bibei
The following post was written by Danielle Hilty, who recently returned from Camp De Maison in Galicia. Thanks Danielle! (Photos by Paul Dangel)
If Ribera Sacra is generally a labor of love, then Dominio do Bibei is an undertaking of immeasurable devotion with, as of yet, limited reward. In Quiroga-Bibei with its harsh conditions and unconventionally high elevation, Javier Dominguez has been working to revitalize his ancient terraces for about 12 years, after having bought over 200 parcels from small growers to create a contiguous vineyard, before releasing his first vintage from old vines in 2001.
The sub-climates in these vineyards make for extreme vintage variations, which when coupled with the fact that the project as a whole is largely new, requires a lot of attention in the vineyards and cellar to make wines that are representative of the terroir and consistently delicious. As Javier told us, “It’s risky, but the quality of wine is great when it works. It’s very difficult to work with the rain, but the results are always great when it’s done right.” The inhospitable weather, with its rain and frost, is such a factor in all parts of the process that we were constantly reminded of the steps that had to be taken to protect the grapes. Atypically, the vines actually have to be irrigated because they rely so heavily on the consistent rain that a short dry spell could be damaging. As biodynamic farmers, Javier and his team allow the grass to grow between the vines to keep complexity in the soil. In fact, from an adjacent hillside nearby, one can recognize a Bibei vineyard apart from its neighbor because the vines can hardly be seen from behind the tall grass, which presents its own problem in that if the grass is too high, it blocks the wind from protecting the vines from frost when it’s extremely cold. It is here that the team strikes a balance, supporting and controlling the natural flora without any use of herbicides, while ensuring that the vines are properly aerated.
Because of the enormity of the property– Javier owns 125 hectares of which only 45 are currently planted to vines– and the multiple expositions and elevations within, each parcel is treated differently. All are planted to a single varietal, harvested individually, vinified and aged separately and blended to a different ratio every vintage. It’s a huge undertaking, whose potential Javier is constantly trying to meet.
The grape at the forefront of the estate is not surprisingly Mencia, which in this area of Ribera Sacra is typically blended with other local varietals. Javier uses a large percentage of Mencia for his red blends “because it’s warm and polite”, with Garnacha “for backbone”, and small amounts of Mouraton and Brancellao for nuance. Mencia is naturally low in acidity but always fresh. If it gets too high in alcohol, it loses its character, so the goal is typically 12.5%, which is reasonable given the cold climate. With short fermentations and little to no interference in the cellar, each vinification is terroir-specific and blended accordingly at the very end. With such diversity on hand, Javier and his winemaker Gutierre are happily obliged to make the most of every step and selection.
In the winery there is no stainless steel used, only neutral wood and cement. The winery is flat-roofed to dry off the grapes during the rainy harvest season before they undergo foot-pressing, open-top fermentation and manual punch-downs. Partial whole-cluster and partial carbonic maceration is also employed, although because of their hands-off approach, more difficult to control. The use of wood over stainless steel is a stylistic choice, but it’s much more difficult to control temperature with wood. One solution, and another function of the flat roof, over the white wine cellar at least, is to pool rainwater that helps keep the cellar cool.
Despite the labor-intensive process and the beautiful wines it yields, Javier remains incredibly humble about his missteps. After grafting new vines onto pre-existing Palomino, to make better wine, Javier encountered rootstock issues and lost several vines, which he amusingly pointed to and counted all over the vineyard. Admitting that it was well worth the risk, including the Albarino that was grafted from Do Ferreiro onto the highest elevation vineyards that he uses, Javier currently has 100,000 plants and only harvests 60 kilos, which is extremely low. Even since 2004 when some of the vines were planted, they’ve grown less than one might expect.
The journey to the vineyards & winery
When Javier first approached Andre Tamers to work together, the answer was a resounding no because Andre knew the project was risky and he already had a line of Ribera Sacras from D. Ventura. To him, it seemed nonsensical to expand into such a difficult territory– until they met in person. As Andre said, “ The thing that convinced me to work with him was his accent. He’s a Gallego and I figured that only someone from the area would have the sensibility to work such a difficult area.” To which Javier replied, “That means no sensibility at all!”