Ancestral Varietals at Dominio do Bibei
“When you’re an interventionist, you’re changing the profile of the vines,” said Iría Otero of Dominio do Bibei, in Ribeira Sacra. “We’re not exactly biodynamic, because there are some things in biodynamics that we don’t completely love, so we started to work organically. We try to be very respectful. There has been no intervention since the beginning, but for the past four to five years, we’ve gotten more into organic farming. I think it’s an idea of balance and respect. It’s a way to respect Mother Nature. To try to not take too much from the vineyard, just what it gives. The quality is better. The production is lower, but we don’t mind. We get better quality and more balanced wines.”
Located in the Quiroga-Bibei sub-zone of the Ribeira Sacra, Dominio do Bibei is a 140ha estate with 32ha planted to vines. Surrounded by wild vegetation, at an altitude of 300-670 meters, this family estate released its first vintage in 2005, but the familial connection to the land predate the estate’s first vintage by a few generations.
“Where we are, it used to be a shepherds’ land,” said Iría. “There are no houses, no farms. It’s a very high area of Galicia. People used to live in the towns in the winter at very high altitudes with lots of snow, and in the spring and summer they’d go with their sheep to the valley.” It was here in the valley, where the sheep fed for the summer, that the shepherds would make their wine. “They’d return in the autumn and winter with wine for the whole year. This place is full of small cellars that used to be their houses,” she added, “and one of those shepherds was the grandfather of the owner of the estate. He decided to show people the profile that he had tasted in the wines of his family for years and years. There’s only one other winery here, but they don’t make much wine. We’re the only ones who can show the Valley of Bibei.”
Committed to growing indigenous/ancestral varietals, because of their adaptation to the area, Iría said, “We’re not fond of taking grapes from other places. When we had to replant Albariño, we took cuts from Do Ferreiro, from ungrafted vineyards because we know they’re some of the purest ones we could find.” For their other varietals, they practice Selection Massale, “so we know there’s no other selected clones, just the clones that have been there for so many years. They’re the only ones that are best adapted to the soil, to the weather, to everything,” she added. “One of the purposes of the winery is to preserve and replant indigenous varietals.”
When Iría was in town last week for a luncheon at Blue Ribbon Bakery with Manuel Mendez of Do Ferreiro, we had the opportunity to taste a few vintages, including Lalama Ribeira Sacra 2010 and 2011. Consistently containing at least 85% Mencia, with the remaining portion a blend of Brancellao, Mouraton, Souson and Garnacha, the wines showed incredible vintage variation. The 2010 offered notes of spice and minerality, while the 2011 was a touch more delicate with purple flowers and a softer stoniness. “Sometimes we need a more fresh profile in the mouth,” said Iría, “so we increase the proportion of Brancellao, which tastes very spicy, which is why you found the 2010 a little bit more spicy.”
By nature’s will, it’s Mencia that has become the area’s most dominant planting, because it’s best adapted to the local weather patterns and harvest times. “The rest of the varietals, they almost disappear,” said Iría, “because the Brancellao you have to harvest one month after the Mencia. And it’s a very rainy harvest. It was very hard. The Mouraton is one of the first ones that you have to harvest, and if you don’t take it on the day that you should, and you wait one week, it gets too hot.”
As Mencia’s best expression of terroir, Dominio do Bibei Lacima (2011) is now 100% Mencia, where as it used to be blended with a touch of Brancellao. “The idea is to show the soil that we have in the valley because it’s different than the one in Bierzo and in the rest of Ribeira Sacra and the rest of Galicia,” said Iría. Planted to granite and schist at a very high altitude, the Mencia here has a different profile. “And that’s what we want to show with the Lacima. We always take the grapes from the same three to four plots in the vineyard that have the most balanced Mencia. It’s always a wine that’s very low in alcohol, about 12.5-13% and no more. And it always gives the same, whether it’s a hotter vintage or not. It means that the fruits are very deep and very well adapted.” Fermenting the plots separately in 500L open barrels, the team will then decide which barrels go into Lacima, while the remaining goes into Lalama. “We choose, not the best ones, but the ones that show better the terroir, because the best is something that’s very subjective.”
In farming these rocky soils that contain only 10cm of organic soil, Iría said, “It’s so hard. The roots have to work very deep and so after five or six years, the vines have pretty much adapted and are well-balanced, so you don’t need 90 year old vines to be completely balanced.” A gorgeous wine, Lacima 2011 shows clear cherry fruit, aromas of clay, bright acidity and a hint black pepper. It’s incredibly balanced. And while these 50-100 year old vines might not subjectively yield the best fruit, we can objectively state here that the resulting wine is divine.