The calm northwest corner of Spain, Galicia, is known for its Celtic tradition, wines, and hearty cuisine, not to mention the sacred town that ends the ever popular pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela. Arriving by car, we were quite surprised by the perfect state of the roads, the many tunnels dug right through mountains, and bridge after bridge after gigantic bridge. You can imagine just how isolated the inland part of the region must have been when people had to navigate over mountains and through valleys galore. Now, you can follow a pretty flat road to get to this mountainous region. Bastien swears that our beat-up little old hatchback got far better gas mileage in Spain than it usually does in France… better gas? flatter roads? Who knows? In any case, once you get off the highway, you get back to the narrow sloped roads that curl around mountains.
Among the most impressive of wine regions that I have ever seen is the Ribeira Sacra, where the ancient Romans carved terraces and planted vines on the steep slopes overlooking the shores of the Sil River. The vines are farmed entirely by hand, and I can only imagine the Herculean men who harvest come fall. They can’t be frightened by heights as they carry heavy baskets of grapes over their shoulders on impossible slopes. In Spain, they call it “vitucultura heroica,” and with reason. As you can see above, many winegrowers have built tracks to help lower the harvest to the river, from where it will be transported by boat to the cellar. Some are electric, but many are not.
Nestled between rocks, garrigue, and even downright forest, terraces speckled with sleeping vines make their way up and down the valley. Some of the vineyards look fairly accessible, with a little greenery growing along the walls, while others look surely inhospitable, with jugged rocks cutting rows in half and terraces that are almost impossible to make out on the steep incline. The left and right banks are completely different. The latter has softer, greener hills, and at this time of the day, late afternoon, the sun doesn’t touch down with much fervor. The former rises steeply, at times treacherous rocks jut out of the ground and there is less grass, especially as the altitude advances. When I see a jeep parked in a spot where there seems to be no road and the ground on each side is on different planes, I figure that these winemakers must be crazy. Later in the evening, I taste a white from this mountainside, pure and mineral… a trek on a snow-topped mountain with a glacial wind in your face but the kiss of the sunlight warming your cheeks. The grapes must grow close to those juts of rock, and it’s an exhilarating glass as if I was standing upon one of them.
A two-hour boat tour in the afternoon is a superb way to soak in the hillsides. A guide spoke in Spanish or Galician during half of the ride, but it was just background music to my non-Spanish ears. As we passed by a building on the river connected to the sky with power lines she made a point to explain that it was a power plant generating electricity from the river.
During a visit a representative of the appellation booming with pride tells us that a wine from Ribeira Sacra was recently chosen for Obama’s gala dinner for Hispanic Heritage Month. She does not push upon us the name of the chosen estate, but rather points out that it is exciting for the entire appellation of Ribeira Sacra who could gain visibility on the American market as a result. We notice during our visit that there is a strong group effort to put all of the winemakers in the light, and people don’t like to point anybody out. We tried to ask for someone at the appellation to direct us towards some of the best or favorite wines. They simply smiled and shrugged off the questions, saying that they could not recommend any one wine more than another. After initial hesitation, I decided that this was a very nice way for an appellation to act towards those who create it. In order to get around as first time tasters, we had to describe exactly what kind of wine we were interested in sipping… rustic, not too chemical, terroir… Even with our sorting, and prior recommendations found before traveling, a number of wines that we tasted were as non-expressive as many new world wines out there with the all to common “modern wine-making taste” that seems to suck the spirit out of the grape. Such a pity for a place so full of beauty and rustic elegance. On the other hand, there were some very exciting bottles and we still have plenty of bodegas to taste!
A motorcycle gang plus a few loners passed by on the winding mountain roads…too fast for me to photograph.