After ten years of its being ostracised and despised, I have just come back from visiting the Ribeiro and surprise, surprise! Not only have its wines made a 180º turnaround compared to what they were like for decades, but over the last five years, the whole region has flourished, with hotels that are real palaces, rebuilt villages and wines to die for.
Pepe - said my old colleague and, despite everything, dear friend, Andrés Proensa - come and you'll be surprised. Not only is Viña Mein making good wines, you'll see what they're doing with Treixadura, Godello and Albariño. Nothing like you've ever known before.
So I packed my kit bag and headed off to one of my least favourite areas, a D.O. against which I have railed from my respective soap boxes.
I did not make a triumphal entry, what with the dreadful road signs they insist on having in Galicia and a TomTom that was on its last journey (I stamped on it after it had lost me three times on my way to the Balneario de Laias, which is actually so hidden away they must want to keep it to themselves), and arrived at the hotel two hours late. I hardly had any time at all to try the relaxing medicinal waters (I shall talk about the stupidity of its staff some other time).
Our first visit that same afternoon was to Coto de Gomariz, from where we saw the monumental vineyards planted in granite terraces (if you search for Barro de Leiro in the satellite on Google Maps, you can see the vineyards form the air). We listened to the explanations of how winegrowing began right here and how later and for reasons too complicated to go into here but always linked with the Church, it moved to Portugal and the British, who traded with the Jews living in Rivadavia went to Oporto to buy their wines (I advise you to find out about the history, as it is extremely interesting and part of it can be read on the CRDO web site).
I think the trip is worthwhile just for the views over the vineyards and almost medieval villages. Obviously you must also try the fantastic wines, which (according to the oenologist) do not seek the personality of the grapes but rather the presence of the land, so they make wines from different estates where they plant, according to the altitude, Treixadura, Godello, Albariño and Loureira.
From there we went to have dinner in Muiño das Lousas, owned by the winery and a real masterpiece rescued from an old mill, where we dined on the type of cuisine defended by Santi Santamaría against the pretentious stuff produced by Sergi Arola & Co. For example, the carpaccio of octopus with steamed cockles and a Galician oil dressing made us very excited.
The next day brought a heavy schedule, with visits to Viña Mein, Pazo Tizón, Pazo Casanova, Pazo do Mar and Bodegas Campante, although in the latter we had lunch in the vineyard while we enjoyed views over the Miño reservoir and the food served by the Galileo Restaurant in Santa Baia (near Orense), which was amazing, especially the ricotta ravioli with baby onions in a Treixadura stock. Fantastic!
In spite of being reds and atheists, passion for football seemed to exceed the bounds of rational behaviour, so an agreement was reached with the Casal de Armán winery that a break would be organised for the duration of the Spain-Russia match. A space was set up where my colleagues could bay until they were hoarse. In the meantime, yours truly enjoyed the sun setting behind Monte Mayor from the garden of this marvellous country house converted into rural hotel. Mind you, I was also savouring some goose barnacles, some baby squid, a freshly prepared octopus from a "pulpería" in Carballiño and a monkfish pie that was as good as everything else. Of course, I also enjoyed the wines, not only a white with a fair percentage of Torrontés and a red made from equal parts of the three Galician greats, Caiño Longo, Brancellao and Sousón, but also a soon-to-be-launched small grain Muscat wine that you are sure to find delightful.
Taking advantage of national euphoria, I avoided the post-match session so I could do the next day's tasting in an acceptable condition. I was glad I had taken this precaution, as the tasting was extremely interesting, indeed, there were no complaints about the early start (starting a tasting at nine in the morning after a night on Citadelle gin and tonics, is pretty unappetising, I can assure you).
The tasting was held in a place to which I hope to return very soon, the San Clodio Monastery, a fascinating Romanic-Gothic monument, renovated into a 4-star hotel and with two lovely Renaissance cloisters that whisper stories about the Cistercian monks who built it in the 12th century for the purpose of producing wine. It is a place where I enjoyed the sound of silence, broken only by the frantic song of thousands of swallows, but measured by the fountain's continuous murmur.
The whole village is a challenge to time, but the monastery is glorious, built in granite, of course, like the whole area. Ribeiro is really a granite empire, everything is granite, even the fans are granite (I wanted to buy one, but they had sold out).
The tasting was amazing. We tried forty-odd wines, naturally they were the best, but the greatest compliment I can give them and the CRDO, which has been driving this renovation, is that the Viña Mein, which until recently would have stood out from the rest, on this occasion and even with its incredible 2007, was almost one of the crowd. For me it was the best one, particularly the oak fermented, which is wonderful but does not make us say: Ribeiro? Well, Viña Mein is magnificent but, what else is there to drink?
I have not mentioned Emilio Rojo, as the snobbism taken to extremes that this character practises sticks in my throat. Suffice to say that at this tasting, except for the price, which was almost indecently higher than any of the others, it was one of many.
I bet Mr Proensa will have his work cut out to make the Ribeiro selection this year. Alternatively, he will have to include a dozen wineries, because we tried a huge repertoire.
Another surprise was a visit to the winery owned by film director José Luís Cuerda. After a great tasting, the only thing you feel like is an ice-cold beer, but alongside a “Queixo do País” (one of the cake-shaped local cheeses) that we fell in love with. Drinking the San Clodio wine without having to fill out a card and with only a pie to go with it was a real treat. The Godello del Ribeiro's touch of Asturian cider is different to that of Valdeorras, which tastes of over-ripe or even baked apple, and comes through in the wine, another one I jotted down in my secret notebook of favourites.
Lunch in the Cooperative was a bit like a farewell, as some colleagues had to catch planes and such, but the Galician menu designed by Tito, the chief oenologist and managing director, included the obligatory oysters, crayfish, crabs, pie, etc., enabling us to see for ourselves something we had often heard during our trip: "In the Ribeiro we make wines to go with food, not to win competitions". It's a good philosophy.
For God's sake, I'm not going to turn my back on other gems in our wine production, such as the Rueda "verdejos" or the "albariños" of the Rías Baixas, but I have said time and time again that they are wines for eating pork and fowl with, not fish and shellfish. Their incredible fragrance overpowers these subtly-tasting delights. In contrast, of all the wines I tasted, I brought back a few bottles in my rucksack to include in my next book "Comer con vino" (eating with wine) as I have noticed how well they go with some shellfish.
I want to thank the D.O. for their good idea of sponsoring this meeting and my friend Andrés for persuading me to attend (since he bent my ear I haven't left the house at all except to take my daily constitutional and do the shopping). I have discovered a new world, a new Ribeiro that is going to start people talking.
Ribeiro has awakened quality. As soon as they plan some wine tourism routes, this is going to take off. That night, off duty and with my friends Tere Gallimó, Paz Ybison and Mª Antonio Fdez. Daza, we had dinner by the Miño, on the terrace of a small eatery named Boavista in the village of Barbantes Estación (nearly all the bars there are called Boavista). We had some beers and the local house red, some unforgettable fried eels and a potato omelette, just like in the old days.
I had a great time. Bloody great!!!