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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


God and Men (Godello and Mencía) in Ribeira Sacra: Winemaking in Spain's Most Exciting Wine Region for Terroir-Driven Wines

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Chef Michael Chiarello, Bottega, Napa Valley with José Manuel Rodríguez, President of the D.O. Ribeira Sacra and producer of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group wine, Décima, in José Manuel's precipitously steep Ribeira Sacra vineyards on the Sil River. Photo by Gerry Dawes©2011 / 

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by Gerry Dawes
(First published in The Wine News)

Over the past few years, La Ribeira Sacra, a barely accessible, exquisitely rural wine region in northwestern Spain's mountainous Galicia (some 350 miles northwest of Madrid), has begun to show the most exciting potential I have encountered in more than 40 years of traveling the wine roads of Spain. Here God and men, using primarily godello for white wines and mencía for reds, are creating such irresistibly delicious, enticing, often profound wines that the Ribeira Sacra is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling wine regions on earth. In the bargain, Ribeira Sacra just may be the most strikingly beautiful wine region in the world with its terraced vineyards of dry farmed, old vines indigenous grapes that plunge precipitously hundreds of feet down the slopes of the majestic damned-up canyons of the Miño river, meandering from the north and defining the western zone, and the Sil, flowing from the east and marking the southern tier. Ribeira Sacra is one of only two areas in Spain--the other is Priorat--that practice "heroic viticulture," the laborious care and harvesting of vineyards from such steeply inclined terraces.

Slide show on Ribera Sacra.

Although lost in time until recently, Ribeira Sacra has been making wine since the Roman occupation (and possibly longer). In just the past five years, the region has awakened from its centuries-long backwater slumber and appears poised to make a major and possibly long term impact on the Spanish wine world--including becoming a major moderating force for a wine culture that has allowed itself to become obsessed with a predilection for overblown, overripe, overly alcoholic, inky monster style wines. At last a Spanish region has emerged whose terruño (terroir) can rival the ethereal, sublime qualities of the great French Atlantic-climate influenced, terroir-driven wines such as red and white Burgundies and the cabernet franc-laced reds of the Loire Valley.

Stephen Metzler, President of Classical Wines (Seattle, WA;, who represents Ribeira Sacra's Adegas Cachín (Peza do Rei and Finca Millara) says, "My view of Ribeira Sacra is as a Northern European terroir whose wines have structure and acidity, so the pursuit of extract hereBbut not overripeness--is advisable. It is the opposite of most of Spain, where they need seek acidity to provide support for their fleshiness."

However, Roger Kugler, former wine director of New York's Sula and Boqueria and a Spanish wine specialist, does not agree about "the pursuit of extract." He says, "There is a tendency to over-extract some of these Ribeira Sacra reds at the moment, but I think that will pass as the winemakers catch up with the trend against such over-extracted wines which is now gaining ground all over the world."

More than any other place in Spain, the wines of Ribeira Sacra are being produced by people trying to get it right in the vineyards rather than manipulating the juice once it is in the cellars. Dominio do Bibei owner Javier Domínguez told me in March at his winery, "We began by working the vineyards, cutting yields and getting them into the right conditions to make good wine."

Ribeira Sacra winemaking indeed often seems to be a dramatic departure from the practices that have been characteristic for the past fifteen years of the rest of Spain, where winemakers have too often relied on overripe fruit, which produces fat, jammy wines with high alcohol content and low acidity. And winemaker-driven cellar techniques such as extended macerations, barrel fermentation, battonage (stirring of the lees), barrel toasting and extended aging of new oak have been used to achieve a formulaic flavor profile designed impress wine critics. 

In fact, Ribera Sacra red wines, when produced without cellar gimmicks may be the longed-for antidote to some of the more grotesque types of wines that have characterized Spanish winemaking for the past fifteen years. In August, while drinking his Lalama 2003 with me at New York's Boqueria Soho tapas restaurant, Javier Domínguez made a statement that many fine wine lovers and Spain aficionados fervently hope is true, "I think we are beginning to see a group of people in Ribera Sacra trying to make wines with a stamp of authenticity. I believe this is totally contrary to what has been going on in the rest of Spain for many years, over-ripeness, over-extraction, over-oaking, too much alcohol, etc."

The tiered slate and/or granite bancales, or terraces, some dating to the Roman occupation nearly 2,000 years ago, have a great deal to do with why Ribeira Sacra wines can be so profoundly terroir-driven, intriguing and delicious. The old vines, which are driven deeply into the fractured stone of the terraced hillsides, impart a marked minerality to the wines, depending upon the stone composition, which can range from mostly granite in Chantada and a granite-slate mix in Ribeiras do Minho in the west to Amandi, where the terrances are mostly slate, to some slate-and-granite in Ribeiras do Sil and slate- or schist-laced clay in Quiroga-Bibei.

The inclines of most Ribeira Sacra's vineyards are usually from 30 per cent to 80 per cent but, in some cases, Denominación de Origen (DO) Regulatory Council President José Manuel Rodríguez says is "even steeper at 100 per cent or more!" (Germany's famous Bernkasteler Doktor vineyard in the Mosel is on a 100 per cent incline.) The steepness of Ribeira Sacra's riverside slopes allows graduated harvesting because of the differences in altitude, which can vary as much as 500 to 600 feet from top to bottom in the same vineyard area, with the earliest ripening vines being in the lower, therefore warmest, rows nearest the river. The vendimia (harvest) continues for ten to fifteen days until the uppermost vines are picked. The climate varies from the more direct Atlantic weather influences in the western Minho, which receives some 35.5 inches of rain annually, while the more southern and eastern Sil areas only get 20 to 27.5 inches per year. The Minho's median temperature is 56 degrees Fahrenheit, while the Sil is one degree warmer, but can reach temperatures of 95 to 100 degrees at midday in summer.

The grapes in the old vineyards of Ribera Sacra are often field blends of mencía or godello mixed with little-known ancient Galician red varieties. The Ribeira Sacra Regulatory Council has decreed that the "preferred" varieties for red wines are mencía, brancellao and merenzao, but also authorized and tolerated are caiño tinto, mouratón (also called negrada), sousón and the inky garnacha tintorera (gradually being eliminated as an authorized variety) and the seldom-encountered tempranillo (so widely grown in the rest of Spain). The preferred white wine varieties are the predominant godello, plus albariño, dona blanca, loureira, torrontés and treixadura.

Many Ribeira Sacra wines already have a clear identity: Their persistent terruño (Spanish for terroir) minerality is more readily evident here than in any other region in Spain, including Catalunya's Priorat, whose wines' inherent minerality is often obscured by new oak. Many Ribeira Sacra red wines exhibit the haunting, slate-driven, graphite flavors that characterize the best Priorat wines (whose pre-dominant varieties are garnacha tinta and cariñena), but Ribeira Sacra's qualities are derived from distinctly different grapes, primarily mencía, often blended with small percentages of the other unique indigenous varieties. And, because Ribeira Sacra's grapes are grown in a cooler Atlantic-influenced climate rather than a hot Mediterranean one, the wines achieve lively fresh fruit flavors from grapes that almost never attain over-ripeness.

Some Ribiera Sacra wines still offer unique, rustic country flavors from a bygone era. But, each year Ribeira Sacra wines have become increasingly sophisticated, often without totally losing that charming rustic touch, which imparts a authentic sense of place that is considered a virtue, rather than a flaw, by many admirers of these wines. The reds are usually quite delicious with a depth of ripe, juicy red and black currant, red berry and/or pomegranate-like fruit, that haunting minerality and moderate 11.5 to 13 per cent alcohol levels, all integrated beautifully and balanced by a fine acidity. Plus, the wines are often un-oaked or so judiciously oaked that the wood doesn't become a pre-dominant or even noticeable factor. All of these factors contribute to making these wines eminently drinkable, exquisitely well balanced and seamless in the best examples, which gives them an exceptional affinity with a wide range of foods.

White wines, made predominantly from godello, comprise less than seven per cent of Ribeira Sacra's production, but some also show exceptional promise. There are also some delicious blends of godello with albariño, treixadura and other native Galician white varieties. One wine in particular, Pena das Donas Almalarga Godello from 80-to-100 year-old vines, stands out and shows the potential of Ribeira Sacra whites. Almalarga has all the complexity and minerality of a fine white Burgundy such as a Puligny-Montrachet, but with the marvelous godello grape and mixed granitic-slate mineral flavors, instead of chardonnay from calcareous soils. Thus far, Pena das Donas has not resorted to the current vogue in Spanish white winemaking--fermentation in new oak barrels and frequent battonage--both of which can obliterate the lovely fruit and haunting mineral tones that are so enticing in this wine.

Over the past decade, I had seen glimpses of excellent potential in Antonio Lombardia's Pena Das Donas, José Manuel Rodríguez's Décima, Javier Seoane's Pradio, Primitivo Lareu's Sabatelivs, Dr. José María Prieto's Regoa and even such rustic wines as Viña Cazoga, Cividade and Os Cipreses. And, in restaurants elsewhere in Galicia, I have often ordered wines from some of the region's larger wineries--Vía Romana (Chantada), Abadia da Cova (Ribeiras do Minho), Rectoral de Amandi (Amandi), Ponte de Boga (Ribeiras do Sil) and Val de Quiroga (Quiroga-Bibei)--which produce very drinkable, inexpensive wines, primarily for Galician consumption. In March at the Chantada wine fair, I encountered several little-known, but very promising wines: Diego de Lemos, Pincelo, Quinta de Albarada, and Terras Bendaña. And, at lunch at Chantada professor's small "hobby" bodega in the middle of vineyards overlooking the Minho, we drank an unlabeled red wine that was gorgeously rich with only 12 per cent alcohol! At the Castro Caldelas wine fair in July, I tasted Adegas Costoya (Alodio and Thémera), Peza do Rei and Chao do Couso (Alcouce and Soutollo), all available in the U. S., and several more such as Sollio, Adega Vella, Bellaleira, Viña Pederneira and Solaina worthy of consideration.

In the past few years, several winemakers from outside the region--Bierzo's Raúl Pérez (several wineries; see below) and Gregory Pérez (Regina Viarum), Priorat's husband-and-wife team René Barbier, Jr. and Sara Pérez (Dominio do Bibei), Rías Baixas maestro Gerardo Méndez (D. Ventura) and Dominique Roujou de Boubee (Ponte da Boga), a French consulting enologist living near Barcelona, have all appeared to help refine Ribeira Sacra wines. And, just this year, significant articles about Ribeira Sacra's wines and winemakers have appeared in The New York Times, Gentleman's Quarterly and The Wine Advocate, which is having an explosive effect. Even in today's market, in which, one of Spain's leading wine websites, reported this summer that Spanish wine exports were down by a staggering $55,000,000 and Catalunyas INCAVI (Cava Institute) is reporting the equivalent of nearly 19,000,000 bottles of unsold wine, Riberia Sacra wines sales are up 35 per cent in the past year, according to Regulatory Council President José Manuel Rodríguez.

Recently, some very promising, even exceptional wines (see Tasting Bar)--some made by these carpet bagging winemakers, have appeared in the American market. Gerardo Méndez, the owner-winemaker of top-rated Rías Baixas Do Ferreiro Albariños, advises Ramón Losada on his D. Ventura Viña do Burato, Pena do Lobo and Viña Caniero, three truly superb, very reasonably-priced red wines from an organically farmed vineyard in Ribeiras do Minho and two more in Amandi. The wines, from organically farmed grapes fermented with native yeasts, are among the most fruity, balanced, terroir-driven and gloriously delicious wines in Spain, yet none rises above 13 per cent alcohol, and they are un-oaked. Also in Ribeiras do Minho, from sharply inclined vineyards overlooking the Sil River (the Minho, Sil and Bibei meet nearby), Antonio Lombardia and his partners at the Pena Das Donas produce Almalarga Godello, one of the greatest white wines I have tasted in Spain, along with a first-rate Mencía, Verdes Matas.

Javier Domínguez, a native Galician, is the owner (with his wife, Maria) and artistic inspiration behind the striking Domino do Bibei hidden in the tortuous mountains of the Quiroga-Bibei area. Domínguez hired Priorat husband wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier Jr. (Clos Mogador), to consult on his critically acclaimed wines, the godello-based Lapena and three reds, Lapola, Lacima and Lalama. Domínguez also employs local in-house talent--Suso Prieto Pérez and Laura Lorenzo Domínguez--who diligently manage the vineyards and monitor the development of the wines. Moving steadily away from overly long macerations and avoiding a surfeit of new oak, they are using upright, epoxy-lined cement ovals and larger wooden tanks for their wines.
When I visited Domino do Bibei in 2009, Domínguez told me, "Even if I don't make any money for ten years, what concerns me more is making the greatest wine possible from these grapes and this land." One of his wines, approved as "experimental" by the DO, is Lalama, a blend of mouratón and garnacha tintorera (an inky grape reminiscent of Alicante bouschet), with no mencía. Domínguez is also very enthusiastic about the propects for his brancellao, a grape which he says "produces pretty light-colored, elegant red wines that remind me of Burgundy."

Raúl Pérez, a diminutive 38-year old, is the quintessential flying winemaker, who "flies" around northwestern Spain in a Mini-Cooper, making or consulting on more than a dozen wines. Pérez began making wines--now critically acclaimed--from his family's vineyards in his native Bierzo. He also makes several wines in neighboring Galicia's Monterrei, Rías Baixas and Ribeira Sacra, including Fernando González's Algueira, Chao Do Couso (Alcouce, Soutollo), Guímaro and El Pecado, which in Spain was first sold as Guímaro Barrica (barrel aged). El Pecado, which recently received an astronomical score from a famous American wine newsletter, is described as 100 per cent mencía, but is actually 85 per cent mencía with 10 per cent caiño tinto and 5 per cent brancellao, with the two latter grapes imparting a rustic, exotic touch.

Pérez told me, "soy enólogo de viña" ( I am a vineyard enologist), but it could easily be said that he is also enólogo de prensa (meaning either a wine press or a printing press).  Recently, Pérez has received some serious press attention from major European and American publications and his fame has skyrocketed. Pérez does believe that great wine begins in the vineyards and he prefers barrels to be four-to-five years old with no discernible toasting, since believes charring adversely affects the taste of the wines. Pérez's wines can be quite good and his rise to fame has helped spotlight the region, but his individualistic winemaking approach seems more about making denomination of origen "Raúlista" wines rather than exemplary representatives of any one region.

The Ribeira Sacra is divided into five subzonas which, because of climate, soil differences and vineyard orientation can produce wines that are markedly different in character, so much so that DO President Rodríguez says, "There might as well be 20 different DOs." From northwest to southeast, the subzones are Chantada, whose magical vineyards line the Minho in northwestern Ribeira Sacra; Ribeiras do Minho, with awesomely beautiful vineyard sites south of Chantada; Amandi, with strikingly steep vineyards in the center of the region whose southern boundary is the Sil River; Ribeiras do Sil, running south of the Sil from Minho in the west along the deep Sil canyons to Castro Caldelas; and Quiroga-Bibei, in whose eastern zone around Quiroga there are some non-terraced vineyards, but along the Sil and Bibei rivers in the southeastern reaches are some more majestic, steep, terraced vineyards.

Dominio do Bibei's Javier Dominguez, told me, "One thing I like about the Ribeira Sacra is the differences between the subzonas. For instance, the wines of Chantada are much more fruity. The wines of Bibei, where I have my vines and bodega, have much more minerality and the fruit is not as exuberant. I am not fond of wines with pronounced fruit, what I prefer are the mineral components."

Roger Kugler, also a fan of wines with mineral terruño, says "many Ribeira Sacra red wines are showstoppers. Because the steep vineyards and slate soils of Ribeira Sacra produce mencía with a deeper minerality and richness than can be found in Bierzo, for instance, and the region has been called the next Priorat, for good reason."

It is important to understand that Ribeira Sacra wines are unique originals that should be judged on their singularly distinctive merits. Even though the wines naturally may exhibit certain characteristics reminiscent of Burgundy, the Loire or Priorat and a few producers seem to be trying to imitate some of those styles, Ribeira Sacra wines are usually quite unique. Because of the region's historic isolation, indigenous grape varieties and climate, the style and provenance of these wines may take some getting used to because they are indeed a river of wine unto themselves, a wine river well worth exploring in depth.

About Gerry Dawes

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés.

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 

A trailer for a proposed reality television series
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain
featuring top American guest chefs.


  1. Hola Gerry. Comparto tu gusto por el Cazoga. Desde ni humilde punto de vista es un "vinazo" que merece respeto. Hace muchos años que siempre tengo en casa alguna caja.
    Saludos desde Galicia-España.

    1. Gracias, Jorge, Cazoga es un vino muy original y ha tenido exito en New York. Esta agotado ya y estamos esperando un envio de mas cajas a USA.


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