The Magical Beauty of Ribeira Sacra

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Several weeks ago I was off to Spain in order to seek out a small dynamic portfolio of wines. Starting in the Albariño country of Rias Baixas, I was intent to finish on the Mediterranean coast of Catalunya a week later. When I told Spaniards of my endeavours, a silent stunned look would cross their face. “˜That is so far!’, but I was not daunted. Being American, I’m used to travelling extensive lengths for food, wine, snow and sun.’ LA to San Fran for dinner? Why not’ (it’s 7 hours).

But before I sorted out my hit list of wine domaines, I needed to choose the regions. Looking at my map, it was easy to start – Rias Baixas, Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Ribeira Sacra…um, what the heck is that? That is when I began my love affair with this incredible and (almost) unheard of wine region.

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Located in Galicia due southeast of Santiago de Compostela, the Ribeira Sacra vineyards are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. Most flow down incredibly steep hillsides – some are as much as 80° – towards the twisting and slinky River Sil. Ribeira Sacra translates to “˜sacred shore’, a testament to its spiritual energy and the many monasteries that call this region home.

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The soil, if you can call it that, is sheer slate, reminiscent of the grand cru vineyards of the Mosel – just layer upon layer of flaky rock carved into terraces that contain many incredibly old vines. As one can imagine, everything must be done by hand, from harvesting, to pruning, to leaf plucking to spraying. Everything. The only form of technology is coal mining-like tracks with carts that help the workers transport equipment and maybe themselves up the steep slopes.

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Like neighbouring Bierzo, The grape of choice is Mencia (pronounced “˜men – thi-a’, the lisp alive and kicking), a Syrah-like variety that when grown on slate, produces wines that delve into notes of damson plum, cherries black pepper and with an occasional tinge of liquorice. With its incredible drainage and more sheltered location, its vines produce ripe sweet fruit yet whose wines are only 12-13% alcohol, so they display lovely balance and precision – different from Bierzo which tends to be fuller, broader and richer with alcohol that hovers around 14.5%.

With all the work required in sometimes challenging weather, one would think that the average bottle price would be fairly punchy, but this is generally not the case. Because of its lesser known reputation and more recent renaissance as a wine region, prices have remained on the affordable side apart from a very small group of wine producers that produce “˜cult-like’single vineyard wines better known within the region but still only about €30 per bottle.

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All I can conclude is that this is one exceptional area that is worth discovering. Those who are keen to learn more can look at these sites. But nothing can replace that initial view over the ridges of the slopes. Absolutely breathtaking.

General tourist information: http://www.ribeirasacra.org/turismo/en/web/index.php

Recommended Restaurant: O Grelo, Monforte de Lemos