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GODELLO GRAPE

THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE

A VARIETY WITH A PAST
FROM COLD SHOULDER TO HIGH PROFILE
GODELLO'S  ECO CLIMATIC ENVIRONMENT


Godello is a European white wine variety of the Atlantic type which grows on the slopes of the tectonic channel carved by the river Sil through the mountain ranges of northwest Spain. Its area of cultivation along the river banks extends from the region of El Bierzo, in Leon Province, as far as its confluence with Galicia's principal river, the Mifio, near the town of Orense. in the course of its history, this variety spread towards the Duero river basin across the winegrowing area of Verin, in the southof modern-day Galicia, where it is known as Verdello. It is also found in the little region of Betanzos, near La Coruha, where its local name is Agudelo.   

However, in neither of these two areas has it fully recovered from the devastating effects of the phylloxera invasion of the late 19thcentury, and its presence there today is a mere vestige of what it once was. Godello's long history as a cultivated variety is attested to by the wide diversity of types and characteristics to be found in vines currently growing in old vineyards, with differences so marked as to warrant the definition of sub varieties.
  This diversity is particularly significant in the light of GodeIlo's relatively small territorial spread and of the serious material losses inflicted by phylloxera, and can only be explained as the result of countless reproductions carried out by growers in the past to meet a whole range of different criteria imposed by time and space. This is not to mention other factors such as the appearance of spontaneous mutations in buds, to which vines are subject. All that said, Godello cannot be identified with any other variety beyond the confines of the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula.

A VARIETY WITH A PAST

Godello's origins are linked with the beginnings of organized viticulture in the Sil Valley during its occupation by the Romans. A victorious military campaign against the Cantabrians and Asturians of northern Spain was launched in 29 B.C. by Octavius (known as Augustus from 27 B.C. on),and concluded by Agrippa ten years later. This effected the definitive pacification of Hispania, after which, the Romans settled in the Sil Valley, creating an urban-type colonial economy on the strength of transforming the small-scale exploitation of the area's abundant gold seams and placers, into a large-scale extractive industry. During the 250 years that it exploited these resources, it was to constitute one of the Roman Empire's most important economic bases. The Romans' gold mining technique sometimes involved undermining entire mountains, using a method they called ruina montium, by feeding vast quantities of water, previously re-routed along colossal hydraulic systems, into a warren of painstakingly excavated subterranean galleries.

Remains of such works can still be seen in the imposing Modulasde Carrucedo in the El Bierzo region (see Spain Gourmetour No. 37) and in the equally spectacular Montefurado Tunnel (whose name derives fromthe Spanish monteperforado), in the province of Orense, which the Romansnamed Auriense, aurum being the Latin for gold. Strabo (58 B.C.-28 A.D.), a Romanized Greek geographer who enjoyed close connections with the court of Augustus, attributes to the Romans the introduction of organized viticulture to the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula.

He noted, too, that varieties imported by the Roman colonizers from eastern areas where climatic cycles were longer, failed to ripen there.  Even so, they must have crossbred with the local wild varieties (evidence of whose exploitation is provided by archaeological finds from the Bronze Age) thereby giving rise to early forms of known varieties.

This is the explanation generally propounded by experts for the origins of Atlantic varieties of European vines, of which Godello is an example. Under the aegis of the West's first monastic order, established by El Bierzo monk San Fructuoso, a disciple of San Isidoro of Seville, who died in the year 665, the spread of Christian monastic communities was so prolific that the region bounding the provinces of Lugo and Orense, on the banks of the Sil, became known as the Ribeira Sacra, or Holy Riverbank.  These monastic communities established numerous monasteries which, from the 12th century on, received gifts of lands from monarchs and feudal lords.

These lands were, in turn, let to tenant farmers with the requirement that they pay a high proportion of the rent in wine, a stipulation that triggered a major expansion of viticulture. Godello appears among the first vine varieties mentioned in historical documents.

Its most important spread occurred during the 18th century when winegrowing in general was boosted by the growth in population, improved communications, and the removal of commercial barriers that had existed hitherto. Around 1882, the year when phylloxera penetrated the northwest of Spain, Godello occupied some 33 percent of the vineyards in the Valdeorrasarea of Orense Province, an interesting fact given that this was principally red wine producing territory

FROM COLD SHOULDER TO HIGH PROFILE

In the early 1970s, northwest Spain adopted a new approach to wine producing, opting for high quality and distinctive personality in line with market trends. The main obstacle to this objective was posed by the varieties then dominating local vineyards. After the phylloxera outbreak, which was particularly virulent in this part of Spain, it had not been replanted with traditional varieties but with others from the Mediterranean area. These were more productive but, because they adapted poorly to the shorter climatic cycles typical of Atlantic climates, they failed repeatedly to fulfill their excellent potential.

The basic policies of the new approach were set out clearly: reinstating ancestral varieties, exclusive to these parts, was to be combined with the most up-to-date oenological techniques. Godello, then limited to occasional isolated vines or small clusters within old plantations and on the verge of extinction, was to be the pioneer variety in the recovery process.

In 1974, an association was set up in the wine-producing area of Valdeorras under the name of RE.VI.VAL (Restructuracion de los Vifiedosde Valdeorras-Restructuring the Vineyards of Vaideorras), and it was this association that drew up the basic guidelines for this process: production incentives were to be provided by companies setting higher prices for Godello, and an ambitious research project was to explore the best approaches toits cultivation and vinification. These efforts have paid off amply.

Today, Godello is a rapidly expanding variety with a sound, research-generated backup, ranging from stocks of healthy clonal selection material to precise knowledge of the most suitable cultivation techniques in specific conditions. Meanwhile, cutting-edge technology is becoming the norm in- the wineries where it is vinified.

GODELLO'S ECO CLIMATIC ENVIRONMENT

  The ecological environment in which Godello grows is a veryvariable one, dictated by the accidented course of the river Sil. In general terms, the production area may be defined as a Mediterranean enclave within a predominantly Atlantic climate, sheltered by the mountain ridges which separate the provinces of Leon and Orense. Low in the valley, the climate is markedly thermal, of Mediterranean type, as is proved by the importance of olive growing there until well into the 19th century.

As one climbs higher up the valley sides, however, summer aridity is rapidly modified by the Atlantic influence, enabling the grapes to ripenin moderate temperatures and ambiental humidity. It is in just these Atlanticized zones that Godello achieves its highest quality: favorable conditions during the ripening period reduce the combustion of acids through respiration, which helps musts from the harvested grapes maintain a high acid content which contributes to their intense, individual aromatic potential.

New plantations are using a spacing of 2.50xl.25 m (8.2x4.1ft), with a density of 3,200 vines per hectare (2.4 acres). The vines are espalier-trained, with two horizontal arms 80 cm (31 in) from the ground. The vines are pruned to three bud spurs, making a total of 58,000 buds per hectare (2.4 acres). This variety has a particular tendency to produce two or more fertile shoots per bud, and it has been demonstrated that suppressing one of these produces significant improvements in quality. The most appropriate rootstocks for this variety have been found to be 99-Richter in slaty soils,110-Richter in sandy acid soils with underlying granitoids, and 196-17Castel in acid soils of average texture and fertility.

Under appropriate ecological growing conditions, Godello produces musts which combine high alcoholic strength (1 1. 5 to 12-50)with notable acidity (7 to 8 gr/0.25 oz of tart rate per liter) and intense, individual aromatic potential.

Godello wines, when vinified in controlled temperature conditions(18-20,C/64680F) during fermentation, combine robustness of structure with delicacy of expression. They are pale yellow in color, with steely, sometimes olivey tinges, and are glyceric and compact in appearance. The aromatic components are reminiscent of the source grape, with hints of green fruit in which apples of a non-specific variety pre-dominate, though they are extremely complex and subtle. They are well-structured wines, expansive on the palate, smooth in the mouth, and slow and persistent with a long, satisfactory finish, corresponding perfectly to the typical characteristics of European Atlantic wines.

Hitherto the key ingredient in the multi-varietal whites traditional to the Sil Valley, Godello is now poised to go it alone in more ways than one. Its intrinsic high quality and individuality are now being privileged in monovarietal wines, on which this long-established wine growing area has opted to stake its future. Pedigree will out.

 

Dr. Josi Luis Hernaez is an agronomist.  Former president of the Regulatory Council of the Denomination of Otigin Ribeiro, be is currently director of Galicia's Viticultural and Oenological Station.

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