Text: Vicky Hayward
Photos: Fernando Briones

In this storywe begin a series of travel routes around Spanish wine regions. Each journeywill take readers around one region's bodegas and vineyards, exploringthe landscapes, culture and character of the people behind the wines onthe way. Our first route loops through the vineyards of southern Galiciain the green northwestern tip of the peninsula. Here, in the last twentyyears, no less than five denominations have leapfrogged their way fromobscurity to an international reputation for producing characterful, cuttingedgewines. The journey starts in the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela,runs down the western Atlantic shores and then cuts east along river valleysand over Sierras before returning to Santiago along the southern pilgrimagetrail. It takes you past fishing ports and Celtic sites, Cistercian monasteriesand pilgrimage churches, all set against mesmerizingly green landscapesof the region where they say rain is art

G a l i c i a

Table of Content

The Rias Baixas: Old Grapes.New Wines
The Atlantic Vineyards:Valle del Salnes
Southto the river Mino: El Rosal and Condado del Tea
D.O. Riberio: Signs of Renaissance
Towards Castle: Monterrei
North to the River Sil:Vaideorras Gold
Down the Sil Valley: theRibeira Sacra
In Pilgrims' Steps: Orenseto Santiago

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Wet foliage in the vineyards, scudding clouds above, and legend hanging in the damp sea air. On the road from Santiago tothe wine country, vines appear well before the coast. By the time you reachthe silted-up port of Padron they seem to be everywhere, squeezed intogardens and vegetable patches or planted as arbors over porches and pathways,but rarely more than the handful of vines needed to supply a family's needsfor the year. The townspeople here say Saint James, patron saint of Spain,preached his first sermon on the hill overlooking the town; from it youcan see south over viciously bright green fields to the Ria de Arosa, wherethe commercial vineyards start. Local legend also tells that the boat whichbrought St. James' body back to Spain after his death made landfall here,and in theparish church, doors in the altar-front swing open, as if miraculously,to reveal the mooring stone. Wine, too, is magicked into a spiritual affair."Demp6is de Dios itiva o vifio!'-After God, long live wine!-wroteRosalia de Castro (1837-85), Galicia's greatest poet, who spent her finalyears in Padron. The poem, a conversation between landlord and tenant,goes on:

- ?E babera, vino na Grotia?
- Colo, colo! -Cousa boa!
- Co1ase como xarabe!
- Meu compadre, o que ben sabe corre sin trigo nin broa...
- And would there be wine in Heaven?
- Drink, drink! What a beautiful thing!
- It's as smooth as syrup!
Oh how it slips down, my friend, with neither wheat nor cornbread...

TheRias Baixas: Old Grapes. New Wines [TOP]

Soon after leaving Padron, you reach the Arosaestuary's glassy waters and cross the northern limit into the first ofthe Rias Baixas denomination vineyards. The quilt of low rolling fieldsis crisscrossed by parrale, distinctive granite and wire pergolas usedalong this Atlantic coastline to lift the vines away from the wet earthand towards the sunshine. All the vineyards here are planted with the samenative grape, Albarifio, which has grown in this region for at least sevencenturies alongside other local varieties whose singsong names dance offyour tongue: Treixadura, Caifio, Loureira, Espadeiro and Torrontes. itis these grapes and above all the Albariho, a small thick-skinned typewhich resists Atlantic damp well, which give the Rias Baixas' luminouswhite wines their character. Intensely fruity, with lingering aromas reminiscentof a walk through an orchard, they fill every corner of your mouth withflavors running the gamut between sweetness and acidity. Why, then, didAlbariho and the other native varieties take so long to make it onto theworld wine map? One simple answer is that until recently the Galiciansdrank the wines themselves (and they really do drink, an average of 134liters of wine a year, three times the national average). Also, despitethe wines' semimythical reputation based on their scarcity, their highacidity and low alcoholic content often tipped them over the edge to cringinglysharp table wines. In the end, it was the arrival of temperature-controlledsteel vats for slow, precise fermentation and chilled stabilizing thatallowed the grapes to show their full potential. As pioneering bodegasled the way in the late 1970s, new planting took off spectacularly over85 percent of it Albarifio-and native grape prices soared. But it tookanother decade of work replanting controlled cloned stock for the winesto win full Denomination of Origin (D.O.) status. Finally, in 1988, threegrowing areas were grouped around the Albarifio grape and Atlantic climate:the Salnes Valley, on the left bank of the Arosa estuary; El Rosal, onthe lower Spanish reaches of the River Mino, where it forms the frontierwith Portugal; and Condado del Tea, higher in the Mino valley. All threeareas share broadly similar growing conditions: an Atlantic climate withmorning mists, heavy rainfall (around 1,500 mm/59 in annually), lightlyacidic soils of eroded granite overlaid with sand or river clay, and similarcultivation techniques. The vines are densely planted, mainly on parralos,which bank the vineyards high with green foliage in summer. In winter,after pruning, they convert to steel and stone skeletons. Today, over 1,700hectares (4,200 acres) of vineyards produce 7 million liters of wine annually(99.6 percent of it white) and the grapes are the most expensive in Spain.Production continues to rise-in fact, it is expected to double in the nextdecade-since few vineyards have yet reached full maturity and fringe pocketsof vineyards are being absorbed into the D.O. all the time.

The Atlantic Vineyards:Valle del Salnes [TOP]

Once a poor area of fishing villages that livedoff subsistence farming and fishing, the bulging Salnes peninsula is thelargest of the Rias Baixas three growing areas (1,105 hectares/2,730 acres).The vineyards here are jumbled with eucalyptus woods, classic minifundios-smallholdings of cabbage, potato and turnip green fields plus a few fruit treesand vines-and marshlands running down to the sea. To the north and south,the shoreline runs inland along the deep rias, or estuaries, which slashthe coast. Here there is every type of wine making operation: elegant granitepazos, or manor houses, whose owners have made wines in the same bodegasfor centuries; new cooperatives with state-of the-art equipment owned byseveral hundred growers; and small wineries with limited production ofestate bottled fine wines. The most architecturally striking of the dozenwinemaking pazos is Fefifianes, a 16th-centur-y palace whose low profileframes one of Galicia's most beautiful squares in the seaside wine capitalof Cambados. The pazos were always as much farm estates as country palacesand at Fefinanes the old walled garden and bodega here survive intact.In 1919, the owner, the Marques de Figueroa, pioneered Albarino vines ata time when imported disease-resistant varieties had swept the board inthe wake of phylloxera. He began to make fine wines aged and fermentedin wood up to six years, for many years the only ones of their type. Evennow, after a late switch to fermentation in steel, a round oakiness remainsa Fefinanes trademark (they use American oak barrels from Jerez). However,today, the current Marques buys most grapes from other growers to makeup the total production of 150,000 liters bottled in early summer. BodegasSalnesur, on the other side of town, offers a complete contrast. Foundedas a cooperative in 1988, it's one of the denomination's two largest producers,with 341 members and an average annual production of 800,000 liters ofwine. From the top of its modern purpose-built bodegas there is a splendidview over eucalyptus forests, vineyards and the ria where it meets thesea. Three different monovarietal Albarihos are now produced. One is aclassic wine fermented in steel for 20-25 days before clarification, stabilizationand microbiotic filtering; the second is a wine aged in Galician oak whichemerges with darker flavors; the third is made with macerated fruit togive a wine fairly bursting with feisty flavors and aromas. Finally, Pazode Sefiorans represents a classic vino de autor. Rebuilt within the thickstone walls of an old bodega, it produces a domain wine in limited quantitiesaccording to the makers' convictions rather than market tastes. OwnersJavier Mareque and Marisol Bueno, together with oenologist Ana Quintela,have collected great plaudits for the wine, made from the grapes of fullymature, carefully tended vines grown on inland slopes. Quintela emphasizesthe importance of the vineyard's pie de cubathat is, selected natural yeastscultured from the vineyard's grapes immediately before the harvest andused to kick going fermentation. This, she says, is the key to the wine'sfinal tasting qualities. Delicate but well structured and with a long finish,these wines show the future potential for aging Albarihos into reserves.The contrast between these three Salnes bodegas says much of Galician characterand winemaking. Fragmentation makes for endless divided opinion, but alsofor variety. Over 4,000 growers are registered with the D.O. Rias Baixasand each of the hundred or so bodegas takes a slightly different approach.The main distinctions can be found in El Rosal and Condado del Tea wherewines may be blended with other native varieties, but there is also considerablevariety in the Salnies, where the Albarifio clearly predominates. Somebodegas cold macerate the grapes before pressing; most-but not allleavethe musts to settle before fermentation; a few separate grapes by varietyand area for vinification, then blend; some rack the wines once, othersup to three or four times before bottling. And as a second generation ofwines are coming through in the 1990s, their character is developing again.Many of the young oenologists who design the wines-over half of them women-areexperimenting with aging in French, American or Galician oak. Commercialyeasts, which throw up cloyingly strong flavors, have been abandoned andbodegas are also turning away from the secondary malolactic fermentationwhich adds a sparkly prickliness at the cost of aroma and flavor. The southerncoast road takes you from the vineyards through fishing villages whichhave grown fat on tourism and contraband: El Grove is a mecca for seafoodand fish lovers, La Toja is an elegant Belle Epoque spa hotel dating backto Roman times, and Combarro keeps the most picturesque popular architecture,including a lineup of 35 stone granaries on stilts, called borreos, righton the waterside. Behind here a road runs inland to Armenteira's austere12thcentury abbey, which now sprouts bracken and moss from its graniteblocks. According to folk history, it was the French monks invited hereby Alfonso Vil who first planted Rieslingstyle grapes and these mutatedto produce Albariho. In fact, as scientists point out, Galicia's wealthof distinctive varieties-over a hundred are planted today could not haveevolved in so few centuries. And, in any case, evidence of wild grape pipson Celtic archaeological sites and Roman wine presses in Valdeorras suggeststhey evolved slowly as hybrids of indigenous wild vines and varieties importedfrom Roman times onwards. But it is clearly no coincidence that whereverthere is a Cistercian monastery here, good vineyards are close to hand.The Burgundian monks, skilled viticulturalists, not only made their ownwine, but also substantial profits from selling it to city taverns. Santiagofed and watered half a million pilgrims a year at its height in late medievaltimes-"walk the road with bread and wine" ran one pilgrims' saying-andeven small market towns had their canes de vino or wine streets, encouragedby the town councils to avoid the drinking of infected water. They survivein many towns. Nearby Pontevedra has some of the most characterful barsfor trying country wines, served blood red or straw yellow against whiteporcelain tazas, or cups. These bars are great places to tap into traditionalfoods: Padron's tiny spicy hot green peppers, served fried and salted;shellfish from the estuaries, steamed with their juices or cold in salpiconsalads; pulpo afeira, boiled octopus from the Atlantic, sprinkled withsea salt, spicy, hot paprika and olive oil; tangy soft cow's milk cheeses,chorizo sausages and ham from the pazos and minifundios; and, finally,country sourdough bread made with rye or cornmeal and delicious flat empanadapies with every kind of filling from scallops to pork and peppers, fromthe bakers' wood-fired ovens.

Southto the river Mino: El Rosal and Condado del Tea [TOP]

The road from Valle del Salnes to El Rosal andCondado del Tea runs down the coast past the humming city of Vigo, Spain'smost important fishing port. Here you can veer off along the coastal road.South of Bayona you finally hit open countryside with broad horizons. Thefields are gentle and dotted with meidas, teepees of maize leaves, butthe seas beat against a wild coastline. It is said by the Galicians thatevery wave carries the soul of a sailor who has died, so many boats havebeen lost in the swell or smashed against the rocks. The graceful Cistercianmonastery of Santa Maria de Oya (1 185) is perched right on the cliffsbefore the countryside softens again at La Guardia, the quiet fishing portat the mouth of the River Mino. Known for its lobster, it has a clutchof unpretentious restaurants for eating great seafood plainly cooked inthe Galician way The great Mino Valley, which carves a deep channel diagonallythrough central Galicia, quite literally shapes the Rosal and Condado vineyards.Both are smaller growing areas than Salnes-234 and 391 hectares (578 and966 acres) respectively-but have longer traditions of winemaking and astronger emphasis on terroir. The Rias Baixas denomination recognizes thisby allowing bodegas in both areas to make traditional wines in which Albarifiois blended with other native varieties-in Rosal's case, 25-30 percent ofLoureiro, Caiho Blanco and Treixadura and in Condado's case, up to 30 percentof Treixadura, Torrontes, and Loureiro. For many wine lovers the greatercomplexity gives these wines an edge over the monovarietals. Combinationsvary. in El Rosal, the signature grape is Loureiro, which gives a green,herby aroma reminiscent of bay leaf; in Condado del Tea, it is the floweryTreixadura and bitter Torrontes. Rosal has the mildest climate of the twoareas. The south-facing slopes running along the northern bank of the Mihoestuary get 200 more hours of sunshine a year than Salnes and give idealripening. The bodegas here are also marked by Santiago Ruiz, whose successin pioneering fine regional wines twenty years ago is still quoted. Mostbodegas here have followed his line. Lagar de Fornelos, for example, wasset up as a winery in 1982 around an old farm and has been steadily expandingits vineyards in order to produce a domain Albarino. Angel Sudrez, whoruns the bodega and vineyards for a Rioian group, has planted high on theslopes away from river mists and preferably on forest land to cut pests.Back at the riverside bodega in the valley below there is an old pressinstalled in the farmhouse and a wonderful distillery, where six traditionalcopper stills make double-distilled 45 percent proof aguardiente de orujo-awhite grape spirit like grappa or marc-from the pulp and pips left afterpressing. This is bottled three ways: as a dry, young white spirit, orflavored with herbs to a deceptively soft, sweet green, or mellowed bya year's aging in oak in the Portuguese style. Such is the boom in aguardientesales throughout Spain that it is now made by most Galician bodegas. Bewareof its deceptively gentle palate. Just a few gulps at 50 percent proofcan knock you off your feet. Adegas das Eiras, another young Rosal winerybuilt in its own vineyards, puts a similar emphasis on making wines asmuch on the plant as in the bodega. They use few pesticides and organicmanuring, select grapes on the vine, and ferment the musts of each varietyand parcel separately. Joaquin Alvarez Martinez, who cares for the vineyards,rescued the Caifio Blanco grape from virtual oblivion and today it givestheir delicious blended Rosal wine an unmistakable peachy muskiness. Condado'svineyards are separated from those of Rosal by only a dozen or so kilometersof river, but in that short journey upriver the Miho narrows from a wideestuary to a twisting valley. By the time it reaches the hilltop town ofTuy, capital of Galicia in Visigothic times, the river is slender enoughto be spanned by a boxed metal bridge running over to the Portuguese fortresstown of Valenca. Further upriver, where Condado's vineyards start, temperaturesrocket in summer on the valley floor and the grapes may be harvested asearly as August. The bodegas here are among Galicia's most picturesque.At Pazo San Mauro, near Salvatierra de Mino, the lands curve down likean open scallop shell on the river bank, and the best of the old has beenpreserved alongside the new: a lovely 16th-century farmhouse and chapel,water straight from source, stone tanks where lamprey caught in the riveronce swam in spring. The vines grow on L-shaped stone posts, with eachvariety planted at the height of the slope that best suits it. Once insidethe old stone bodega, you find it almost entirely renovated. Here, theymake a pure Albarifio and a classic blended Blanco Condado del Tea, givenits distinctive bitter elegance by 5 percent Torrontes. Since it is stilldifficult to find a large range of Condado wines outside the region, itis worth dropping off at several bodegas as you drive east through thevineyards. In the spring fishing season, you may be lucky enough to findthe region's great gastronomic specialty, lamprey, cooked the old way withspices and wine, in the restaurants at Arbo. It even holds an annual lampreyfestival late in April. But, in any case, the drive up the valley is worthit for the landscape alone. You might doubt Galicians' belief that rainis art, but it is certainly true of the Mino's mists. In the mornings,they snake along the valley, curt sensuously up the slopes, then breaklike silent waves over the mountains.

D.O. Riberio: Signs of Renaissance[TOP]

Ribeiro's long winemaking history has some goodanecdotes attached to it. One, told by 14th-century French chronicler Froissart,is that John of Gaunt's archers were left helpless for two days by drinkingits "ardent" wines. The Napoleonic troops who passed throughhere centuries later supposedly made the same mistake. Both lots must havegot drunk on the tostados, powerfully sweet wines made with sun-dried grapesand exported around half of Europe for several centuries. The first legof the journey down to the coast was made by oxcart or river raft. Then,from the 18th century, the vineyards entered a long decline: foreign winemerchants moved on to Oporto, the vines were devastated by phylloxera,and the high-yield imported varieties planted in their stead made countrywines rarely worth bottling. It is only in the last twenty years that theDenomination of Origin, set up in 1932, has begun to lift its head thanksto independent winemakers' insistence on a return to native grapes andquality. Now, 20 percent of the 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres) of Denomination-registeredvineyards in the Avia, Arnoia and Mino valleys are planted with old varieties:among them Godello and Albarifio, Treixadura, Loureiro and Torronties (forwhites); Mencia, Caifio, Ferr6n, Brancellao and Sous6n (for reds). Thegiant industrial bodegas which account for most production-the Cooperativade Ribeiro, for example, produces an annual 7 million liters of wine-arealso following suit with small quantities of quality wine. At the sametime, the 50 or so registered colleteiros, small vineyard owners makingwine from just their own grapes, are also cautiously replanting, largelyon the dryer and sunnier uplands away from the river mists below. Perhapsbecause the quality bodegas were a minority breaking out in a new direction,they are making highly individual wines. At Vifia Mein, a spacious restoredfarmhouse and bodega set in its own vineyards, the emphasis is on lettingthe wine take its time. The grapes-Loureiro, Torrontes, Albarino and Godello-areharvested slowly, patch by patch, stripped of their stalks and cold macerated.The musts, graded but not decanted, are then slowly fermented in separatebatches for up to seven weeks at 15-180C (59-640F) before being left tomature on steel for at least six weeks-and for as long as nine months.Bottling is left as late as possible, with just enough wine kept in handto supply orders, and the wine is racked off five to six times to removeimpurities. The result is an exceptional wine, heavily aromatic and strawgold, lively but honeyed, which has shown itself capable of keeping forat least two years. Owner Javier Alen-a Madrid lawyer-and on-site directorRicardo Vdzquez are now vinifying the first vintage of a red wine fromthe Caifio grape matured in oak. If Ribeiro can look to the standards beingset here and in other independent bodegas-such as those of Emilio Rojo,Arsenio Paz (Vilerma) or Luis Angel Rodriguez Vdzquez (Vifia Martin)-thenext generation of wines could show a spectacular broad-based renaissance.At the same time, the imprint of Ribeiro's wine history on its landscapeand culture make it great traveling country for wine lovers. Ribadavia'smedieval quarter, fit for a major city, was built with wine wealth andsits in a bowl of steeply terraced hillsides shored up by sucalcos (dry-stonewalls) where the vines are lifted high from the ground on stone supportsor chestnut stakes. At harvest time they swarm with growers' families,carrying vast openmouthed baskets carried on their backs and heads. Oneof the two 12th-century monasteries, Mel6n and San Clodio, which plantedmany of the vineyards, may be visited. And basement bodega bars sell winetapped straight off the barrel with local food such as the sweet curedham, fried river fish, lacon con grelos (boiled ham with turnip greens),or even lamprey empanada if it's in season. If the night is long, don'tforget John of Gaunt's archers. Today only one bodega makes tostado andthe other wines rarely rise above 12', but you are sure to be offered thelocal aguardiente, famously described by a Cooperativa de Ribeiro brochureas "a drink which taken by itself requires three men to a glass: oneto drink it and two friends to support him."

Towards Castle: Monterrei [TOP]

Galicia's youngest Denomination of Origin takesyou back close to the Portuguese border, but this time to the region'ssoutheastern tip. Rusty red soils and wide horizons, burning summer sunand frequent winter frosts give an air of neighboring Castile, but thelandscape is softened by chestnut woods, pine groves and abundant rivers.In the gently sloping vineyards, spaciously planted bush vines grow lowas in central Spain. Above them perches the 15th-century castle of, splendidlyatmospheric, which both protected the sweep of the Tamega valley wherepilgrims passed from central Spain and controlled the price and qualityof wines made on local monastery and feudal estates. Today there are some3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of vineyards in the area, but only three bodegasare registered with the new denomination, approved after several hiccups,in 1995. It permits a mix of old grape varieties: the most characteristicare Palomino, Doha Blanca and Godello for white wines and Mencia, blackGodello and Tinta Fina for reds. Two bodegas are cooperatives, which buygrapes from a large number of growers. The third, Jose Luis Vaz Vileraof Adegas Ladairo, is a pioneering independent producer who inherited afamily bodega and just a few vineyards, but expanded and replanted withregional grape varieties showing good results else where. It took him overa decade to hit upon the right blend for his bouncy Ladairo white wine,first bottled in 1992: 50 percent Godello-a grape already flourishing inValdeorras (see article on page 97)-40 percent Treixadura plus 5 percenteach of Loureiro and the local Dofia Blanca. Now his work is paying off.The wine, poised midway between Galicia's fruity flavors and central Spanishbody and dryness, is a consistent regional prizewinner. He also makes ayoung red, finished in oak, using 75 percent Mencia and 25 percent Tempranillo.While these are still new wines little known outside the Monterrei area,Vaz Vilera is determined to put Monterrei on the map. In the newly expandedbodega, he and oenologist klvaro Bueno constantly experiment with new blendsand vinification in a series of miniature steel vats. As he samples a rosemade in small quantities this year with Cabernet Sauvignon, Mencia andGodello, he quotes his motto. "Si el dueho es serio, el vino tambien." in other words, a wine can only be as serious as its maker.

North to the RiverSil: Vaideorras Gold [TOP]

Easterly Valdeorras may be the first place wherewine was made in Galicia. The Romans struck gold here and while the slavesmined they also built roads and bridges-two of which still stand at Petinand el Barcoand planted vines. A 4th century wine press has been foundat Fontei while the Latin inscription on a marble slab elsewhere mentionsthe wines by name. Valdeorras: valley of gold. The Sil cuts a long east-westcorridor here between sierras which protect its warm microclimate. Summersunshine is balanced by winter rains. Chestnuts grow alongside olives andlemons, and in summer the hillsides blaze yellow and purple with gorseand heather. Renovation also began here before anywhere else. In the early1970s agricultural researchers discovered that the native Godello grape,then on the point of disappearing, could be cloned to produce an improvedearly variety before rot. The first varietal Godello was made in 1976 andthe following year the Valdeorras Denomination of Origin was set up, withGodello and Mencia as the defining grapes for white and red wines. Extensivereplanting began on high slopes away from the intense valley heat and nowover 20 bodegas produce a clutch of fine wines. The Mencia tintos, cherryred to purple, are fresh and light with plenty of tannin while Godellowhites are straw gold, perfumed, with well-balanced acidity and full aromas.The whites are now rated among the finest in Spain and this year carriedoff the sommeliers' prizes for both young and mature whites. The winerywhich scooped both prizes, Senen Guitidnalso known as Finca La Tapada-wasthe lifetime dream of architect Ramon Guitidn, who redesigned the familybodega around ideas developed with his friend and ace oenologist, JoseHidalgo. Initially the vineyards, just nine hectares (22 acres) high onthe slaty slopes, were completely replanted with Godello. Then they rebuiltthe bodega, modest on the outside but beautifully designed around functioninside. Split-levels allow the newly harvested grapes to drop to the pressand the musts to pass from there by gravity. Very cool fermentation foreight to ten weeks and maturing for at least six months take place in separateenclosed areas to cut noise to a minimum. Bottling begins in June, butthe wine is then left to rest for another month. There is the same attentionto detail in the vineyard, with each harvest followed by soil and leafanalysis to trace any deficiencies. In 1995 the Guitidns' dedication producedtwo memorable wines, one matured in oak for eight months, which have pickedup a clutch of international prizes. Sadly, Ramon Guitidn died last yearin a car accident. But his brother and sister continue making the wineswith Jose Hidalgo's help. This is a bodega to watch. And surely, if Rosaliade Castro is right, Ramon is now drinking wine in heaven.

Down the Sil Valley:the Ribeira Sacra [TOP]

Ribeira Sacra's red wines also date from Romantimes. Or rather, it is said the spiced wines of Amandi were so highlyprized that they were dispatched to Caesar along with lamprey from theRiver Mino. Remarkably, winemaking in Amandi is still on a farm house scale,with each bodega making just a few thousand bottles. The grapes are organicallygrown on tiny strips of land scattered around the Sil Valley, whose slopesrun from steep to precipitous. It is not that the wines are unappreciatedthey have recuperated their classical fame since chestnut barrels wereousted by steel vats and today the best ones sell out direct to restaurantswithin a couple of months. But the quantities are limited by the uniquelandscape needed for the best wines: their intense flavors and high alcoholiccontent come from the condensed heat of the sun where the valley narrowsalmost to a gorge and, more precisely, the very best grapes grow only onthe spurs of south-facing slopes which receive long hours of direct sunlight.These, the most intensively cultivated, are considered by experts likeBritish wine importer Simon Loftus, among the world's great vineyards.As you drive through, or travel by boat up the river, these densely cultivatedareas make a dizzying abstract landscape that represents centuries of hardtoil. It is this unique geography, partly manmade, which still gives Amandia special fame within the much larger demarcated Ribeira Sacra growingarea of 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) scattered along the banks of the riversMino and Sil. Many of the vineyards were planted by the string of Romanesquemonasteries built in spectacular sites above the river between the 8thand 12th centuries. Hence the name Ribeira Sacra-literally the Sacred Riverbank-nowin the process of being upgraded from a regional to national D.O. It issplit into five subzones, which share the same definitions for monovarietalreds and whites-based on Mencia and Godello-and for blended wines. Mostwines are Mencia reds, but a few bodegas are also making outstanding Albarifios.Growers' main problem here is limited access to the vineyards by footpathor from the river. They hope that with Denomination of Origin status, theRibeira Sacra growers will win subsidies to help mechanize cultivationand harvesting while holding on to traditional organic methods such asmanuring with furze dug into the soil. Joss Rodriguez Gomez, who won firstprize at the Santiago Cata de Vinos, the regional wine tasting, last year,is a typical maker. He produces some 12,000 bottles a year-mainly redalongsidemilk and vegetables. His couple of hectares of vineyards can be reachedonly on foot. After harvesting his grapes with his sons in mid-September,he crushes the fruit then ferments the pulp in steel before racking andbottling early in summer. Of all the Galician wines, those from RibeiraSacra are the hardest to find and your best chance of tasting a selectionof the best is to make a special trip to the Amandi wine fiesta on PalmSunday.

In Pilgrims' Steps: Orenseto Santiago [TOP]

From Ribeira Sacra, it is a short journey backto Santiago de Compostela along the southern pilgrimage route from Salamanca.Orense has a fine cathedral and keeps its Roman Bridge where the pilgrimscrossed the Mino for centuries. In the nearby market, kiosks sell wonderfulcountry bread: yellow cornbread, gray rye, and nut or raisin studded loavessold in heavy slabs. The road lopes on Galicia's Mapfromhere past a string of villages and Romanesque churches. At Oseir, you canvisit the earliest Cistercian monastery still standing in Galicia (1137).Its original, gracious minimalism expressing St. Bernard's reform of theover-worldly monastic life, is overlaid with local Muslim detail and gildedbaroque clutter, but it is still beautiful. Once you have crossed the RiverUlla and passed the most beautiful of Galicia's manor houses at Oca, thepilgrims' final destination soon comes into sight, its twin baroque belfriespiercing the skyline. Santiago de Compostela is a pleasure to explore,not just for its historic monuments but also as a living market town packedwith food shops, restaurants and quiet squares or alleyways running aroundthe Cathedral. Only once you are inside the Cathedral's honeyed baroqueshell does its true medieval spirit reveal itself. In front of the highaltar dangles the outsize incense burner, or botafumeiro, which has swungover millions of pilgrims' heads. As you stand under it, with St. James'tomb just a few feet away, you cannot miss the carved decoration on thegilded columns around the high altar: a mass of intertwined vines withfat bunches of grapes tumbling down on all sides.

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Vicky Hayward: is a writer,journalist and book editor whose articles about culture, the
arts, society and food are published internationally. She lives in Madrid.
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