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Text: Vicky Hayward
Photos: Fernando Briones

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

G a l i c i a

Table of Contents

The Rias Baixas: Old Grapes.New Wines
The Atlantic Vineyards:Valle del Salnes
South to 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: the Ribeira Sacra
In Pilgrims' Steps: Orense to Santiago

Back to Main

Wet foliage in the vineyards, scudding clouds above, and legend hanging in the damp sea air. On the road from Santiago to the wine country, vines appear well before the coast. By the time you reach the silted-up port of Padron they seem to be everywhere, squeezed into gardens 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 needs for the year. The townspeople here say Saint James, patron saint of Spain, preached his first sermon on the hill overlooking the town; from it you can see south over viciously bright green fields to the Ria de Arosa, where the commercial vineyards start. Local legend also tells that the boat which brought 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!-wrote Rosalia de Castro (1837-85), Galicia's greatest poet, who spent her final years 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...

The Rias 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 of the Rias Baixas denomination vineyards. The quilt of low rolling fields is crisscrossed by parrale, distinctive granite and wire pergolas usedalong this Atlantic coastline to lift the vines away from the wet earth and towards the sunshine. All the vineyards here are planted with the same native grape, Albarifio, which has grown in this region for at least seven centuries alongside other local varieties whose singsong names dance off your tongue: Treixadura, Caifio, Loureira, Espadeiro and Torrontes. it is these grapes and above all the Albariho, a small thick-skinned type which resists Atlantic damp well, which give the Rias Baixas' luminous white wines their character. Intensely fruity, with lingering aromas reminiscent of a walk through an orchard, they fill every corner of your mouth with flavors running the gamut between sweetness and acidity. Why, then, did Albariho and the other native varieties take so long to make it onto the world wine map? One simple answer is that until recently the Galicians drank the wines themselves (and they really do drink, an average of 134liters of wine a year, three times the national average). Also, despite the wines' semi mythical reputation based on their scarcity, their high acidity and low alcoholic content often tipped them over the edge to cringingly sharp table wines. In the end, it was the arrival of temperature-controlled steel vats for slow, precise fermentation and chilled stabilizing that allowed the grapes to show their full potential. As pioneering bodega sled the way in the late 1970s, new planting took off spectacularly over85 percent of it Albarifio-and native grape prices soared. But it took another decade of work replanting controlled cloned stock for the wines to win full Denomination of Origin (D.O.) status. Finally, in 1988, three growing areas were grouped around the Albarifio grape and Atlantic climate: the Salnes Valley, on the left bank of the Arosa estuary; El Rosal, on the lower Spanish reaches of the River Mino, where it forms the frontier with Portugal; and Condado del Tea, higher in the Mino valley. All three areas share broadly similar growing conditions: an Atlantic climate with morning mists, heavy rainfall (around 1,500 mm/59 in annually), lightly acidic soils of eroded granite overlaid with sand or river clay, and similar cultivation 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 next decade-since few vineyards have yet reached full maturity and fringe pockets of 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 lived off subsistence farming and fishing, the bulging Salnes peninsula is the largest 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 trees and vines-and marshlands running down to the sea. To the north and south, the shoreline runs inland along the deep rias, or estuaries, which slash the coast. Here there is every type of wine making operation: elegant granite pazos, or manor houses, whose owners have made wines in the same bodegas for centuries; new cooperatives with state-of the-art equipment owned by several hundred growers; and small wineries with limited production of  estate bottled fine wines. The most architecturally striking of the dozen wine making pazos is Fefifianes, a 16th-centur-y palace whose low profileframes one of Galicia's most beautiful squares in the seaside wine capital of Cambados. The pazos were always as much farm estates as country palaces and at Fefinanes the old walled garden and bodega here survive intact.  In 1919, the owner, the Marques de Figueroa, pioneered Albarino vines at a time when imported disease-resistant varieties had swept the board in the wake of phylloxera. He began to make fine wines aged and fermented in wood up to six years, for many years the only ones of their type. Even now, 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. Bodegas Salnesur, on the other side of town, offers a complete contrast. Founded as 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 of wine. From the top of its modern purpose-built bodegas there is a splendid view over eucalyptus forests, vineyards and the ria where it meets the sea. Three different mono-varietal Albarihos are now produced. One is aclassic wine fermented in steel for 20-25 days before clarification, stabilization and micro biotic filtering; the second is a wine aged in Galician oak which emerges with darker flavors; the third is made with macerated fruit to give a wine fairly bursting with feisty flavors and aromas. Finally, Pazode Sefiorans represents a classic vino de autor. Rebuilt within the thick stone walls of an old bodega, it produces a domain wine in limited quantities according to the makers' convictions rather than market tastes. Owners Javier Mareque and Marisol Bueno, together with oenologist Ana Quintela, have collected great plaudits for the wine, made from the grapes of fully mature, carefully tended vines grown on inland slopes. Quintela emphasizes the importance of the vineyard's pie de cuba that is, selected natural yeasts cultured from the vineyard's grapes immediately before the harvest and used to kick going fermentation. This, she says, is the key to the wine's final 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 character and winemaking. Fragmentation makes for endless divided opinion, but also for 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 where wines may be blended with other native varieties, but there is also considerable variety in the Salnies, where the Albarifio clearly predominates. Some bodegas cold macerate the grapes before pressing; most-but not all leave the musts to settle before fermentation; a few separate grapes by variety and area for vinification, then blend; some rack the wines once, others up to three or four times before bottling. And as a second generation of wines 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-are experimenting with aging in French, American or Galician oak. Commercial yeasts, which throw up cloyingly strong flavors, have been abandoned and bodegas are also turning away from the secondary malolactic fermentation which adds a sparkly prickliness at the cost of aroma and flavor. The southern coast road takes you from the vineyards through fishing villages which have grown fat on tourism and contraband: El Grove is a mecca for seafood and fish lovers, La Toja is an elegant Belle Epoque spa hotel dating back to Roman times, and Combarro keeps the most picturesque popular architecture, including a lineup of 35 stone granaries on stilts, called borreos, right on the waterside. Behind here a road runs inland to Armenteira's austere12thcentury abbey, which now sprouts bracken and moss from its granite blocks. 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 wealth of distinctive varieties-over a hundred are planted today could not have evolved in so few centuries. And, in any case, evidence of wild grape pipson Celtic archaeological sites and Roman wine presses in Valdeorras suggests they evolved slowly as hybrids of indigenous wild vines and varieties imported from Roman times onwards. But it is clearly no coincidence that wherever there is a Cistercian monastery here, good vineyards are close to hand. The Burgundian monks, skilled viticulturalists, not only made their own wine, but also substantial profits from selling it to city taverns. Santiagofed and watered half a million pilgrims a year at its height in late medieval times-"walk the road with bread and wine" ran one pilgrims' saying-and even small market towns had their canes de vino or wine streets, encouraged by the town councils to avoid the drinking of infected water. They survive in many towns. Nearby Pontevedra has some of the most characterful bars for trying country wines, served blood red or straw yellow against white porcelain tazas, or cups. These bars are great places to tap into traditional foods: Padron's tiny spicy hot green peppers, served fried and salted; shellfish from the estuaries, steamed with their juices or cold in salpicon salads; pulpo afeira, boiled octopus from the Atlantic, sprinkled with sea salt, spicy, hot paprika and olive oil; tangy soft cow's milk cheeses, chorizo sausages and ham from the pazos and mini fundios; and, finally, country sourdough bread made with rye or cornmeal and delicious flat empanada pies with every kind of filling from scallops to pork and peppers, from the bakers' wood-fired ovens.

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

The road from Valle del Salnes to El Rosal and Condado del Tea runs down the coast past the humming city of Vigo, Spain's most important fishing port. Here you can veer off along the coastal road. South of Bayona you finally hit open countryside with broad horizons. The fields are gentle and dotted with meidas, teepees of maize leaves, but the seas beat against a wild coastline. It is said by the Galicians that every wave carries the soul of a sailor who has died, so many boats have been lost in the swell or smashed against the rocks. The graceful Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria de Oya (1 185) is perched right on the cliffs before the countryside softens again at La Guardia, the quiet fishing port at the mouth of the River Mino. Known for its lobster, it has a clutch of unpretentious restaurants for eating great seafood plainly cooked in the Galician way The great Mino Valley, which carves a deep channel diagonally through 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 this by allowing bodegas in both areas to make traditional wines in which Albarifiois blended with other native varieties-in Rosal's case, 25-30 percent of Loureiro, Caiho Blanco and Treixadura and in Condado's case, up to 30 percent of Treixadura, Torrontes, and Loureiro. For many wine lovers the greater complexity gives these wines an edge over the mono-varietals. Combinations vary. 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 flowery Treixadura and bitter Torrontes. Rosal has the mildest climate of the two areas. The south-facing slopes running along the northern bank of the Mihoestuary get 200 more hours of sunshine a year than Salnes and give ideal ripening. The bodegas here are also marked by Santiago Ruiz, whose success in pioneering fine regional wines twenty years ago is still quoted. Mostbodegas here have followed his line. Lagar de Fornelos, for example, was set up as a winery in 1982 around an old farm and has been steadily expanding its vineyards in order to produce a domain Albarino. Angel Sudrez, who runs the bodega and vineyards for a Rioian group, has planted high on the slopes 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 press installed in the farmhouse and a wonderful distillery, where six traditional copper stills make double-distilled 45 percent proof aguardiente de orujo-a white grape spirit like grappa or marc-from the pulp and pips left after pressing. This is bottled three ways: as a dry, young white spirit, or flavored with herbs to a deceptively soft, sweet green, or mellowed by a year's aging in oak in the Portuguese style. Such is the boom in aguardiente sales throughout Spain that it is now made by most Galician bodegas. Beware of its deceptively gentle palate. Just a few gulps at 50 percent proof can knock you off your feet. Adegas das Eiras, another young Rosal winery built in its own vineyards, puts a similar emphasis on making wines as much on the plant as in the bodega. They use few pesticides and organic manuring, select grapes on the vine, and ferment the musts of each variety and parcel separately. Joaquin Alvarez Martinez, who cares for the vineyards, rescued the Caifio Blanco grape from virtual oblivion and today it gives their delicious blended Rosal wine an unmistakable peachy muskiness. Condado's vineyards are separated from those of Rosal by only a dozen or so kilometers of river, but in that short journey upriver the Miho narrows from a wide estuary to a twisting valley. By the time it reaches the hilltop town of Tuy, capital of Galicia in Visigothic times, the river is slender enough to be spanned by a boxed metal bridge running over to the Portuguese fortress town of Valenca. Further upriver, where Condado's vineyards start, temperatures rocket in summer on the valley floor and the grapes may be harvested as early as August. The bodegas here are among Galicia's most picturesque. At Pazo San Mauro, near Salvatierra de Mino, the lands curve down like an open scallop shell on the river bank, and the best of the old has been preserved alongside the new: a lovely 16th-century farmhouse and chapel, water straight from source, stone tanks where lamprey caught in the river once swam in spring. The vines grow on L-shaped stone posts, with each variety planted at the height of the slope that best suits it. Once inside the old stone bodega, you find it almost entirely renovated. Here, they make a pure Albarifio and a classic blended Blanco Condado del Tea, given its distinctive bitter elegance by 5 percent Torrontes. Since it is still difficult to find a large range of Condado wines outside the region, it is worth dropping off at several bodegas as you drive east through the vineyards. In the spring fishing season, you may be lucky enough to find the region's great gastronomic specialty, lamprey, cooked the old way with spices and wine, in the restaurants at Arbo. It even holds an annual lamprey festival late in April. But, in any case, the drive up the valley is worth it for the landscape alone. You might doubt Galicians' belief that rain is 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 break like silent waves over the mountains.

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

Ribeiro's long winemaking history has some good anecdotes 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 drinking its "ardent" wines. The Napoleonic troops who passed through here centuries later supposedly made the same mistake. Both lots must have got drunk on the tostados, powerfully sweet wines made with sun-dried grapes and exported around half of Europe for several centuries. The first leg of 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 wine merchants moved on to Oporto, the vines were devastated by phylloxera, and the high-yield imported varieties planted in their stead made country wines rarely worth bottling. It is only in the last twenty years that the Denomination of Origin, set up in 1932, has begun to lift its head thanks to independent winemakers' insistence on a return to native grapes and quality. Now, 20 percent of the 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres) of Denomination-registered vineyards in the Avia, Arnoia and Mino valleys are planted with old varieties: among them Godello and Albarifio, Treixadura, Loureiro and Torronties (for whites); Mencia, Caifio, Ferr6n, Brancellao and Sous6n (for reds). The giant industrial bodegas which account for most production-the Cooperativade Ribeiro, for example, produces an annual 7 million liters of wine-are also following suit with small quantities of quality wine. At the same time, the 50 or so registered colleteiros, small vineyard owners making wine from just their own grapes, are also cautiously replanting, largely on the dryer and sunnier uplands away from the river mists below. Perhaps because the quality bodegas were a minority breaking out in a new direction, they are making highly individual wines. At Vifia Mein, a spacious restored farmhouse and bodega set in its own vineyards, the emphasis is on letting the wine take its time. The grapes-Loureiro, Torrontes, Albarino and Godello-are harvested slowly, patch by patch, stripped of their stalks and cold macerated. The musts, graded but not decanted, are then slowly fermented in separate batches for up to seven weeks at 15-180C (59-640F) before being left to mature 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 hand to supply orders, and the wine is racked off five to six times to remove impurities. The result is an exceptional wine, heavily aromatic and straw gold, lively but honeyed, which has shown itself capable of keeping for at least two years. Owner Javier Alen-a Madrid lawyer-and on-site director Ricardo Vdzquez are now vinifying the first vintage of a red wine from the Caifio grape matured in oak. If Ribeiro can look to the standards being set here and in other independent bodegas-such as those of Emilio Rojo, Arsenio Paz (Vilerma) or Luis Angel Rodriguez Vdzquez (Vifia Martin)-the next generation of wines could show a spectacular broad-based renaissance.  At the same time, the imprint of Ribeiro's wine history on its landscape and culture make it great traveling country for wine lovers. Ribadavia's medieval quarter, fit for a major city, was built with wine wealth and sits in a bowl of steeply terraced hillsides shored up by sucalcos (dry-stonewalls) where the vines are lifted high from the ground on stone supports or chestnut stakes. At harvest time they swarm with growers' families, carrying vast openmouthed baskets carried on their backs and heads. One of the two 12th-century monasteries, Mel6n and San Clodio, which planted many of the vineyards, may be visited. And basement bodega bars sell wine tapped straight off the barrel with local food such as the sweet cured ham, 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't forget John of Gaunt's archers. Today only one bodega makes tostado and the other wines rarely rise above 12', but you are sure to be offered the local aguardiente, famously described by a Cooperativa de Ribeiro brochure as "a drink which taken by itself requires three men to a glass: one to drink it and two friends to support him."

Towards Castle: Monterrei [TOP]

Galicia's youngest Denomination of Origin takes you back close to the Portuguese border, but this time to the region'ssoutheastern tip. Rusty red soils and wide horizons, burning summer sun and frequent winter frosts give an air of neighboring Castile, but the landscape is softened by chestnut woods, pine groves and abundant rivers. In the gently sloping vineyards, spaciously planted bush vines grow low as in central Spain. Above them perches the 15th-century castle of, splendidly atmospheric, which both protected the sweep of the Tamega valley where pilgrims passed from central Spain and controlled the price and quality of 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 bodegas are registered with the new denomination, approved after several hiccups, in 1995. It permits a mix of old grape varieties: the most characteristic are Palomino, Doha Blanca and Godello for white wines and Mencia, black Godello and Tinta Fina for reds. Two bodegas are cooperatives, which buy grapes from a large number of growers. The third, Jose Luis Vaz Vilera of Adegas Ladairo, is a pioneering independent producer who inherited a family bodega and just a few vineyards, but expanded and replanted with regional grape varieties showing good results else where. It took him over a decade to hit upon the right blend for his bouncy Ladairo white wine, first bottled in 1992: 50 percent Godello-a grape already flourishing in Valdeorras (see article on page 97)-40 percent Treixadura plus 5 percent each of Loureiro and the local Dofia Blanca. Now his work is paying off.  The wine, poised midway between Galicia's fruity flavors and central Spanish body and dryness, is a consistent regional prizewinner. He also makes a young 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 expanded bodega, he and oenologist klvaro Bueno constantly experiment with new blends and vinification in a series of miniature steel vats. As he samples a rose made in small quantities this year with Cabernet Sauvignon, Mencia and Godello, 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 where wine was made in Galicia. The Romans struck gold here and while the slaves mined they also built roads and bridges-two of which still stand at Petinand el Barco and planted vines. A 4th century wine press has been found at Fontei while the Latin inscription on a marble slab elsewhere mentions the wines by name. Valdeorras: valley of gold. The Sil cuts a long east-west corridor here between sierras which protect its warm microclimate. Summer sunshine is balanced by winter rains. Chestnuts grow alongside olives and lemons, and in summer the hillsides blaze yellow and purple with gorse and 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 improved early variety before rot. The first varietal Godello was made in 1976 and the following year the Valdeorras Denomination of Origin was set up, with Godello and Mencia as the defining grapes for white and red wines. Extensive replanting began on high slopes away from the intense valley heat and now over 20 bodegas produce a clutch of fine wines. The Mencia tintos, cherry red to purple, are fresh and light with plenty of tannin while Godello whites are straw gold, perfumed, with well-balanced acidity and full aromas.  The whites are now rated among the finest in Spain and this year carried off the sommeliers' prizes for both young and mature whites. The winery which scooped both prizes, Senen Guitidn also known as Finca La Tapada-was the lifetime dream of architect Ramon Guitidn, who redesigned the family bodega around ideas developed with his friend and ace oenologist, Jose Hidalgo. Initially the vineyards, just nine hectares (22 acres) high on the slaty slopes, were completely replanted with Godello. Then they rebuilt the bodega, modest on the outside but beautifully designed around function inside. Split-levels allow the newly harvested grapes to drop to the press and the musts to pass from there by gravity. Very cool fermentation for eight to ten weeks and maturing for at least six months take place in separate enclosed areas to cut noise to a minimum. Bottling begins in June, but the wine is then left to rest for another month. There is the same attention to detail in the vineyard, with each harvest followed by soil and leaf analysis to trace any deficiencies. In 1995 the Guitidns' dedication produced two memorable wines, one matured in oak for eight months, which have picked up a clutch of international prizes. Sadly, Ramon Guitidn died last year in a car accident. But his brother and sister continue making the wines with 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 Roman times. Or rather, it is said the spiced wines of Amandi were so highly prized that they were dispatched to Caesar along with lamprey from the River Mino. Remarkably, winemaking in Amandi is still on a farm house scale, with each bodega making just a few thousand bottles. The grapes are organically grown on tiny strips of land scattered around the Sil Valley, whose slopes run from steep to precipitous. It is not that the wines are unappreciated they have recuperated their classical fame since chestnut barrels were ousted by steel vats and today the best ones sell out direct to restaurants within a couple of months. But the quantities are limited by the unique landscape needed for the best wines: their intense flavors and high alcoholic content come from the condensed heat of the sun where the valley narrows almost to a gorge and, more precisely, the very best grapes grow only on the spurs of south-facing slopes which receive long hours of direct sunlight.  These, the most intensively cultivated, are considered by experts like British wine importer Simon Loftus, among the world's great vineyards.  As you drive through, or travel by boat up the river, these densely cultivated areas make a dizzying abstract landscape that represents centuries of hard toil. It is this unique geography, partly manmade, which still gives Amandia special fame within the much larger demarcated Ribeira Sacra growing area of 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) scattered along the banks of the rivers Mino and Sil. Many of the vineyards were planted by the string of Romanesque monasteries built in spectacular sites above the river between the 8thand 12th centuries. Hence the name Ribeira Sacra-literally the Sacred Riverbank-now in the process of being upgraded from a regional to national D.O. It is split into five sub zones, which share the same definitions for mono-varietal reds 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 foot path or from the river. They hope that with Denomination of Origin status, the Ribeira Sacra growers will win subsidies to help mechanize cultivation and harvesting while holding on to traditional organic methods such as manuring with furze dug into the soil. Joss Rodriguez Gomez, who won first prize 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 red alongside milk and vegetables. His couple of hectares of vineyards can be reached only on foot. After harvesting his grapes with his sons in mid-September, he crushes the fruit then ferments the pulp in steel before racking and bottling early in summer. Of all the Galician wines, those from Ribeira Sacra are the hardest to find and your best chance of tasting a selection of the best is to make a special trip to the Amandi wine fiesta on Palm Sunday.

In Pilgrims' Steps:  Orenseto Santiago [TOP]

From Ribeira Sacra, it is a short journey back to Santiago de Compostela along the southern pilgrimage route from Salamanca.  Orense has a fine cathedral and keeps its Roman Bridge where the pilgrims crossed the Mino for centuries. In the nearby market, kiosks sell wonderful country bread: yellow cornbread, gray rye, and nut or raisin studded loaves sold in heavy slabs. The road lopes on Galicia's Mapfrom here past a string of villages and Romanesque churches. At Oseir, you can visit the earliest Cistercian monastery still standing in Galicia (1137).Its original, gracious minimalism expressing St. Bernard's reform of the over-worldly monastic life, is overlaid with local Muslim detail and gilded baroque clutter, but it is still beautiful. Once you have crossed the River Ulla and passed the most beautiful of Galicia's manor houses at Oca, the pilgrims' final destination soon comes into sight, its twin baroque belfries piercing the skyline. Santiago de Compostela is a pleasure to explore, not just for its historic monuments but also as a living market town packed with food shops, restaurants and quiet squares or alleyways running around the Cathedral. Only once you are inside the Cathedral's honeyed baroque shell does its true medieval spirit reveal itself. In front of the high altar dangles the outsize incense burner, or botafumeiro, which has swung over 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 the gilded columns around the high altar: a mass of intertwined vines with fat bunches of grapes tumbling down on all sides.

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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