The Spanish DO (designated wine area) of Ribeira Sacra isn’t at all well-known – even among keen wine lovers. In fact, in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (nicknamed the ‘Winelovers’ Bible’ with good reason), it merits just 2 lines. And the Wine and Spirit Education Trust ignores it completely until students reach ‘Diploma’ level. But, based on the wines I’ve tasted from there, it’s certainly an area worth exploring – and not just for the adventurous.
So, where is Ribeira Sacra? Look to Spain’s far north-west where you find the cool, Atlantic-influenced region of Galicia, which is becoming increasingly popular due, in particular, to the high quality Albariño grape. This white variety thrives near the coast but, go just 50 miles or so inland, and it’s a local red grape, Mencia, that dominates in ancient, almost impossibly steep rocky vineyards; you’ll see the words ‘viticultura heroica’ on the label pictured. Growing vines here is heroic viticulture indeed!
But, if you’d expect Regina Viarum Mencia (Wine Society, a bargain at £11.50) to reflect this harsh, uncompromising landscape with a wine of a similar character, you’d be wrong. It’s a wine that, for me, had the same silky smoothness of a nice Pinot Noir – interesting as some thought that Mencia might be related to that grape, although apparently not. This classy example is delightfully fresh with lovely slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through to give a refreshing and very satisfying red wine. Food-friendly as you might guess – but nothing too big or robust: partridge or duck, perhaps.
Ribeira Sacra’s production is tiny and wines from there may be difficult to find but, next door, in Bierzo, they also grow the Mencia grape and Majestic have a good example in Pizarras de Otero (£7.49).
Either way, this is a grape and a region worth getting to know.
It wasn’t just the label that made me buy this wine, although I was so intrigued by both its design and the name – The Cup & Rings (available from Majestic, £9.99) – that I had to pick it up. I suppose that counts as a victory for the marketing team! But, when I looked more closely, I realised this was a wine I should try.
The label showed it was made from one of Spain’s best native grape varieties for white wines, Albariño, grown in the ideal cool climate of Galicia in the far north-western region of the country. Then there were the words ‘Sobre lias’; this is a winemaking technique that involves leaving the wine on the dead yeast cells (the ‘lees’ in English, ‘lias’ in Spanish) for a period of time after the fermentation has finished. The aim of this is to add a certain depth of flavour to the wine and often to create an attractive savoury character. In this case, the period of ageing on the lees was 2 full years – longer than I’d normally expect, but clearly promising a wine with some complexity.
The winemaker was obviously pleased with his creation as there was his signature on the label: Norrel Robertson is a Master of Wine who has been making wine in Spain since 2003, although he is a Scot by birth, hence his local nickname which translates as the ‘Flying Scotsman’.
On opening the bottle, the wine was as good as I’d hoped for: delightfully refreshing, rich and complex with a lovely floral character and ripe pear flavours – rather than the stone fruits I often associate with Albariño. But there was also an almost salty tang about it – not surprising, I suppose, given how close to the sea many of the vineyards are in this part of the world.
And the name ‘Cup and Rings’? It is, apparently, an ancient Celtic symbol found in prehistoric rock carvings across Europe, especially in both Galicia and Scotland. So, very appropriate for a Scot working in Galicia but also a great way to encourage curious customers like me to buy!
There are many good reasons for choosing a bottle of wine: something you’ve enjoyed before, a recommendation, a wine on special offer. And then there are the impulse buys; I’m sure most of us have made those on occasions. “I wonder what that wine’s like?” as we pick up a bottle that our eye is drawn to. And the wine pictured above must be a prime candidate for that sort of purchase: unusually named ‘The Flower and the Bee’ and, with a label reflecting the name and even the foil over the cork in yellow and black ‘bee’ colours, the entire packaging of this wine says ‘look at me’. And ‘buy me’, of course.
But the design is not the only reason for giving this wine a try: it’s on the Association of Wine Educators list of the top 100 wines under £25 and, having tasted it (bought from Grape and Grind in Bristol, £13.99), I can confirm that it fully deserves its place.
It’s a delicious unoaked dry white from the Ribeiro region in the north-west of Spain, made from the local Treixadura grape. Quite peachy and fresh on the nose leading to a rich, full flavoured mouthful with lovely peach and ripe pear flavours and a good, long finish. Although I’d be happy to drink it on its own, it’s also a great food wine: ideal for some white fish in a creamy sauce.
So, why ‘The Flower and the Bee’? The wine comes from the Coto de Gomariz estate which is run organically (although not certified as such) and is moving towards biodynamic methods which involve nurturing the entire eco-system of the estate; the flowers and the bees are as important as the grapes to the producers and the naming and the label reflect that.
It’s a neat idea and certainly good marketing. But, try the wine and I’m sure you’ll buy it again – regardless of the eye-catching packaging.
Galicia, in the far north-west of Spain, is one of that country’s most interesting wine regions. But, if you’re not familiar with their wines – and, sadly, many in Britain are not – you need to forget any existing thoughts about Spanish wine. Galicia is different! Its climate is Atlantic-influenced which means that it is wetter, cooler and more fertile than areas of Spain further inland or those facing the Mediterranean. And it grows a clutch of grape varieties rarely seen elsewhere.
As you might guess, I love their wines – and not just since a really enjoyable visit my wife and I made there a couple of years ago. So I was particularly pleased that the Bristol Tasting Circle’s latest monthly event featured wines from Galicia (plus an intruder from Castille y Leon, just over the regional border!) presented by a long-standing friend of the Circle, Raj Soni of local independent wine merchant RS Wines.
Typical of the world’s cooler grape growing regions, Galicia makes more white than red. Paso de Marinan uses Godello in a blend with other local varieties to produce a wine with good body and lovely tropical fruit flavours (£9), while Crego e Monaguillo’s 100% Godello (£10) is fresh and clean with hints of mandarins on the palate. The one Galician variety that may be familiar to some (particularly Bristol Wine Blog readers) is Alboriño and Pazo de Barantes (£13) make an excellent example: quite rich and fragrantly perfumed, this wine has length, complexity and is simply delightful to drink.
But Galicia makes reds, too, mainly using the local Mencia grape. It gives soft, gently spicy wines – my wife said cumin – and the stand-out for me was the delicately smoky, barrel aged bottle from Joaquin Rebolledo (£15), who is so superstitious that he labelled his 2013 vintage as ‘2012+1’!
For more details of the wines, you can contact RS Wines on www.rswines.co.uk. Or, if tastings like this one appeal, just email the Bristol Tasting Circle secretary, Judith Tyler on firstname.lastname@example.org – new members are always welcome.