Valdeorras: Valley of Gold
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the last winery visit of the day, especially if scheduled after a beautiful boat trip on a river and an extremely boozy orujo-fuelled lunch, will find a group of visitors inevitably at their lowest ebb of concentration.
Once again the little bus chuffed up a narrow mountain road, depositing us at a vantage point where we could survey vineyards, forests, the old winery and the new building. We were given an exhaustive spiel on the region, before trooping into the vines to accrue some more terroir on our minimalistic footwear.
Horacio Fernandez, Jose Luis Bartolome and other partners created Bodegas Godeval in the 1970s, releasing the first 100% Godello wine in Galicia. This pioneering winery deserves max respect for recovering this grape for Spanish winemaking; previously, the workhouse Palomino had been supplanting the local grapes. The number of planted hectares of Godello in Valdeorras has since grown from 11 ha in 1974 to 270 ha in 2002, in an area in which wine has been made since the times of Roman occupation (Valdeorras means “valley of gold”). Romans mined extensively for gold and silver on the banks of the Sil River 2,000 years ago.
The winery is located in the beautiful surroundings of the restored 13th-century monastery of San Miguel of Xagoaza built originally by the religious order of The Knights of Malta, in the mountains next to El Barco de Valdeorras. Godeval itself owns 16 ha of Godello grapes, in different parcels on the hills adjacent to the winery, all with good exposure to midday sun. The vineyards are on steeply-inclined south-facing slopes (although not steep compared to Ribeira Sacra) at an altitude of 450-550 metres, and are therefore laid out on terraces. The average yield is 44 hectolitres per hectare, half of the local maximum allowed and the composition of the soil is of metamorphic slate which allows good drainage but also retains the heat promoting good ripening.
Only two wines are made at Godeval – a classic style and a richer old vines wine. Low-yielding Godello is reminiscent of peach-stone and ripe apple, and is at once floral and herbal with anise and fresh mint hints. Combined with the inherent lactic character of the grape and you have wines that work on several levels. The old vines (Cepas Velhas) verges on the tropical, pineapple-fleshed with leesy ginger-spice, and, at dinner, we also tried a 2008 straight Godeval which revealed rich honey tones and pleasant oxidative notes.
The state-of-the-science winery on the left peeping through the trees
Put that on my slate
High in the vines with an extra from The War of the Worlds marching from stage left across the landscape
Scuttling with alacrity towards dinner in the old monastery
After a swift tour of the winey (humankind can only bear so many stainless steel tanks, as T S Eliot didn’t say), we adjourned to the monkless monastery for dinner. Desensitised by a brutal cold I couldn’t fully appreciate either the food or the wine, but was dimly aware that we should be trying to match various Godellos to the dishes before us. First up was a perplexing concoction on a brochette tauntingly suspended in a two-goo sauce in a tall glass; it looked like an initiative test, one which I failed. There were a fair amount of brain meltdown; having to form or hold a refined opinion about any matter to do with food or wine was almost too much to expect at this stage of the proceedings.
Your unreliable narrator went back to the hotel to replenish his sleep levels, whilst the rest of the intrepid party sought succour in the only open bar in the local town (the town was effectively closed), where they played riotous drinking games until being pelted with eggs by an annoyed local resident.
Summary of Galicia
Venturing into the hinterland of Galicia, we took a snapshot of the DOs Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras on our journey, visiting our wineries, seeing their vineyards and also trying other references from the region in sundry bars and restaurants
Firstly, the positives. We witnessed an unashamedly artisan culture focused on the production of indigenous grape varieties – and the growers we list are undoubtedly instrumental in protecting and promoting this culture. The preconditions for great wine are in place: vineyards are normally on slopes (some vertiginous), soils are poor and well-drained, manual viticulture is the norm and the climate evidently provides for both red and white grapes to flourish. The resultant wines reflect these advantages, tending to have nice aromatic lift and refreshing acidity.
The sought-after minerality and natural focus in many of the wines, however, is absent, or much diminished by an over-reliance on chemical interventions (in vineyard and winery). The growers, if they wish to truly express this unique territory, need to concentrate more on working productively in their vineyards to ensure healthy vines and grapes.
For, despite the rural, unspoilt locale, the farming is not as intuitive and organic as one might hope. Many of the vines we saw were inefficient mechanisms, with haphazardly-pruned straggly canopies and lopsided canes, leaving grapes and leaves without sufficient exposure to ensure even ripening. In fact, ripeness was an issue in many of the vineyards. Furthermore without real life in the vineyard, without the energy being channelled into the grapes, you would expect a reliance on technical winemaking to compensate for this qualitative lack.
Although the question was not posed, it was not apparent that any winemaker was practising fermentations with indigenous yeasts. Although I could be wrong. The white wines, in particular cases, seem stripped and liberally sulphured. As some of the wines lacked natural fluency it was correspondingly difficult to discern what was grape, what was terroir and what was winemaking.
What is apparent is that we are dealing with some of the best wineries in their respective regions. Our growers are making wines to drink rather than revere; they are not looking for complexity for the sake of it, rather for a kind of equilibrium and typicity. They are proud of their DOs, and their respected positions within those denominations. This local pride is the foundation for improvement and we should recall that, for all that the Romans introduced the vine to Galicia, the commercialisation of wine is in an embryonic phase; it needs to mature and put down roots, to mix my metaphors.
Notes & Queries
*Green harvesting appeals to the sadist and the masochist. Lop it off, man!
*Decomposing schists are a wonderful thing except when they ruin your shoes.
*Pulpo fiction is fact.
*In Espana, you are not empathetic. You are empanada.
*Never play water polo with a silverback gorilla
*That beer in Ribadavia was the best thing ever. In the universe.
*Why does Ourense have so many bridges? What’s there to cross over to?
*Is the definition of intercourse in Ourense a greasy padron pepper between two bits of deep-fried seafood?
*Would you like wine with that sulphur?
*TT as the Father Jack of our party – Drink! Girls!
*Pigs’ ears – cockney rhyming slang for beers, (or Britneys) or inedible lumps of gristle.
*That off white liquid from the barrel. Cider? Natural wine? Or cider?
*Never play “name that tune” with Amy M or Andy B.
*No matter how much you have eaten the day before there’s nothing like a wafer-thin slice of chorizo, lomo, ham to cleanse the palate.
*TT enjoys zig-zagging bus journeys or churnies as he calls them
*Jeremy Clarkson would argue for a higher speed limit on the Sil
*There is no such thing as a gentle slope in Ribeira Sacra
*Would you like some salad with your vinegar, Mr Wregg?
*70% proof Aguardiente is proof positive that you can kill a cold by killing its host
*Never walk in a vineyard with a wine grower. The language may become industrial if they spot something they don’t like.
*What was that kebabby thing on the oversize toothpick and how do you eat it?
*Were the smashed potatoes really intended to be smeared on the plate as a smiley face and were the noisettes of pork big brooding eyes? Or had my cold remedy kicked in with a vengeance?
*A witch, A what, whichever, whatever. I don’t know I wasn’t there.
*Was the woman who hurled abuse and eggs at our heroes simply trying to forcibly give them the ingredients to make a good tortilla?
*What was that breakfast of champions? A slice of toast, a dodgy sweet roll in a packet, served with a grim look of resentment. Thank goodness for the light relief of throwing the white puck into the toad’s mouth (no, the cold remedy had ceased to work)
*Percebes aka blistering goose barnacles – they’re out of this world and they look like little aliens and they squirt juice at you whichever way you hold the blighters.
*Those langoustines were enormous but were three meant to feed twenty-odd people?
*Is Madame Sliwa an international terrorist?
Ciao! Professore di Lupo measuring the diameter of a piece of bread
The bounty of the sea – perky percebes
Giving the barnacle finger
A ram-a-clam-a-ding-dong (with lemon)
Did you know that you have no muscles in your fingers, but you can have mussels in your fingers?
To Ms Woodfine you are only a number!