Sometimes, the first thing I want to write about is the flavour of a wine, sometimes it’s the personality of the winemaker, but when it comes to Ribeira Sacra in Galicia, northwest Spain, there’s only one thing to talk about first: the vineyards. After an extraordinary trip there, I can safely say that it is the most breath-taking wine region I have ever visited or am ever likely to visit. Imagine the terraced vineyards of the Douro in Portugal, but fold the two sides of the valley up by another 30 degrees and that goes some way to describing this dramatic and magical place. Over hundreds of years, slate terraces have been built to allow agriculture to sustain here and everything still has to be done by hand, because machinery can’t get anywhere close. The terraces are so steep that the only way to bring the fruit up to the collection point is by a hoist that pulls the laden buckets up on rail tracks resembling something from the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s hard, labour-intensive work, to which the lactic acid build-up in my thighs can attest, having climbed only a fraction of the way up!
The soil here is brutal, made up of large slabs of broken slate (‘Lousas’ means broken slate), so the roots have to show great tenacity if they are to find water and minerals. No wonder people refer to it as ‘heroic viticulture’. Winemaking isn’t new to the area, the Romans were here over 2,000 years ago, but inaccessibility and the lack of modernisation (electricity only arrived in the 1970s) meant that the region languished, until the world rediscovered its extraordinary natural resources. Grapes. Incredible grapes attached to incredible old vines. Given the amount of work involved at every stage of this wine’s production, I’m actually quite surprised that it isn’t more expensive.
The buzz about the Ribeira Sacra region is only going to get louder when people taste wines like this. The region seems to be spearheading a new direction in Spanish wine towards lighter, fresher, silkier reds with lower alcohol and an appetising dryness that makes them so versatile with food, showing more of an affinity with the textural fragility of Pinot Noir, for example, than the ‘oak soups’ that you often find in modern Rioja or the Ribera del Duero. This is a fantastic introduction to Spain’s new bearing, which is really gathering pace in the ‘Atlantic’ appellations around Galicia, and I can't recommend it highly enough. The Lousas ‘Vinas de Aldea’ 2014 is Envinate's equivalent of a ‘village’ wine, in the Burgundian sense, sourced from 12 different parcels in various sub-regions of the Ribeira Sacra ranging from 15 to 60 years of age and located between 400 and 600 metres altitude on varied soils of slate and granite depending on the location (NB On my visit, I was lucky enough to taste all 12 components of the 2015 vintage, which are still in barrel, and, in a year’s time, you will certainly be hearing from me again!).
Anyway, back to the 2017 vintage, which is predominantly made from Mencia, with a few local varieties thrown in for good measure (Brancellao, Merenzao, Mouraton, Bastardo, Garnacha Tintorera), and the grapes were foot-trodden and fermented with whole-clusters (i.e. with the stems) in small open vats. It’s oh so fine and elegant and beautifully tailored to fit its shape. The aromas are pure and wild, suggestive of shiny cherry skins, fraises des bois, crushed rubies and purple flowers, while the flavours glide across the palate, evoking dark cherry, juicy red grapes, blood orange, a hint of white pepper (typical of Mencia) and a suggestion of cool minerals. It tastes best if you drink it slightly below room temperature. It’s an utterly beguiling Spanish red and you shouldn’t hesitate in snapping some up while stocks last, which they won't, because the total production is just 1,000 cases. 12.5% alc. Drink now-2023.
Envinate (stress on the second syllable if you please) translates as ‘wine yourself!’ and is the brainchild of Laura Ramos, Jose Martinez, Roberto Santana and Alfonso Torrente, who all met while studying oenology at the University of Alicante. Their work centres on exploring the ancient, Atlantic-influenced terroirs of Ribeira Sacra, Tenerife, Extremadura and Almansa. Their philosophy is simple: let each parcel fully express itself through old-fashioned farming and wine-making methods including foot-treading the grapes, whole bunch fermentation and bottling straight from the barrel! Right now there are four different projects under the Envínate umbrella: Lousas by Alfonso Torrente in Ribeira Sacra, Taganan by Roberto Santana in Tenerife, T. Amarela in Extremadura and Albahra in Almansa both by Laura Ramos and José Martinez.