Obscure brilliance is equal parts sad and beautiful, like being the sole witness to a vivid shooting star through a dark night sky. You look around in the hope someone else saw it, too. But alas, it’s reduced to a tepid anecdote politely endured by your listener. When you taste a high-quality godello or mencía wine from Galicia in Spain’s north-west, you look around in the hope someone else is tasting it, too.
The Galicia region sprawls across Spain’s north-western corner, abutting the all-important and influential Atlantic Ocean on the north and east. It’s a unique landscape, with lush green valleys, rolling hills and winding rivers – all of which play a part in the production of wines that are the antithesis of Spain’s vinous stereotype. The damp climate morphs from maritime to continental as you travel inland from the western coast with the altitude raising dramatically around two main rivers – the Miño and the Sil. It’s along these vital rivers that most of the prominent appellations reside, and with the country’s highest rainfall of 1,000-2,000mm per annum, it’s no surprise Galicia makes up a good amount of the area affectionately known as ‘Green Spain’.
At their apex, Galician wines are pure, fine-boned, mineral and complex, often catching wine buffs by surprise as they taste with preconception. Galicia sits outside of the long-lived (though changing) narrative so common to the Iberian Peninsula – the blanketing new American oak, overripe fruit and over-extracted wines. It pains me a little to walk the well-worn path of Burgundian comparison, but it’s simply too apt. And yet, the wine exists in seeming absentia from so many of the great wine lists and retail shelves the world over.
The Romans introduced vines to the region some 2,000 years ago and believed they’d discovered the end of the known world. Modern-day Galicia is a hybrid of Celtic and Roman influences, with its own customs, culture, cuisine and language. However, its journey to now was a perilous one. The mid-20th-century industrial revolution didn’t bode well for the region’s uncompromising mountainous terrain, putting it in the too-hard basket and causing an exodus to jobs elsewhere. The same applied for grape-growing, with many not up to the task of planting and managing vines so high and isolated. Now, with Galicia’s resurgence comes a dichotomy of young, designated regions and vine material, alongside ancient vines and practices.
Galicia has five official Denominaciones de origen (DOs), or six depending on your stance, but more on that later. They are Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro, Valdeorras, Monterrei and Rías Baixas. The latter is the most well-known on account of its high-acid, fruity and saline albariño wines, and there is a range of indigenous grape varieties spanning the broader region. However, here we focus on two unheralded varieties – arguably Spain’s answer to chardonnay and pinot noir, godello and mencía.
Godello is a white grape variety that came within a whisper of extinction in the mid 20th century, with vines pulled to make space for higher yielding varieties. It was salvaged in the 1970s when researchers began planting and studying the variety, resulting in a revival in the 1980s and a steady trajectory to the modern day.
The wines can range from fresh, linear and fruity to deep, full-bodied and age-worthy. Some common characteristics are green apples, lemon zest, quince and white florals, with a richness balanced by mineral cut in the best examples. They most resemble chardonnay due the structure, the scope of style, and the malleability to the winemaker’s hand. The wines are often matured in oak, and bâtonnage is common to build further texture and interest, with this often being referenced on the label as ‘Sobre Lias’.
The mountainous Valdeorras DO in the east is home to the most revered godello iterations, its steep, terraced vineyards planted on slate soils making for complex and mineral wines. It’s believed to have been the first grape-growing and wine-producing region in Galicia and it’s one of Spain’s oldest DOs having been granted the classification in 1945. Valdeorras is the source of 90% of the world’s slate, though the name means ‘Valley of Gold’ due to the ancient Romans having mined the area for gold before planting vines.
Valdesil is a producer of note here, with the Prada-Gayoso family having planted the oldest godello vineyard in the world – Pedrouzos. This historical, south-facing site was planted pre-phylloxera in 1885 into pure slate at around 500m above sea level and was the genesis for many others, with massale selection cuttings used to propagate godello vineyards throughout Galicia. Now under the stewardship of Borja and Raul Prada Luengo, Valdesil farms biodynamically, with thick cover crops, no tilling, wild yeast ferments and minimal sulphur additions. This labour-intensive approach results in old vine godello wines of depth, verve and character.
Rafael Palacios is a godello specialist perched high in the Valdeorras mountains on the border of the Ribeira Sacra DO. Here, the soils are dominated by granite. It’s a beautiful though brutal topography, difficult to reach and difficult to farm, but Palacios’ commitment and passion prevail. Such is his belief in the grape, that he’s never produced a red wine – this from a man who relocated from Rioja, where his family estate’s history is long and rich.
Speaking of red wine, mencía produces medium-bodied wines often with notes of white pepper, sour cherry, dried herbs, mulberry and liquorice. The wines can range from bright and playful to deep and complex, though nearly always hold a fine tannin structure. It’s a relatively thick-skinned grape with low to medium acidity, although the resultant wines can show high fresh acidity due to the strong environmental influence.
Australian importer and Spanish wine expert Scott Wasley says it best: “Altitude, low yield, cold-mineral soils, vine age and careful handling of fruit tannin can all be very successful collaborative mitigators of the variety’s low-acid nature and conspire to present the wine in a deceptively acid-fresh guise.”
Just west of Valdeorras is the Ribeira Sacra DO. There’s a touch more Atlantic influence here, and you could be forgiven for mistaking a photo of this picturesque region for the Mosel in Germany. Steep, terraced sites plunge down to the River Sil, which snakes along before merging with the River Miño to flow out to the Atlantic. It’s so steep that viticulture here is heroic. With countless steps from ridge top to valley floor, and pulley systems in place for transporting fruit (a task near impossible by hand), it’s not for the faint of heart.
Based in the prized Amandi subregion, Guimaro is a quality terroir expressive Ribeira Sacra producer run by Pedro Rodriguez. The name translates to ‘rebel’ after Pedro’s grandfather, as the Rodriguez family were a driving force in the creation of the Ribeira Sacra DO, joining at the time of creation in 1991. Rodriguez himself might be young, but at Guimaro, everything is carried out old school: wild yeast fermentation, foot treading in open-top vessels, raspón (stems) inclusion, working with low sulphur and ageing in old wood.
Envinate is a modern and hugely coveted producer of the region. It’s the brainchild of four winemakers who met while studying oenology in 2005 and quickly realised a shared philosophy. A mere three years later, Roberto Santana, Jose Martinez, Laura Ramos and Alfonso Torrente purchased their first vineyard in Ribeira Sacra and have played a major role in elevating the region’s profile.
It’s a project propelled by place and personality more than history. There’s no generational romance – just four passionate wine people committed to capturing their Atlantic vineyard in a bottle.
The elephant in the room for any Galician wine lover is the Bierzo DO. Sitting just east of Valdeorras, this is godello and mencía country with a continental climate. It’s where the River Sil begins its journey west, and the high-altitude sites see less Atlantic influence.
The godello and mencía from Bierzo are richer, rounder and more powerful in style comparative to the leaner, more lithe and bright examples further west where the Atlantic begins to assert its influence. The bone of contention lies in Bierzo technically sitting outside of the defined Galicia zone and instead residing in Castilla y León. Interestingly, there is no godello or mencía east of Bierzo as the climate is too warm for these grape varieties. Bierzo’s Castilan descent is much to the dismay of many importers who take licence in including Bierzo as the ‘6th DO’ within Galicia.
There’s much to explore and much to love about Galician godello and mencía. So, next time you’re on the hunt for something new, keep an eye on the dark night sky.
2019 Valdesil Godello Sobre Lias, A$58
A melding of salty minerals and fresh mandarin juice, followed by lemon zest, lemon sorbet, green apple and mandarin pith. Air and temperature bring out thyme, sage, oyster shell and subtle under-ripe peach. The lees work is evident in the texture but balanced by piercing fruit purity before a citrus acid line pulls to a long close. ( bibendum.com.au)
2017 Algueira Brandan, A$50
Opens with green apple, slatey minerals, mandarin rind, hay and mango skin. The palate is full bodied with a mouthfilling texture around green apple, lemon, quince, unripe peach and green almond, all kept fresh via stony minerals and gentle phenolics. There’s a wash of acid pulling the fruit long to a powdery and green almond tinged close. ( bibendum.com.au)
2019 Rafael Palacios Louro, A$43
Aromas of quince, fennel, ginger, nettle, meyer lemon and finger lime. The palate is fresh and vibrant with a fine balance of weight and tension. Quince, subtle honey, ginger and lemon zest are framed by sprightly phenolics. ( alimentaria.com.au)
2019 Gaba do Xil Branco, A$45
Lemon, green apple, pear, fennel and cumquat make way for yellow orchid fruits, subtle pineapple and a salty edge. Ripe mandarin, nectarine and nettle on the palate with a brisk acid line. ( thespanishacquisition.com)
2019 Envinate Lousas Vinas de Aldea, A$45
Opens with white pepper, menthol, wild strawberry, red liquorice, dried thyme and subtle cranberry. The palate is lithe and light- to medium-bodied, showing cherry, fresh red florals, redcurrant and cracked pepper. Fine, graphite, grainy tannins and fervent acidity. ( alimentaria.com.au)
2019 A Ponte Guímaro, A$95
Open knit aromas of spiced plum, dark cherry, smoky bacon, roasted tomato, salted meat. A salty and savoury profile. The palate is medium bodied and intense, with spiced plum, dark cherry and smoky bacon carried by fine tannins, and a latent lick red fruited acidity. ( thespanishacquisition.com)
2016 Algueira Carravel, A$96
Aromas of cedar, wood smoke, dark cherry, blackcurrant and black plum, then black pepper, clove, liquorice root, sage and roast tomato umami. The palate shows immediate fruit tannin bringing lovely tension around blackcurrant, pepper, liquorice root and dark cherry. ( bibendum.com.au)
2019 Fedellos do Couto Cortezada, A$43
Translucent ruby colour. Bright maraschino cherry, cherry scented minerals, persimmon, red florals and savoury thyme. A swirl of the glass brings out graphite and subtle bay leaf. This is pretty, pure and mineral with a slippery and buoyant texture. ( alimentaria.com.au)