July 24, 2023
Karin Rockstad, Spanish translator, WSET Educator, SWS, FWS, IWS, Albariño Ambassador, Certified Advanced Cava Educator
Nearly everyone's heard of northwest Spain's Rías Baixas region and the zingy, salty white Albariño they make there. It IS wonderful, but I urge you to look inland to the DO Ribeira Sacra. Here, Godello and Mencía are the flagship white and red wines. On the map, look for the towns of Chantada and Monforte de Lemos; these are good bases from where to start your exploration. (Map credit: spanish-fiestas.com)
Ribeira Sacra is centered around the Miño and Sil rivers. These are spectacular valleys! The hills are so steep that in somes cases, you can't even stand upright.
In the photo above, look on the right-hand side and you can see the rails. The grapes are sent up the slope and empty trays slide back down. But just imagine that years ago people had walk up and down these steep hills with full baskets of grapes on their backs! This is true heroic viticulture.
To visit the area, I suggest doing it in two parts: the Miño River area, using Chantada as your base; and the Sil River area, using Parada de Sil or Castro Calderas as your base. These are medium-sized towns with plenty of hotels, etc., or depending on your winery research, you could just stay at one that has accommodation. You will definitely need a car, as getting around the region means twisty, winding, up-and-down roads. The drive itself is beautiful!
On the Miño River, check out the Vía Romana winery, just above the town of Belesar. The views are fantastic from around the property and from the tasting room. The staff is super friendly, and they have delicious, fresh Godellos and Mencías, a wonderful rosé, and some barrel-aged reds as well. The Spanish author Dolores Redondo based some of the winery scenes in her book, All This I Will Give to You (Todo esto te daré), on the Vía Romana winery and the people that work there. Another fun fact is that if you're familiar with the gin Nordés, it got its start here. The head of the winery, Juan Luis Méndez Rojo and two associates came up with the idea and the gin took off. It's based on Albariño grapes. The brand has been sold since then, but is now available in the US.
Another must-do is a boat ride on the Miño (the Sil too). It's relaxing and beautiful, of course, but you'll really appreciate the work that goes into working the steep vineyards from the perspective of the river.
If you stay in Castro Calderas to explore the Sil River area, you can also visit the castle that sits right above the town. From there it's not far to Ronsel do Sil, where they make 16 different wines, all from indigenous varieties. We tasted several and the Brancellao was my favorite red, the Godello my favorite white.
The winery is committed to sustainable viticulture and has tremendous respect for the region and its history. Just chatting with the people who work there, you can see their passion for this!
Above is caldo gallego, or simply Galician soup or broth. It's made with turnip greens, white beans, and potatoes. With thick, crusty Galician bread, it's comfort food any day of the year! This is one of my favorite dishes in all of Spain.
Even the cured beef above and the multitude of Galician cheeses have a place next to Godello.
Albariño has a lot of fame these days around the world, but I encourage you to seek out Godello. It's less acidic than its coastal counterpart, so if your palate is sensitive to acid, try this! And if you're a Pinot Noir drinker, try Mencía, it's delicate and juicy. But more than anything, get Ribeira Sacra on your radar as a destination vacation. You've got wine, food, and beautiful scenery. You don't need anything else!
Cheers! ¡Salud! ¡Saúde!