Breathing mountain air facilitates resounding rest, and shortly after an early rise and a quick cortadito, El Capitan and I were met by a two car entourage of winemakers, led by Raul Perez, winemaker of El Pecado and Leirana, and joined by Pedro Rodriguez, who produces Guimaro. Also present, Luis, an enologist, and Rodrigo, a winemaker in Rias Baixas.
The ride to the vineyard was even more treacherous than the day before, the highlight being a stop near a 2,000 year old Roman iter near the Bibei river. Conditions were muggier too, and for some reason communication proved difficult. It was hard to translate, as too much information was being rattled off at an alarming rate of speed. Winemakers can be passionate, so much so that they want you to know everything about their wines. But we were looking for a sense of history and place, and so much got lost in translation because they had a different agenda. Our questions were never answered directly, but this may have been just the Galician way.
Through the quagmire, however, we did corroborate much of what we had learned on day one. Winemaking had been a family occupation since Roman times. Each family had different parcels and made wine for themselves, any leftover to be sold in bulk. Cultivation was difficult to terrain, and so terraces were built for safety. Much of the winemaking process was done on site in sheds, small hillside structures for sorting and pressing. Much of the wine was sold to people of Lugo across the mountain ranges. After World War II, young people started to leave the agrarian lifestyle for big cities and job opportunities, leaving the arduous work to the elders. This trend continued until the 1990’s, when some of the youth decided to return to become farmers again, disillusioned with a capitalist and urban lifestyle. Although the quality of the wine is controlled by the DO, certain producers are resisting the homogenous style in favor of making very uniquely terroir driven godello and mencia. These wines have a potential for fine aging and hark back to the tradition of making wine for oneself.
It was a long day of tasting and information, much of it technical and academic. By lunchtime things were smoothed over by an invitation for a family meal at Pedro’s mom’s house. The structure, a typical display of Galician stone masonry and wooden beams, sported a long layout of warm rooms fit for mountain lodging. The most interesting being the kitchen, with a natural rainfall runoff sink and wood burning oven that his 90 plus year old grandmother insists on using. Feeding the flames with vines is integral to the flavor. As we sat down for a typical Galician feast, 27 bottles were being uncorked and prepared for tasting, a dizzying number that I was sure would be blurred by bottle number 12. The most interesting bottle may have been the first one, a thirty year old albarino from a female friend of the family producer in Rias Baixas without a label, a lime green bottle that delivered absolute pleasure and wonder of the grape varietal.
The food onslaught was intense, and intended for us to cry mercy. I was up to the task but finally conceded by dessert. A plate of Rias Baixas oysters to start, followed by an alluring plate of warm goose barnacles, a task which lets you suck out the marrow of life. It took a few squirting mishaps for El Cap and I to get the hang of these curious delicacies, even though I have had them before. “Break the claw open and suck the life out of the shell,” Luis suggested. The enologist was the talker of the group, a former basketball player who clearly loved food and wine, but was strangely observing a diet and always talking, or complaining, which we soon learned was the Galician way.
Walk into an empty Galician restaurant without reservation or warning, and the owner may look at you gloomily. Moreover, he will err on the side of negativity, rattling off some inane excuses about being fully booked, and how you should have called. What if I get overbooked? Even though there is barely a soul in sight. Then with a gleeful sigh, he will act is if he bent over backwards to seat you, and give you some time limit restriction or nudge as to what he wants you to order. Lest you somehow figure out a way to screw him. And that is how it appeared with the winemakers, that somehow we were there to screw them, or that we were going to report about their wines in a way that would be screwy, if you get my drift.
So the enologist was regaling us about how he went to the doctor for a rectal exam, and how he wouldn’t let them do it. I damn near fell off the table translating the whole fiasco. It turns out he is on a restrictive diet (four helpings instead of six-welcome to my world), and they’ve rescheduled. Perfect dinner convo! Every other turn of discussion had him surely taking it up the backside, and his symbol for his virginity being taken looked like a perverted version of Tiger Woods’ fist pump after a made birdie. Whether it was town politics, or the DO, or the weather, somehow Luis was getting it, and he was going to take it, but not quietly.
At one point, after sitting next to him so attentively (grandma lost her hearing and was able to sit in the background, blissfully unaffected), Pedro’s mother tried to get a word in edgewise. “But will you let me speak,” he erupted. At which point I rose from my feeding frenzy to retort, “But you have been the only one speaking for the last two hours.” That earned kudos and raucous laughter from his peers, and really loosened up the festivities.
An empanada with pork ribs (bone-in), hit the table. “Save the pastry for the dog,” Pedro’s mom advised. A plate of Galician choucoutre was next, minus the sauerkraut, but full of sausages and potatoes. Tortilla from house eggs, celtic pig ham, pig jowls, chorizo, a 15 month old rooster killed in our honor served in a stew, chick peas, and more lacon. Then a speed tasting of the twenty seven wines. It was too hard to keep up and take notes, so I just drank what I liked. I got the impression that this type of family meal occurs frequently, and that we were getting a glimpse of real Galician life. Eat, drink, argue and enjoy!
By the time dessert rolled around, a bica cake, flan, cookies and a coconut custard, we were four hours into the repast and busting at the seams, a second serving of cake was accompanied with a house made espresso liqueur which was irresistible. The highlight was a wheel of manchego cured in olive oil for one year. What a revelation! Out came the Cohibas, long ones, and turns by the window to enjoy fresh air. Talk turned to wine and Ribeira Sacra, and plans were made for a party later that evening, if we could survive the late siesta.
Weather was not on our side, and the party was moved indoors to a local pub in Monforte near the river. The only cure was a cold caña, and Rocio, the birthday woman of honor, was buying the drinks, as per Galician custom. We met so many fun people that night, and I switched to Havana Club and coke, my de facto European drink of choice.
It was under the drizzle that Pedro opened up, and communication was facile and interesting. The informal venue away from the wine was the right environment, and El Cap and I learned a lot. We met a German woman working as an architect and dating a Gallego. She claimed she could not get used to the large weekly feasts. I was of course jealous. We turned into pumpkins by one a.m. How entirely unSpanish of us.
We left Ribeira Sacra amidst lugubrious conditions, with a real sense of terroir and tradition, and an understanding that in Spain, under such Celtic climate and agrarian roots, lives a people who, cautious and pretending to look at life through a glass half empty, in actuality celebrating life to the fullest, a glass half full in my book.
The next leg of our journey was La Rioja, where the most familiar Spanish wine was crafted. Our excitement was palpable, a piece of us left in Galicia.