Standing on one of the vertigo-inducing narrow terraces that have been painstakingly carved into the hillsides of the Ribeira Sacra, hundreds of metres above the River Sil in the gorge below, gives you a tiny glimpse into what it takes to produce a bottle of wine in this mountainous region. These terraces are responsible for some of Spain’s most distinctive wines, and they all have to be worked by hand. Some mountain goats would think twice about clambering around these hillsides.
The extraordinary gorge, carved over millennia by the River Sil, creates microclimates that combine with slate and granite soils to provide perfect growing conditions on the terraces for the region’s grape varieties. The vertiginous slopes of the Sil Valley mean that mechanisation is virtually impossible. Planting, tending and harvesting these vines is backbreaking physical work. So inaccessible are some plots of land, that it’s easier to use boats on the river to collect the harvested grapes.
The vineyards have played a critical role in shaping the landscape here for over 2,000 years, ever since the Roman’s arrived in search of gold and added the Ribeira Sacra to their possessions in 29 BC. The largest gold mine in the Roman Empire was discovered nearby at Las Médulas. The ridiculous terraces of the Ribeira Sacra were constructed (by slaves) to provide wine for settlers, and the many Roman legions who kept the gold safe.
We were headed to the village of Doade, where we’d have the opportunity to try first hand the end product of over 2,000 years of viticulture. The Adega Algueira vineyard sits down a dirt track and we’d booked a wine tasting followed by lunch at their lovely restaurant. First, we had to get there. The bodega sits on the opposite side of the River Sil and there’s only one road bridge. As we drove on winding lanes we had spectacular views across the valley.
It’s a breathtaking landscape that forces frequent photo stops and detours to viewing points. We were so lost in its glories that we were almost late for the tasting – that would have been a mistake. We had an enlightening trip through the facilities before the sommelier, Fabio, talked us through the tasting. There is no doubt that these are wines made not only by hard work on the terraces, but also with love and skill in the bodega.
These vineyards have been reborn in the last thirty or forty years, but the whole wine industry in this region has risen phoenix-like on more than one occasion. The Dark Ages, the decline that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, saw the vineyards fall into disuse. They were revitalised by the arrival of monastic orders between the 9th and 12th centuries – there are eighteen monasteries in the area.
The vineyards flourished until vine disease and the Spanish Civil War devastated the area’s economy. That’s how things remained until a few daring souls decided to revive the terraces and reinvent the legendary wines of the Ribeira Sacra four decades ago. It has not been easy work, plots of land had to be cleared and the terraces rebuilt, new vines planted and nurtured, and years passed without a single bottle of wine.
Perseverance seems to be the byword of a region that has bounced back from social, political and economic disaster over the centuries. The region isn’t as accessible as many others, and most people bypass it en route to Santiago de Compostela on one of the pilgrim trails. That relative isolation surely won’t last for much longer, especially when wine as good as this is on offer.