Galicia always comes as a surprise to first-time visitors accustomed to Spain’s hotter, drier southern areas. It contains the smallest of Spain’s several areas of production; traditions here are Celtic and Christian with little Moorish influence. The cooler climate – with plenty of rain – has naturally encouraged the proliferation of white varieties in recent years, although locals still champion their tart reds which are definitely an acquired taste.
The white wines of Galicia, on the other hand, are justly now revered for their exceptional freshness, delicacy, aromatics, and depth of flavor. The most famous of these wines is undoubtedly Albariño from the Rias Baixas coastal region of western Galicia. But, other regions have also found fame in recent years, and one area, in particular, is currently the flavor of the month for its extremely fine, long-lived whites – Welcome to Valdeorras!
"Valley of Gold"
Today, the Valdeorras region is steadily earning a reputation as one of the most exciting places to search for quality white wine in Spain. It is located inland, approximately 90 miles from the coast on the banks of the River Sil in south-eastern Galicia. The name translates into “Valley of Gold” and according to historians; this corner of the Ourense province may well have been where the first grapes were planted in Galicia by the Romans. However, wine production here remained a largely anonymous activity, until recently. This damp, green corner of Spain was traditionally very poor and virtually ignored by the rest of the country throughout the centuries. This, and the region’s physical isolation meant that it was not until the late 90s that the stupendous wines of Valdeorras found any market outside of Galicia and Spain – the area was awarded a D.O in 1977.
After phylloxera struck Galicia in the 19th century, the Palomino and Alicante Bouschet grapes were planted following the vineyard devastation, producing fresh, light but un-remarkable wines. Thankfully, in the 1970s local growers began experimenting with the almost forgotten native Godello variety, on which the region’s fame is now largely based. Although red wines are also produced here – from the remaining plantings of Alicante Bouschet and Grenache – modern production of white wines from Godello generate the real interest in the outside world. The volumes released, however, are minuscule and most growers make only a few hundred cases of wine a year from a few hectares of vines. There are currently about 1,400 hectares under vine, tended to by 43 different producers.
Like the wines, the landscape and terroir of Valdeorras are exceptional: vineyards line the slopes along the banks of the river Sil, on well-drained, alluvial soils. The beautiful expanse of the region is unlike any other in Spain, lush green pastures are punctuated by gently rolling hills, although this comes at the price of extremely high average rainfall! The climate is typical of northern Spain: Atlantic influenced, moderated by the Sil valley micro-climate. Crucially, this valley region typically enjoys higher average temperatures and less rain during the relatively short Galician summer, ensuring that Godello is usually fully ripened by the harvest.
The resulting wine is stunning. Expect a complex, age-worthy white unlike nothing else in north-eastern Spain. Indeed, unlike the equally popular Albariño, which should generally be consumed soon after release, Godello’s Chardonnay like structure means that it responds well to barrel aging and short-term cellaring. At its best, the grape offers powerful spicy and green fruit aromas, soft tropical fruit and keen acidity. So in other words, an ideal wine to pair with the abundance of shellfish, fresh water and Atlantic fish that forms the standard Galician diet!
Critical attention and praise from notaries such as Jancis Robinson over the last few years have ensured that these wines have found a very willing clientele in discerning white drinkers across the world. In fact, growers can scarcely keep up with global demand and each year the number of hectares under vine increases. Of course, Valdeorras is not exclusively committed to Godello, although its commercial success as a region does reside with the variety. Small amounts of Palomino – the Sherry grape – remain, in addition to Spanish curiosities Valenciana and Lado. You are unlikely to see these fresh, grapey wines outside of Spain. The reds are equally as obscure; a smattering of local Mencia, Gran Negro and Grenache is planted, the best wines being produced from older Grenache plantations. But Spanish and international consumers and critics will continue to wax lyrical about the Godellos of Valdesil and Louro do Bolo, arguably some of the finest whites available in Spain today.