Wine Culture Connection
Rescue in Ribeira Sacra
One of the most outward legacies of Roman winemaking tradition in the Ribeira Sacra appellation is the steep terraces, called bancales, cut out of high stone riverbanks.
Estrela is one of a few handfuls of wineries to maintain and restore abandoned terraced plots. Along with the painstaking hard work of restoring the stonework and rescuing old vines they have also revived other traditions like the use of tojo scrub brush for ground cover.
Almost all of the everyday work of maintaining Estrela's vineyards must be done by hand. Along with the usual vine maladies, other hazards to the bancales are chiefly erosion and encroaching vegetation, but also fire, typically from lightning.
The Romans began carving out terraces in the region nearly 2000 years ago, and later in the 11th and 12th centuries the Cistercian monks established monasteries and developed viticulture in the area and across Europe during the Middle Ages—most famously in Burgundy's Grand Cru vineyards.
The name Ribeira Sacra—meaning Sacred Riverbanks— stems from the time of the monasteries and is the premiere red wine appellation in Galicia today. It is in isolated, mountainous terrain inland from the Atlantic coast and borders along the Sil River in the east, to where the Sil meets the Miño in the west; and is split into five sub-zones. It is also one of Spain's most exciting emerging wine regions.
Another of the old ways in practice at Estrela is the use of the local scrub bush called tojo that grows scattered all around the hillsides of the area. About every six years José Maria and now Carlos cut tojo and—for those plots that need it—they lay a new matting of tojo over the terrace floors to help retain humidity in the soil and also replace nutrients the soil has lost.
This is another example of how a viticultural practice developed over centuries to a specific place has found new life in lieu of the "miracles" of modern chemical fertilizers, irrigation and the like. While such modern tools have a great capacity for creating higher yields, increasing production or simply making things easier, in the end they don't suit Estrela's vision of reflecting the unique character of Amandi wine—both the terroir of its slopes and the traditions of its people.
Here the viticulture and Estrela wine are bound in tradition. Here "tradition" is not a romantic nod to old ways long eclipsed by industrial agriculture. Here tradition is long hours of hard work by a father and son, tending the land of their ancestors to make a humble, yet noble product, wine.
Here Carlos's mother, Dorinda Diaz, makes their hearty Gallego bread, and their savory chorizo and cured meats. Here they grow their own potatoes, and dig them up from a garden down the road. It is perhaps a simpler way than most of us modern city dwellers experience, with it's own kind of richness in the flavors and savor of life as it has been for generations. But it is not an easy way either.
Carlos's father, José Maria Diaz, now in his 80s, had feared the family vineyards and traditions were nearing their end when he could no longer manage the vineyards alone. However, Carlos could not let this happen, although he has his own family and a more citified job as a full-time teacher in a small city not too far away.
The plots are located at varying altitudes and orientations, stretching from the town of Amandi to Doade. While the pint-sized winery itself is comprised of just a few stainless steel tanks and a mini bottling and labeling machine in the basement of the family house in the tiny village of Vilachá de Doade.
The vines range from 80 to 100 years old and many of the steep stone terraces, called bancales, are more than 500 years old. Vine cultivation along the Sil dates back to Roman times. Together the plots make up 1.6 hectares of vineyards of 98% Mencía and 2% Garnacha vines. The Garnacha adds acidity to the blend, and is another of the old ways of naturally maintaining balance without the interventionist practice of adding tartaric acid, which is often poorly integrated and can add an artificial character to the wine.
While common sense would indicate that humidity would be a significant problem along the riverbank, but rather heat at the lowest parts of the slopes closest to the river (with temperatures reaching as high as 113° F) becomes a big factor in terms of ripeness. The result is that the lower parts of the slope are harvested earlier with a riper character to the grapes. The vines are trained in trellis to help with better aeration and to avoid the skins of the grapes being burned by the sun and adding cooked flavors into the wine.
The wines are naturally made, in part out of necessity. The vineyard slopes can be more than a 70% grade in sections so that almost all of the vineyard work is done by hand, and sometimes with the help of donkeys—especially at harvest. No chemical treatments are used except for caldo bordeles applications after flowering.
The winemaking style is traditional and as non-interventionist as possible. Pure, rich fruit and well-balanced acidity that reflects the land is their goal. Considering the quality and age of their vines they could make a super concentrated modern style luxury cuvée (at even more minuscule quantities), but that is simply not part of the equation at Estrela.
Simply put, Estrela is a labor of love and tradition from a family's own hands and their own hearts.
Estrela 2011, Ribeira Sacra - Amandi DO Red
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