For the casual fan of Spanish wines, it has been all about the Rioja. There are plenty of reasons why the rich reds of the region in the northeast of the country have conquered the world with the same ruthless effectiveness as those 15th-century conquistadores. Look beyond the supermarket shelves though, and Spanish wine has a deeper, broader, and older history than the Tempranillo grape and endless vineyards of the La Rioja region.
As with any wine, climate and terrain are the key elements. Ribeira Sacra reds are produced in the dramatic hill country of northwest Spain, in the region of Galicia where the flatlands of Castille and Leon give way to scenic slopes, spectacular gorges, thick forests, and ancient vine terraces lining the deep-cut canyons.
An Ancient Roman Escape
Ancient is the operative word here, with many vineyards making use of the long-established Mencia grape, native to the region and to Portugal. It’s the same variety used by Roman occupiers more than two millennia ago. Until the 1990s, Mencia was mostly a local phenomenon, with small production of fruity, young wines for domestic consumption. Recent wine-making techniques have used the old vines to produce increasingly complex and valued reds, and Mencia is gaining international prestige.
The old vines can be viewed lining the steep banks that form the canyon of the River Sil, arguably one of Spain’s most scenic waterways. It’s a short drive east of the old Roman spa town of Ourense, but the winding road on the route high above the river doesn’t offer the best perspective. Cruises along the river allow a better view of the cultivation. Seasonal launches are available throughout the summer from jetties at Santo Estevo and Abeleda.
Road Trip Around Ribeira Sacra
The surrounding landscapes are remarkable, a combination of Galician and Mediterranean vegetation, with ancient chestnut and oak forests juxtaposed with cork and wild strawberry plantations.
Driving through this wild region can be a shock when you turn a corner and encounter an extensive and ornate medieval monastery. If the Romans were responsible for the original wine-making in the region, it was religion that kept the tradition alive, specifically the Benedictine monks from the monastic settlements that explain the second part of the Ribeira Sacra name.
The most imposing is the vast and elegant expanse of the Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, lurking above a bend in the river, a short but steep drive down from the main road. It is now known as a parador, specifically, Parador de Santo Estevo, one of Spain’s distinctive luxury hotels that have taken over some of the country’s most remarkable historical buildings. Even if the room rates are a little daunting in high season, it’s the perfect place to stop for a glass of the local red or a light lunch overlooking the Sil.
Monforte de Lemos
Monasteries aside, settlements are a little thin on the ground in this part of Galicia. East of Ourense, the major stopping point is Monforte de Lemos, reached by a rail line that offers a majestically pretty one-hour route from Ourense along the banks of the Sil and the Miño, with views over the wooded gorges.
Nestling within its medieval walls, Monforte has the air of a sleepy provincial town, belied by a very impressive old school, the Nosa Señora da Antiga, a former Jesuit college that has been called the Galician Escorial because of its architectural resemblance to the Madrid palace.
Otherwise, Monforte is an enjoyably intimate place to explore and try the local wine in one of the sedate restaurants. With so much of Galician cuisine dominated by seafood, it can be refreshing to enjoy some mountain dishes. Game and trout are popular in season, and nearly all Monforte menus begin with caldo gallego, the hearty and simple soup of potatoes and greens, enlivened with a little ham or sausage.
Visitors to the region who have room in their car and flight baggage might like to stop at the wine-producing bodegas, known as adegas in the Galician language, to sample the vintages and choose a case or two to take home.
Winetraveler Tip: Arrange a private guided wine tour of Ribeira Sacra with a local guide that leaves from Santiago de Compostela. Depending on the time of year, you may get to participate in the grape harvesting process and other unique local cultural experiences.
South of Monforte, the village of Sober has, for some reason, become a popular stop on the wine trail. Leaning on the village sign clutching a bottle of the local red offers the perfect picture opportunity to mark a trip to the Ribeira Sacra, a wine region reclaiming its place on the map.
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Europe travel ideas, wine regions in Spain: road trip ideas in Spain