The wine culture in Lugo and Ourense

By Ana Anllo Carreira


Datos do mapa © dos colaboradores do OpenStreetMap, CC BY-SA

Ribeira Sacra, a region which extends over both the Miño and Sil rivers, is located in the southern part of the province of Lugo and in the northern part of the province of Ourense. The capital is the town of Monforte de Lemos (Lugo). This is the Galician wine-making region par excellence, as much for its expanse as for its production of grapes. The cultivation of this fruit has been an economic and productive driving force for the region and, both directly and indirectly, has been helping the economy to grow since ancient Roman times right up to the present day.

The Ribeira Sacra denomination of origin, established in 1997, includes the geographical area indicated on the map on the right.

This denomination of origin is divided into five sub regions: Amandi, Chantada, Quiroga-Bibei, Ribeiras do Miño and Ribeiras do Sil. The Regulatory Council of the Ribeira Sacra has three core functions: to guarantee the origin of the product, to ensure its quality and to promote the locally produced wines.

Because of the rivers the region has its own microclimate which, along with the steep, south-facing slopes, favours the proper ripening which the grapes need in order to produce wines which even in Roman times were known as Sil liquid gold.

ImageThe aromatic wines of the Ribeira Sacra are the result of their location on the slopes and sunny hillsides of the Miño and Sil rivers and their tributaries the Cabe, the Lor and others, combined with a careful choice of the best varieties of grape. It is possible to identify some ninety-nine wineries with vineyards totalling 1,242 hectares, with a total production of 4,698,000 kg of grapes of which 4,461,532 are the Mencía grape variety and the rest are divided between varieties of red, such as Erenzao, Brancellao, Mouretón and Garnacha, and whites such as Palomino, Godello, Loureira, Treixadura, Dona Branca, Albariño and Torrentes. The grapes are processed by experts, who can create excellent wines full of personality from strains which are perfectly adapted to the rough terrain. As we have seen, the predominant grape in the Ribeira Sacra is the Mencía variety, a grape which has been cultivated since Roman times. With a tradition dating back more than 2,000 years, this grape is used to produce fruity, aromatic wines with an intense colour, which may become vintage wines.

ImageThe name “Ribeira Sacra" may have come down from the Middle Ages and it was thought that the name originally came from the Latin "Rivoyra Sacrata" and was linked to the large number of monasteries and temples to be found in the huge canyons and on the steep hillsides which characterise the region. Since the beginnings of Christianity this terrain has attracted monastic communities because such groups of people sought out settlements favouring the ascetic and hermetic lifestyle. So began a long history of monastic civilization along the banks of the Sil and Miño, a heritage which is still in evidence today; in fact there are currently eighteen monasteries which can be visited. Overall, the dolmens and Prehistoric tombs indicate early settlement, which then continues with important evidence of the Roman presence.

The first reference to these lands as Rivoyra Sacrata goes back to the year 1124; in a document signed in Allariz in August of that year, queen Tareixa of Portugal, the daughter of Alfonso VI, donates the territories to the monk Arnaldo and his companions, so that they can build a new monastery in the region called Rivoyra Sacrata; that monastery was the predecessor of the present day monastery of Santa María de Montederramo, one of the most important in Galicia.

The historian Manuel Vidán Torreira cast doubt on this source for the name in 1987, with the publication of a series of articles in the newspaper La Voz de Galicia and a work entitled El roble sagrado de la Rivoira Sacrata ("The Sacred Oak of the Rivoira Sacrata"). Vidán looks at the derivatives of "riboira/reboira/reboiro" and concludes that Rivoira would be closer to "Roble" (oak) than to "Ribera" (bank). This theory was to gain more credence thanks to another historian, Torquato de Souza Soares, who, when submitting the founding document to critical analysis and publishing it in facsimile, finds an error in the transcription by the friar Fray Antonio de Yepes and indicates that in the document the word "Rovoyra" can be clearly read, and not "Rivoira"; which distances it from "Ribera" and could mean "Robledal" (oak grove), from the Latin "Rubus". In his work Vidán is in synch with James Frazer’s La rama dorada ("The Golden Bough"), where Celtic traditions are gathered around the oak, a tree considered sacred and the guardian of the spirit of the tribe; in fact, oak forests were venerated sites. Vidán also refers to the place name of Montederramo as probably an allusion to the mistletoe collected by druids, to strengthen the view that the origin of this name is more likely to be "Robledal Sagrado" than the already established popular and tourist version "Ribeira Sacra".

ImageOf course, with regard to the economy of the region, not everything was connected with wine, and we can find economies based on other products, such as oil, chestnuts, honey and other agricultural crops, as well as on local livestock. As far as traditional crafts are concerned, one feature is the famous Niñodaguia pottery, ochre-coloured, which uses the rapid spinning of two pieces and an innovative process of glazing the ceramic. These ceramic forms range from decorative figures to items for domestic use such as cups, jugs, pots and pans, and clay pots known as “chocolateras” or “ataños” which are vessels used for the famous “queimada” (“fire-drink”). These ceramics are mainly produced in the municipalities of Xunqueira de Espadanedo and Esgos. Also worth mentioning is the pottery from Gundivós, the only black pottery, which is crafted using a low manual pottery wheel. The clay, which is from the same region, is worked by hand using overlapping strips. Traditional items are produced for use in kitchens, for traditional pork dishes (matanza) and in wineries (to store wine). The latter would be covered with pine resin to waterproof them, and this gives the wine a particular taste.

Besides ceramics, the handicraft heritage of the Ribeira Sacra draws on other related manifestations of the traditional way of life. Thus we find professions such as shoemakers-carpenters, basket-makers, weavers and knife-sharpeners (who still use "barallete", an argot unique to this group, in Esgos). Regarding the latter, it should be noted that in Luintra and Vilouriz there are two exhibitions, unique of their kind, of grinding wheels and various tools and appliances used in the profession.

ImageOther economic activities in the region result from gold mining, particularly in the locality of Montefurado, in the municipality of Quiroga, which is best known for the spectacular tunnel excavated by the Romans in Pena do Corvo in order to mine the gold at Sil. Nonetheless, from an historical point of view, equally important are the small mines and the network of galleries that they left in the region, where mining activities were carried out in antiquity.

In Montefurado it was necessary to divert the bed of the Sil river over a three kilometres section in order to target the significant gold alluviums in the area. Those deposits were channelled and completely cleaned by means of a complex system of canals and underground galleries into which large quantities of water were directed to erode and break down the alluviums holding the gold. Even today one can see some of these galleries in certain mined areas, or even inside dwellings where they are now used like wine cellars, to store wine.

Without doubt the most impressive aspect of the former mining apparatus in Montefurado is the famous tunnel drilled into the rock to divert the course of the Sil and take advantage of the alluviums. It is 75 metres long, 19 wide and 17 high. It is thought that the work was carried out in the second century, during the reign of the emperor Trajan. The Romans were encamped in a village called Sesmil, whose name comes from the Roman legion, given that “Seismil” was a band of warriors.

Following the river Sil we come to the locality of Quiroga, where the bioclimatic peculiarities permit olive tree cultivation, a practice which had more or less disappeared in recent decades but which is now trying to recover, both through production from old olive groves and by the creation of new plantations in the localities of Montefurado, Bendollo and Bendilló. The preparation of olive oil is still done in the traditional way.

With regard to its historical roots Quiroga is characterised by two distinct elements: the presence of the Romans from the end of the second century AD until the early part of the fifth century and, in particular, the presence of the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Malta, who dominated this region both spiritually and temporally from the end of the eighth century until well into the nineteenth century.

ImageThe presence of man in this municipality can be found dating back to Prehistoric times; in this respect it is worth noting the cave-dwelling inhabitants that were discovered some years ago in the parish of Pacios da Serra, in the well known “Cova do Oso” valley. Much more numerous and frequent are the settlements of the Castro culture. Although it is not easy to affirm the presence of Celtic peoples in those settlements, neither does their subsequent Romanisation seem strong given that most of them can be linked to the defence of routes used for the transportation of gold and other types of minerals emerging from the river basins of the Sil, Lor, Soldón and Selmo, and also Quiroga.

Following the course of the Sil river we come across numerous monasteries which are benchmark examples of the Galician Romanesque, highlighting the Benedictine monasteries of Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, Santa María de Montederramo, San Pedro de Rocas in Esgos, Xunqueira de Espadanedo and, of course, Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, a large monastery located where the Miño and Sil rivers converge and which dates back to the sixth and seventh centuries, where the Romanesque and Baroque styles alternate.

Highlights are the three cloisters (Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance) of the building which has been given Historic-Artistic Heritage status and which today is part of the National Paradors network.

In the centre of the Ribeira Sacra, on the banks of the river Cabe, we have the town of Monforte which was linked to the Celtic tribe of Lemavos, a word from which is derived the present name of Lemos which had its capital city on the so called Castro Dactonium, where today we can find the tower of the castle in Lemos which was destroyed in an Arab raid along with the monasteries of Atán and Santa María de Amandi. In the 12th century the Count of Galicia, García de Borgoña, and Queen Doña Urraca grant to Froila Díaz, from the House of Lemos, the re-founding of the town at the feet of the Dactonium and the town charter is approved to make the town prosper and the centre of a large agricultural and livestock market. Around San Vicente a thriving medieval town develops, which will receive privileges from various Galician kings, such as Fernando II. It will experience turbulent times such as the "Irmandiños" wars, it will welcome an important Jewish population, and will be the home of one of the most powerful noble families in Galicia.

In the upper course of the Miño river, and forming part of the Ribeira Sacra, the localities of Paradela and Portomarín are noteworthy, forming part of the French Way to Santiago de Compostela; similarly, Taboada and Chantada, where the wine industry is a part of the economy of the region, both in the production of wines and aguardientes, as is shown in the many fairs and festivals which revolve around its winemaking culture.

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