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Octopus, Alsatian and a Green River

Precipitous vineyards in Ribeira Sacra
I have just returned from a lightning-quick tour of Galicia. And what a fascinating part of the world it is. I had never before visited this bit of Spain: the uppermost corner of Iberia's Atlantic margin, separated from the rest of its motherland by mountains, its people speaking its own distinct dialect named Galego.

We flew into Santiago de Compostella and high-tailed it south forthwith. This was Tuesday early afternoon and before our flight home on Thursday at 14h25 we had to circumnavigate this entire region, tasting as we went.

First stop: Meaño and the Forjas del Salnes estate in Rias Baixas. Here we were to meet owner Rodrigo, but he was tied up with some visiting Swiss clients, thus we were given an extensive tour of the estate's vineyards, from recently-planted clearings in the ubiquitous eucalyptus forests high in the hills above town, to ancient plantings within a stone's throw of the sea.

When we finally started our tasting, the quality of this winery's production shone with a luminous intensity, their constant quest for greater knowledge evident in the liquids poured for us. The whites here are all from Albariño, but the separate parcels are separately and differently vinified, one with skin contact and from foot trodden fruit, another from a smaller barrel, this one from altitude, that from the seaside terroirs.

Then the reds, fermentations of Caiño (Borracal), Espadeiro and Loureiro (possibly Mencia). All were energetic and rather wonderful. I was getting into my stride.

We stayed that evening in O Grove on an extraordinary peninsula surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean lapped, at this time of year, by very Atlantic weather, cold and wet, but, I am told, a holiday destination of choice for well-heeled Spaniards in the summertime.

We ate royally, lobster and oysters and other dishes of seafood coming one-after-another, lubricated by a succession of superb wines including gran reserva riojas from the '74 and '64 (lobster so often being better accompanied by red wine).

The next day we drove south east to Ribeiro near the Portuguese border. We made a quick stop at a winery that produces but a single white wine from the Treixadura variety (a thing of perfectly adequate drinkability that wasn't writing any letters home), before setting off again for Ribeira Sacra.

This drive took in one of the most fabulous European roads along which I have ever journeyed. Up, up, up we went, winding through stunning mountains when suddenly appeared on our right vineyards precipitous enough to match anything in Ampuis, tumbling down to the green, sluggish waters of the River Sil.

This entire region was terraced by Roman vignerons and all the hills are striated by their work, much of it overgrown by the mixture of coniferous and broadleaf flora that drapes itself over the shoulders of these slopes.

Our next stop was at an estate named Carballal. We tasted in a freezing room through the window of which we could see a snow-dusted landscape and a town huddled around a large-ish lake. It was a vista that reminded me of Les Revenants - The Returned - that French series set in the Alps in which dead people come back to life. The cold in the large tasting room was certainly morgue-like, a tiny blow-heater serving only to warm my ankles when I stood immediately in front of it.

Good wines here. Good value wines, pure and expressive and giving absolutely lovely fruit. These are made from Godello and Palomino (whites) and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet if you prefer: an offspring of a crossing of Grenache and Petit Bouschet) and Mencia.

And from Carballal we drive up to the extraordinary winery of Dominio do Bibei. The road to the winery is tortuous, unmetalled and hemmed by rocks on one side and the acutely steep vineyards dropping away on the other side. We went carefully...less so the vineyard tour, mercifully conducted in a Land Rover Defender. We toured through high terraces of ancient vines, always with a breathtaking view as a backdrop.

Returning to the winery, we descended to the striking tasting room and set about sampling a range of scintillating quality and character: reds and whites of superb freshness, complexity and flavour. We tasted Albariños and Godellos, a flight of Mencias and then the local Brancellao, Souson and Mouraton. These are brilliant wines: a high-point in a trip full of such things. I will offer them for sure.

Dinner was taken in a restaurant mercifully walking distance from our hotel. We feasted on octopus, veal, beef, squid and an array of other tasty courses. We slept well later.

Our last morning, we rose at a respectable hour, breakfasted unnecessarily and headed off to the far edge of the Valdeorras commune to a micro-estate called Adegas Docampo-Gacio. Here, after petting a charming and extremely leonine Alsatian, we tasted a single red from bottle: a biodynamically produced Mencia-with-a-splash-of-Tempranillo. And boy, was it a goodie.

After that one wine, we were taken to examine señor's stills and sample the spirit distilled therefrom, a smooth white liquid of 50%abv. Next, the same spirit infused with herbs...and by now the slight fog caused by the previous night's revelry was dissipating. Lastly, the coffee flavoured aqua vita, which was delicious and thoroughly sealed the deal. It quite softened the blow when my host was informed that this vintage and next had produced so little wine that señor had none to sell.

From the hinterland of Valdeorras we slipped into Leon to pick up the motorway and from there drove the 2.5 hours back to Santiago, arriving just in the nick of time to have a relaxed luncheon of the omni-present octopus, plus chorizo and a handful of chips. I confess I slept on the 'plane on the way back, but I don't think I can be blamed for that!

Galicia is a utterly wonderful place and I intend to return sometime when the weather is rather more clement. And before that, I intend to bring an offer of the wines to Bowes Wine clients.

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