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Yo Godello: From Spanish Valley of Gold

Posted: Wednesday, 09 May 2012 13:23

Yo Godello: From Spanish Valley of Gold

The native grape variety Godello is Spain’s emerging hope for producing a wine equivalent to great white Burgundy and may be one of the world’s five greatest white wine grapes, writes our Spanish food and wine expert Gerry Dawes who has made more than twenty trips to Galicia during the past decade

Click For Large ViewI have come away from Galicia each time more convinced that wines made from Godello (pronounced as go-day-yo as the Yo in the title suggests) especially the best examples of what I have tasted and drunk can hold their own and more when compared with the majority of Chardonnays from Burgundy, Chablis and California; Rieslings from Alsace and Germany; and the best Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs from France’s Loire Valley. 

The best Godellos have brilliant green gold hues that are lovely to contemplate in the glass. In the purest form, bouquets redolent of lovely white peach and whiffs of minerals signal a potentially exceptional drinking experience. In the best Godellos, the taste will be reminiscent of the particularly pure flavors of white peach whose sweetness is barely perceptible and laced with a haunting, unforgettable minerality. 

Many have a fine acidity that balances their restrained richness and reasonable 12.5% to 13.5% alcohol levels - unlike many modern white wines - that makes them seldom tiring to drink.  Great Godellos are exceptionally versatile as well.  They are good by the glass and a fine accompaniment to any dish calling for a great white wine. Frequent second glass and second bottle sales can be expected with these wines. 

In Godellos whose winemakers are often ambitious experimenters not yet secure in letting the quality of the vineyard, the grape, the climate and the soil convey the message, you will find yeasty lees aromas (sometimes excessive from too-frequent battonage) and the inevitable oaky, buttery smells that effectively obscure terroir. 

In some, there is an unfortunate tendency towards overripe fruit, residual sugar and high alcohol, but fortunately so far, these wines are a minority.  And such Godellos are no more egregious in these dubious qualities than white Burgundies, American Chardonnays and other wines receiving over- zealous winemaker-dominated, market-driven treatment.

Seriously now!
 
For many years, I was in the wine business selling some of the best white (and red) wines available anywhere in New York City’s best restaurants.  Almost on a daily basis, I tasted and drank wines from Frederick Wildman & Sons, Gerald Asher’s Mosswood, Robert Haas’s Vineyard Brand Selections and Winebow, Inc. Among these wines were the likes of Etienne Suazet and Carillon white Burgundies, Dauvissat Chablis and Domaine Weinbach (Alsace), Matanzas Creek, Kistler and Sonoma-Cutrer.  So when I make the observation that the best Godellos can hold their own with any white wines from anywhere, I am not doing so lightly.        

The main growing area for Godello is the Valdeorras denominación de origen (D. O.), but there are also several excellent ratifying Godellos from Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra and Monterrei and from adjacent Bierzo (Castilla y León), sometimes called Galicia’s fifth province.

Valdeorras Valley of Gold

Click For Large ViewValdeorras is an isolated mountain valley whose curvy roads follow and criss-cross often awesomely beautiful stretches of the Sil River as it winds its way through gorges and valley flats on the way to a rendezvous in Ribeira Sacra, where it foregoes its identity and becomes the Minho, which flows on down to become the border between Portugal and Spain and  empties into the Atlantic Ocean south of Vigo and north of Oporto.

The Godello growing region is centered around several small towns, the largest of which is O Barco de Valdeorras, a rural center of just 13,000 inhabitants whose dwellings have roofs made of the prized local black slate, an element that figures prominently as a compelling mineral element in some of wines. Located in mountains of the Galician province of Ourense, some 300 miles northwest of Madrid and just an hour north of Portugal, Valdeorras means “Valley of Gold,” so named because the Roman had important gold mines here 2,000 years ago.  The Romans also terraced these hills with vineyards and would no doubt be amused to find that their Valley of Gold these days is producing some spectacular white wines that take on a lovely, brilliant green-gold hue that is natural to Godello and seems not to be oxidative.

Revival of a Nearly Extinct Grape Variety

Click For Large ViewUntil the mid-1970s, the Godello grape was on the verge of extinction in Valdeorras.  Most of the vines, along with other promising native varieties, had been ripped out in favor of the much more prolific palomino, an insipid grape that has only shown distinction in Andalucía, where, when grown in the calcareous albariza soils around Jerez de la Frontera, its quality as a neutral blending grape at least lends itself to making sherry, which is based on a winemaking technique focused on a fractional blending process and long aging, rather than on a grape variety. 

Once the palomino-ization of the region was entrenched, less than ten cumulative acres of Godello remained and those grapes, widely scattered around the region, were discovered only after an  intensive research and identification process.  Even today, of the 3350 acres of vines officially registered in the Valdeorras D. O. only some 550 acres are planted in Godello, but that is expected to rise exponentially as boom in Godello-based wines grows.
           
In 1974, working with a group of viticulturists, Horacio Fernández, then with the Agriculture Research Department of Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, developed a program to revive and restore Valdeorras as a viable wine-growing region. After all, wine had been made on the slopes of these lovely mountain valleys since at least Roman times. And the area is the driest–still with ample rainfall–in rainy Galicia; the soils–black slate in many vineyards, schist or granite or calcareous layers in others–on well-drained slopes were ideal for producing terroir-laced white wines of world-class caliber.

Red before the White

At first, the viticultural researchers were more interested in developing the red Mencía grape to produce palatable vinos de mesa, or table wines–for local Galician consumption, like neighboring Ribeira Sacra–to fill the demand for red wines in region then dominated by white wines–albariños from Rías Baixas near the Atlantic Ocean and cheap Treixadura-based whites from a huge cooperative in Ribeiro near Ribadavia, a town with a well-restored 14th-16th century Jewish quarter.  

“What Horacio Fernández found in researching godello was un tesoro escondido (a hidden treasure), says Jorge Mazaira Pérez, Technical Director of the Valdeorras denominacion de origen (D.O.).  “In 1985, Fernández, after a visit to Germany and another of the researchers, José Luís Bartolomé, formed a partnership and, with Galician government approval opened Bodegas Godeval in the restored 13th-century Knights of Malta monastery of San Miguel of Xagoaza near O Barco de Valdeorras.  The slate terroir-driven Godeval was one of Galicia’s first estate-bottled wineries and its first 100% Godello wine.   Perhaps due to Fernández’ visit to Germany and certainly due to its mineral driven accent, Godeval has always been somewhat reminiscent of a fine dry German or Alsatian wine.

Designer Wines

Among the better known Godellos of Valdeorras such as Rafael Palacios’s As Sortes, Telmo Rodríguez’s Gabo do Xil and the new Avanthia for instance, I find them to be “designer” wines and far too divorced from the essence of Godello that has so attracted me to these wines.  Many Spanish wine writers are enamored with venerable Guitian, one of the earliest Valdeorras Godellos, with its often leesy qualities, but I have never thought that it was a great expression of either Godello or the Valdeorras terroir. 

Val de Sil, one of the most frequently encountered Godellos on American wine lists has been high on my list until I tasted Montenovo 2010, Valdesil Sobre Lías 2009 and Pezas de Portela 2009, the latest releases and found them to have notable residual sugar.  I suspected that the popularity of Valdesil has caused production levels to be ratcheted up and I knew that Valdesil has been investing in new vineyards, so perhaps the residual sugar levels were an attempt to add more richness to wines that lacked the flavor intensity of previous vintages.  Some who know the winery very well explained, “the grapes were harvested late and residual sugar levels were allowed to get too high.  They expect to correct this in subsequent releases.”

Enjoyable Godello wines  

Click For Large ViewAmong the most enjoyable wines from my tastings–usually tasted with food to see how the wines develop over the course of a meal and also tasted, sometimes multiple times, on visits to Valdeorras–were wines that express the best qualities of the Godello grape, which when made into wine with minimal intervention, expressed the terroir and climate of its vineyard and shows a true sense of place.  A Coroa, a winery I have visited half a dozen times and followed its progress through several vintages, always ranks high in any tasting of Godellos, because of its balance, delicious fruit and mineral transmitting qualities. 

Casal Novo from Adegas O Casal near the village of Rubía and a mile or so from Guítián is also such a wine.  The owners, whose consulting enologist is José Luís Murcía, who has more than 20 years experience making Godello in Valdeorras and consults to eight other wineries, somehow manage to capture the essence of their grapes and vineyard site and transmit that in the bottle like few others.  In New York, earlier this year, it was a favorite of wine aficionados at a seminar sponsored by Wines From Spain.  Quite by accident, last year, at Yayo Daporta, one of the top restaurants in Galicia, I was offered sommelier Esther Daporta’s last bottle of Casal Novo 2006.  “Si no es bueno,” she said, “we will take it back with no problems.”  The wine was exceptional, better in fact that when I had tasted it at the winery when it was released.

Santorum, one of the top wines in my tastings, is a new Godello making its first appearance this year. It is the product of a collaboration between importer Steve Miles (SMS Selections) and one of the partners in a winery that Steve Miles formerly imported, Viña Somoza, which in recent years has attempted to use lees stirring and wood as markers for its wines.   Louro do Boulo, Rafael Palacios’s second wine, now that he has abandoned the plastic stopper he was using for some bottling, I found preferable to his more expensive, leesy, barrel fermented As Sortes, which in my experience I have found, like the 2008 I recently drank, to have deteriorated precipitously with bottle age.     

There are numerous other Valdeorras Godellos in the market that don’t yet rate high enough to merit being included in our limited space, but I have included four wines from noteworthy wineries: two from Ribeira Sacra, the stunning Pena das Donas Almalarga and the ambitious Domino do Bibei; one from neighboring Bierzo, Mengoba from the talented palate of Gregory Pérez, who apprenticed under star winemaker, Mariano García: and  from Monterrei, the emerging Galician D.O. just south of Valdeorras, Amizade, a new Godello made by Gerardo Méndez, the producer of the exceptional Do Ferreiro Albariños of Rías Baixas.

Godello vs White Burgundy

For decades my benchmark for great white wines has been my memories of Domaine Leflaive’s stunning white Burgundies from Puligny-Montrachet.  I cut my wine teeth in the 1970s on the spectacular Leflaive Bourgogne Blancs that were selling for around $5.00 per bottle and were, as Vincent Leflaive subsequently told me, “About 75% over-production from Puligny village vineyards with a little Pucelles and maybe a touch of Bienvenues-Batard.”

So, when I heap praise on the potential I see in Godello-based wines from Galicia, I am not praising them lightly.  I think some Godellos can be a great as white Burgundy. And on the very bright side of this discovery is that most Godellos are still very reasonable priced and affordable.  In fact, at their quality levels, some of the best Godellos are downright cheap compared to many of the white wines from the aforementioned regions, so buyers will not have to pay a king’s ransom to get the gold from the hills of Valdeorras.

Gerry Dawes

A version of this article first appeared in the U.S. in the Sommelier Journal

Click For Large ViewGerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine.

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

Gerry Dawes can be reached at gerrydawes@aol.com

       

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