The massive emigration carried out by the Galicians in the middle of the last century buried an agricultural treasure in the Ribeira Sacra, a region in which the provinces of Lugo and Ourense and the Miño and Sil rivers merge. Hundreds of hectares of vineyards cultivated for centuries on the slopes that shelter these channels were left without hands to work them and the undergrowth swallowed them. The swamps built by the Franco dictatorship also flooded a large area of vineyards. Today there are more than 2,000 hectares that return to give wine thanks to the audacity of men and women like Sindo Díaz, who in 1995, looking at the lands where he had seen his grandparents cultivate vines for self-consumption, wondered: "Why can't a wine like Vega Sicilia or better leave here?" He and other neighbors rolled up their sleeves. They uncovered the vertiginous terraces and transformed the steep mountain back into a vineyard. There are currently 95 wineries. Most of the terraces built during the Middle Ages by the monks who inhabited its numerous monasteries are still buried by vegetation.
Only 5% of the vineyards on the planet are in enclaves as abrupt as those of the Ribeira Sacra, where to reach some vines you have to work with harness. Its cultivation, which is also practiced in areas of Asturias, Catalonia and the Canary Islands, is called heroic viticulture for the hard work involved, both the harvest and the annual maintenance. "The wine is fabulous but its cultivation is not easy," warns Rubén Pérez, winemaker of the Ponte da Boga winery, in Castro Caldelas (Ourense), the oldest in the region and which has just turned 125 years old. It closed in 1970, engulfed by the migration crisis, but was reopened in 1999. The businessman from A Coruña José María Rivera, a member of the family that founded the Estrella Galicia brewery in 1906, fell in love with the landscape of the area and in 2004 the Hijos de Rivera Corporation entered the capital of Ponte da Boga. Today she owns it 100%.
Sindo Díaz, one of the pioneers in the recovery of heroic viticulture in the Ribeira Sacra.Agostiño Iglesias
This century-old winery obtains part of the grapes of its wines in the three-hectare vineyard that Sindo Díaz recovered in the nineties. The farm is already in full harvest, a time that global warming advances more and more. About 15 years ago it started in October, but now the harvest begins at the beginning of September, recalls the winemaker of Ponte da Boga, a winery that organized last week a visit to the area to which several media were invited, including EL PAÍS. The harvesters, mostly women seasoned in these tasks, handle the scissors at almost 300 meters above the Sil River, in an impressive landscape with a minimum slope of 60% that in some points approaches 100%. The boxes with the grapes are raised with rails to a track where they are loaded into vehicles, an advantage over the past, when they had to be lowered to the river to take them out of there by boat. In the past, it was "much more slave", recalls Antonio Lombardía, president of the regulatory council of the Ribeira Sacra denomination of origin. There were no access tracks to the vines. The harvesters walked for hours to reach the farms and even "carried the water on their backs to give the sulfate."
Beyond the improvements of recent times, the heroic harvest cannot be mechanized. It is a rough job that continues to depend on the effort and skill of women and men. And it is precisely the lack of labor that threatens the survival of this type of viticulture. 25 people from an agricultural services company participate in the grape harvest of Ponte da Boga. You hardly see any young people. "We lack workers," Sindo laments. "Young people don't want to work here. If it weren't for these older and strong women..." He says that, in addition to the critical moment of the harvest, personnel is needed in spring, when it is time to perform many tasks "at once", including sulfating and branching.
There is concern about the aging of the sector and the lack of generational change. The average age of winegrowers registered with the council that regulates the denomination of origin exceeds 65 years, says Lombardy. There are 1,200 hectares of vineyards attached to this entity, only 60% of the around 2,000 hectares of vines that the Ribeira Sacra hosts, since there is still a lot of plantation for self-consumption. "Before the harvest was a collaborative work between families, between neighbors. Now there is a lack of workers and we are fighting for them. It is the agricultural work companies that are saving us," explains the head of the agency.
A harvest worker loads the grapes in one of the vineyards of the Ponte da Boga winery, in Castro Caldelas (Ourense). Agostiño Iglesias
Fermenting wine in these lands is much more expensive than anywhere else, says Pérez. The cost of producing a kilo of grapes from the Ribeira Sacra exceeds three euros, while in other areas of Spain or abroad "you can do the same for 50 cents". From the regulatory council of the Ribeira Sacra they believe that the way for this viticulture to survive is "to get the wines paid at the price they are worth, so that the grapes are also paid and it is profitable to be a winegrower". They calculate that grapes should cost twice as much to ensure profitability and attract young people. Lombardy also calls for direct public aid for heroic viticulture, such as those given in Italy: "We do a job of maintaining the landscape and traditions and fixing the population. And we're conserving some of what more people live on. Would there be catamarans, hotels and restaurants without us?"
The winemaker of Ponte da Boga assures that the soil of these slopes gives the wines "a more complex aromatic spectrum, difficult to reproduce in other areas". The winery has also recovered traditional grape varieties that were devastated by phylloxera at the beginning of the last century. Climate change, which is going "faster" than expected, also forces them to test which of them adapt better to the new circumstances. They are also trying to improve their production model with the circular economy. They have set out to reduce their annual water footprint to one litre of water per litre of wine coming out of their reservoirs. Currently, they need three or four.
Rubén Pérez, winemaker of the Ponte da Boga winery.Agostiño Iglesias
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