They say the Romans named Orense so for being the “City of Gold,” but from this city also pour “burgas”, fountains and bodies of warm water that have attracted people from around the world for its healing properties since the times of the Empire.
I walk around the city, exquisite in its bars and restaurants (I wrote this article sitting in my favorite, Tamarindo Casa Cocina y Patio Bar). Everything here points to the wine of the Ribeira Sacra, winegrowing zone at the north of Orense.
Visitors will drink the wine here, in the terraces, but it is in the banks of the Miño and Sil rivers where time will stop to ripen every bunch. Everything has changed in this remote space in Spain, almost touching Portugal, since its most distinguished guest chose a wine for one of his most important receptions: Barack Obama.
“Obama’s wine maker is from Galicia,” the Spanish newspapers said. The chosen wine, Peza do Rei, from Cachin Wineries, was at the center of the toast at the last Gala de la Hispanidad, hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., to honor the legacy of the Hispanic community in the United States.
The demand for Peza do Rei bottles has skyrocketed ever since. “Obama’s wine,” kindly nicknamed by the press, has been selling out. It has also stimulated a growth in the investors in the field, suddenly enamored by the wines that pour from these mountains.
The desire in America for the wine from the Ribeira Sacra region directly contrasts with the indifference with which this same product is received in Spain, its country of origin.
The exception however, is, almost exclusively, the most important gastronomic journalist in Spain, veteran Víctor de la Serna. He speaks to me with enthusiasm of the wines of the region: Algueria, Guímaro, Sílice Viticultores, Pedrouzos, and Ponte da Boga (I would add Eduardo Peña and Ribeiro Viña Mein to the list).
Rubén Pérez, technical director at Ponte Da Boga winery, says: “We commercialize the wines of Ponte Da Boga in the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Philippines. In the coming years, our efforts will be focused on the US, Canada, England, Germany, and Norway. The North American market is huge, and always has room for unique and original items, which is what wines from the Ribeira Sacra offer.
“The movie Sideways created a frenzy among consumers for the variety of Pinot Noir, offering a style of wine similar to Ribeira Sacra.”
Ana Delia Pérez, owner of Adega Algueira, a winery located in the Ribeira Sacra, said that the high scores awarded by [influential wine critic] Robert Parker in 2008 to one of their wines, as well as others in the region, were an important endorsement to the region.“Those scores have been steady year after year for a wide range of wines, and there are now many wineries from the Ribeira Sacra with a presence in the prestigious guide of The Wine Advocate,” Pérez added. “Other similar guides, such as View from the Cellar, are recommending wines from this zone.”
Of the 192,7000 liters of wine from the Ribeira Sacra marketed outside of Spain, 104,700 make their way to the United States. The United Kingdom and Norway follow in the list of countries demanding the wine. Portugal, as incredible as it may seem, located only a few kilometers from the vineyards, does not request a single bottle.
Dominic Rodríguez, from Classic Wines, and one of people responsible for the growing success of the Spanish wine in the United States, said: “Ribeira Sacra wines are great wines. But, more importantly, the name of the varietal, mencia, is now being appreciated by American consumers as a very unique wine.
“There is an increase in demand the US because more importers and distributors are starting to carry mencias from the Ribeira Sacra, due, to a large degree, to the highly acclaimed mencias obtained from Bierzo, a rising wine region in the northwest of Spain.”
As with all the wineries in the zone, the strategy of Adega Algueria is “not based in quantity, or in tackling the market as a whole, but in maintaining the line of quality, based on a rational viticulture, from its own production and low yield, with a special interest in the recovery of minority native varieties,” explains Pérez.
In regards to the interest among investors interested in the region of the Ribeira Sacra, the owners of Adegas Algueira show themselves to be open, but cautious.
“We are respectful to those who want to develop a project in the Ribeira Sacra, but only as long as they respect the nature of mountain viticulture, and the strong slope cultivation that characterize us,” said Pérez. “We must preserve our authenticity.”
Similar to other wineries in the region, Algueira aims to attract tourists: they offer daily wine tastings, and since 2003 have had a restaurant attached to the winery, and a boat that ambles around the Sil river, which “offers a unique perspective of our viticulture.”
Rodriguez admitted that “Obama’s wine” has been a major PR coup, but added, “Peza do Rei was not chosen by Obama, but rather by a Gallego (native from Galicia) who has some influence in the catering service, so he deserves the credit, not a President that had nothing to do with it. The Galician media blew this out of proportion without any merit to it. The good thing about it is that every winery in Galicia was encouraged to push harder in the US market.”
While he recommends all of the region’s wines, Rodriguez singled out the wines of Abadia da Cova, which “deserves a lot of credit because, as it promotes its own brand, and constantly promotes Ribeira Sacra.”
In Orense, the wine makers speak about conquering the globe with humility. They travel to New York, they present new wines, and then they trace their steps back to bury their hands in their vineyards.
—With additional reporting by Carlota Tarrago