In the countryside of Galicia and across the border, in Northern Portugal, the most important thing is family. The second most important is the wine and food they produce; followed closely by friendships. But Xabi Soeanes, the founder of Fazenda Agrícola Prádio, wants to make his friends part of his family, and his visitors his friends. Xabi is in love with his Galician countryside and he’s even more taken by its nearly forgotten past. He wants to breathe new life into the place, but in an ancient way. His greatest desire, his dream, is to share his cultural treasure with the world, through the lens of his wines.
Fazenda: A Way of Life
Xabi (with the “x” pronounced “sh”, and the “b” like a “v”, and sometimes spelled Xavi) grew up in A Peroxa (another “sh”), a very small village about a half-hour drive from Ourense, which is itself a small city but with a big-city feel. Bridge after bridge, traversing the Miño River from one side of the city to the other, it connects the city’s ancient historic, granite buildings and the modern residential high rises on both sides. The city center is dense and squeezed by the steep surrounding hills inside the most expansive pocket along the Miño after passing through Lugo, eighty kilometers north, as the crow flies. The closest city to the Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra, it acts as the commercial hub for these special Galician wine regions. A Peroxa sits only about twenty kilometers (twelve and half miles) from Ourense, but once out of the city it’s a mix of winding roads that cut around and up over the hills that rise above the river Miño gorge below.
The drive from A Peroxa down into O Pacio twists for another ten minutes as it cuts across the crest of the south-facing ridge above the Miño through thick, green forests, filled with shrubs, oaks, pines, and prádios—a common local tree also called Falso Plataneros (Acer Pseudoplatanus), or a False Maple; in the US, Sycamore Maple, and in the UK, simply a Sycamore. After a hard (often two-point) right turn, it’s straight down a meandering slope into the open air of the expansive gorge, losing hundreds of meters of altitude in a short distance that abruptly levels off like a landing plane straight into the gates of what, as of 2021, are old, rounded slab, granite-block ruins in process of full restoration by Xabi and his father, Manuel, all perched on a small plateau overlooking the river with a panorama of the south side of the gorge.
Like many generations of families from Northwest Iberia, Xabi’s lived under the fazenda, a sort of subsistence farm, or small farm, with a commercial agricultural output of hand-made and hand-grown products, like wine, vinegar, bread, vegetables, animals (rabbits, pigs, chickens, cattle), and craftworks, all sold at local ferias—or side street markets; interestingly, it was Xabi’s grandparents who started the first feria in A Peroxa. This lifestyle carries into their daily activities with their bed and breakfast in A Peroxa. I don’t usually eat breakfast but the sweet breakfast breads are fabulous and it’s hard to pick a favorite between the chestnut, apple and lemon, though the latter took the cake for me on my first visit. Food in this family is important and a passion of Xabi’s. Despite eating only one meal a day at dinnertime (this is what keeps him looking young and fit), he loves to cook and at the fazenda and winery, there is a big kitchen and granite enclosed mess hall that could feed a full platoon. Xabi and I share the opinion that winegrowers who love to cook often make different wines from those who don’t: perhaps upfront quaffability takes a backseat to how the wine fits in with food—a fading idea in today’s wine culture.
In Spanish, fazendas are more often called haciendas, a reference to the same thing; in Portuguese (and Brazil) they may also be called fazendas, among other names depending on where in Portugal. Fazenda comes from the Portuguese verb fazer (or facer, in Galician), which means “to do or make;” hacienda comes from the Spanish verb hacer, which means the same. Almost every family in the countryside in the not-so-distant past made their living making things with their hands. And while it’s hard work, for some it’s a perfect life: simple, but with meaningful, daily communion between human and nature.
After some years living in Zurich, Switzerland, where he immigrated to post-Spanish Civil War, Segundo, Xabi’s grandfather from the side of his mother, Carmen, returned to A Peroxa. Just as many previous Spanish generations from the fallout of World Wars and dictatorship eras, Segundo left in search of a better fortune than what Galicia could offer him in his youth. There, he worked as a cook and sent money back home to the family. With his eventual return home, he brought new ideas and a strong inclination to build on the connection of his family and friends to their land. Xabi explained, “Segundo is a quiet man. But, he is greatly respected by his family and the community. He is an elder who is considered to be a local wise one, because of the knowledge he’s shared over the years about the rhythm of nature and the cycle of life between human, animal, plant, and earth; things that seemed to have been born into him.” In A Peroxa, Xabi is a legend in his own right.
Country Boy, Big Dreams
When Xabi was eight years old, he began to play fútbol (soccer) at Pubellon, a sports school in Ourense. There he met Iago Garrido, from Augalevada, another futboller whose second life was to be that of a winegrower, too. Iago is in the Ribeiro and wine superstar in a league of his own, in a unique way. At eighteen, Xabi signed with Ourense’s city team, a second division squad within Spain’s professional fútbol league, La Liga. Those who know European fútbol know that Spain’s La Liga is often considered the top domestic league in the world, though of course there is a major debate on this—and likely fighting words outside of Spain—but no one denies the amount of talent produced in this country.
While he enjoyed his life as a professional boller, playing twelve years between FC Ourense and Lugo, and a time at the university in Lugo, Xabi’s love for rural life would eventually lead him to his family’s corner of Ribeira Sacra. His last year in the league was 2011, but the wheels for his future family project, Fazenda Agrícola Prádio, were already in motion. His father began planting Mencía vines on the steep hillside adjacent and below the ruins in O Pacio. Xabi’s first year involved in the project was 2002, and 2003 was the first harvest, which yielded only a couple thousand bottles.
Xabi’s entire family gives him inspiration for his project, and they are all involved. The main driver for his ideas surrounding wine and the family fazenda is to understand and incorporate the way wine was made centuries ago in his area. He expresses envy for other regions that maintained their history; even in the hardest of times many kept their ancestral viticultural knowledge passing on down the line to today. “Here, in Galicia,” he said, “They broke the line. And the difference between here and other places is that the Galicians don’t bet on their history.” Xabi’s life’s work is to be a part of the reconstruction of that broken vinous line for each small hamlet nearby, not only with his family’s in O Pacio.
The line of viticultural knowhow was slowly lost in Galicia with a series of unfortunate events that started in the 1800s with the arrival of the mildews (Powdery and Downy) and phylloxera, all from the New World. After nature had its way, mankind nearly finished the job with a couple of World Wars (where Spain remained neutral in the first and partially neutral in the second, but economically crippled by the ripple of war), a Spanish Civil War, Dictatorship, and the post-World War II industrialization, all of which, in addition to the natural plagues, occurred in less than a century. The industrialization of Galicia was an economic saving grace for many who couldn’t make ends meet after generations of struggle. This led to the mass abandonment of agricultural areas over decades that brought the farmers into the biggest industrial cities of Galicia: primarily Vigo, A Coruña and Ferrol. Others immigrated to other countries, mostly the Americas and throughout Europe. More often than not, no one came back. I’ve been told that once a galego gets out of Galicia, they’ll never return. Xabi’s grandfather, Segundo, stands as a rare exception.
Despite the losses through Galicia in general, Ribeiro, located just to the west of Ribeira Sacra, on the other side of Ourense, was the Galician wine region that best maintained its history throughout these troubled times. Xabi describes Ribeiro as “the cradle of the history of Galician wine.” Ribeiro was indeed the cornerstone of the region and likely the breakout center for the Benedictine and Cistercian monks nearly a thousand years ago. And according an unofficial website of the Ribeiro’s Denominación de Origin (D.O.), www.ribeiro.wine, “the OMPI (World Organization of Intellectual Property) acknowledges them [Ribeiro] as the first evidence of a protection of a geographical indication in Spanish laws.”
A Galician Standoff
In 2012, Xabi chose to omit the Ribeira Sacra D.O. certification from his labels. One of the D.O. commission’s tasks is to market their region with clarity to help winegrowers to optimize understanding of their regions on domestic and international levels, but the overarching complaint is that they’ve been too restrictive. One of the main challenges for Xabi—and many others who work inside the boundaries of the D.O., but don’t certify or conform—is that the commission was (and perhaps still is) too focused on Mencía, a believed outsider brought from further east of Ribeira Sacra by a couple of hours by car. They also don’t concentrate much on pushing for the recovery and propagation of the region’s ancestral grape varieties. Indeed, Mencía is now a permanent fixture in the region and its history, but it has not been there for thousands of years; it’s only mostly developed over the last century. There are many superb, in fact world-class, wines produced from Mencía, especially the old-vine wines, but a lot of people don’t believe it should be the grape that defines the region. However, it’s true that for outsiders to better understand wine regions it is a good idea to keep things simple and accessible.
Another clash with the D.O. is the production style of the wines. The commission panel appears to be too rigid and fixated on its recent successes—as in those of the last few decades. These lingering antiquated laws and perceptions will continue to stifle creativity and discovery in the vineyard and cellar because of the perceived value for the producers to have Ribeira Sacra printed on their bottles. It’s a pity for the D.O. that some extraordinary wines may be excluded simply because they are “not what is expected” for the commission’s recognized wine style. Things like turbidity, low alcohol content, or specific grapes can toss a perfectly crafted wine, highly expressive of its terroir, out of D.O. certification. But to allow some outside grapes, like Tempranillo, to be permitted and not other indigenous varieties seems to be an obvious oversight, or perhaps a political decision. While some things are indeed good to monitor, it appears that they need to be more relaxed to let the growers breathe, to let them create, and to support the preservation of what shreds are left of the vinous history of generations past. Many winegrower’s grandparents are still alive and hold irreplaceable information. They need to be part of the conversation, especially the quiet ones.
The last and what appears to be the most complex challenge: the subzones and their usefulness. Not only Xabi, but many other growers, explain that the physical landscape changes too quickly to conform to D.O. rules and expectations. The Ribeira Sacra subzones were largely based on geographical and political boundaries, like river valleys and historical monastic orders—not specifically on terroir differences.
Xabi proposes that they define the regions by the twenty-two municipalities within, and further define their parishes in more detail. Aside from adding more indigenous grapes to the permitted list, he believes that they should work to define areas by not only specific terroirs (bedrock, altitude, climate, etc.) but also each local history, the latter of which will be a polarizing consideration… Five subzones that cover lands that don’t relate to one another’s terroirs even within each subzone is far too vague. From the outside looking in, the most glaring deterrent seems to be that the region needs a much greater group of quality-minded and open growers to flourish first to justify this kind of definition for this extremely expansive and complex region. And, is it too early to make new rules? Or is it time to just relax them and open up the floodgates of D.O. certification and see what happens? As Xabi says, the line is broken, but it can be fixed. A region’s history and tradition is what makes it special, not its conformity to a global market.
In 2019, Xabi finally rejoined the list and is hopeful for the D.O. commission. However, he remains skeptical about many things. I believe he’s right to have a balance of hope and skepticism, especially about the helpfulness of the Ribeira Sacra subzones as they are today. After a good amount of research on the region’s terroirs from a global perspective, along with its subzones (compiled and explained here—available to view May 2021), it seems that the differences are indeed too great from one location to the other to make too many generalizations based on the subzones themselves. All one has to do is ask a Galician wine professional (whether in winegrowing or the restaurant side of the business) for generalizations and wait for the deep sigh, followed by a look of anxiety about where to begin the explanation. Within Ribeira Sacra each individual location has its own story to tell. This place isn’t like Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, where the main slope generally faces east to south and follows a few easy to understand and consistent terroir concepts through the côte: same basic bedrock (limestone) and topsoil (clay dominant with limestone rock fragments of varying grain size), and one dominant red and white grape; it’s not so hard to get your head wrapped around the basics. However, no matter how simple the summary may be presented, the Côte d’Or’s terroir quantum mechanics are extremely complex.
In Ribeira Sacra, by contrast, there is often very different bedrock types in the same vineyard with multiple expositions on the same hill (perhaps hillsides without vines in most places are those that face due north), flattish to some of the steepest vineyard slopes in the world, and a lot of grape types with immense differences in their composition of acidity, tannin, pigmentation, phenolic ripeness levels at differing alcohol levels, etc. Perhaps what the D.O. did kept it somewhat understandable, but each subzone has so much variability that it almost serves as nothing more than a geographical guide. In the end, just like everywhere in the world, it comes down to the specific plot, what vine material is planted, and the philosophy, decision-making and skill of the winegrower.
Fazenda Prádio is located within the Chantada subzone of Ribeira Sacra. Located in its southernmost and westernmost end, it’s a unique place unto itself. The vines are perched on wide terraces that overlook the Miño River gorge, where the Sil River meets the Miño. The vines sit between 180-300 meters (590-980 feet), whereas further upstream, past the dam, Central Hidroeléctrica dos Peares, and into the Peares reservoir, the vineyards are generally above 200 meters (just over 650 feet) and cap out around 450 meters (near 1500 feet); that alone makes it quite different.
The climate in this area, and most of the central and western ends of Ribeira Sacra, is a tug-of-war between oceanic and continental. Fazenda Prádio is located—as the crow flies—about twenty kilometers away (a little over twelve miles) from the heart of the Amandi subzone to the east, the town of Chantada to the north, and the eastern border of the Ribeiro. He’s quite secluded from other viticultural centers that have vines blanketing a large swath of hillsides.
The forests surrounding his 3.5-hectare vineyard offer a greater degree of biodiversity, and thankfully there is not a single eucalyptus tree in sight. Most of the forest is indigenous—sadly a bit of a rarity in some parts of Northwestern Iberia where a lot of open land was planted to pine and eucalyptus for pulp factories that could take advantage of the many rivers needed for processing. Nearby pines and eucalyptus often seem to mark wines with their fragrances, perhaps from their resins. Pines tend to be moderately allelopathic (a biological phenomenon where plants release biochemical growth inhibitors to suppress or kill other competing plants or organisms) depending on the type of pine, but eucalyptus trees are extremely allelopathic, which, in addition to being guzzlers of water, makes for very stiff competition for other species of trees and plants once they’ve found their way in. This is why forests filled with this Australian native are almost devoid of anything else.
The bedrock on the farm is primarily composed of granite, and to a lesser degree, schist. The terraces are steep, but not so steep that they can only have one vine row on each; most have two or more, and on the top near the winery, there are some pretty good flatter areas. In general the topsoil is very shallow and low in fertility—perfect for vines. Despite the relatively recent manipulation of the hillside to get it back into proper vineyard form, the topsoil is derived from the granite and schist bedrock, and it is not tilled.
In the cellar things are pretty straightforward. As of 2020, the red grapes are collected in small boxes and destemmed before fermentation. Fermentations are natural and take place in granite lagars (stone vats) with varying capacities. After the first seven to ten days when the alcoholic fermentation is in its final stages, the wines are gravity fed to the cellar below the processing area and into French oak barrels. Most of the barrels are 500L old French oak, but there are a few smaller sizes (300L and 225L) to manage the small quantities made of each variety that don’t completely fill the bigger barrels. Malolactic fermentations are natural but encouraged once they’ve started by batonnage (stirring of the lees), followed by a few more times afterward to help curb excessive dissolved CO2, as well as rounding out and softening tannins in some varieties that need it, like Sousón and Caíño Longo. A single racking outside of the one in preparation for bottling may take place shortly after malolactic fermentation, along with the wine’s first sulfite (SO2) addition. All the grapes are vinified and aged separately until blending prior to bottling. On the way to the bottle, the wines are often lightly filtered (1 micron) and a final addition of sulfites is made. The total sulfur dioxide level of the red wines ranges between 30-50 ppm (or 30-50 mg/L).
-Ted Vance - The Source Imports