Wine Review: Virgen del Galir

24 01 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Mencia and Godello.  While perhaps not yet fully household names (in North American households, at least), these high-quality, high-potential vinifera grapes based in northwestern Spain are starting to slide into the popular consciousness on this side of the Atlantic.  Mencia may already be there, after a recent swath of global exposure has seen it grace local wine lists and liquor stores alike; Godello is trailing its white neighbour Albarino in trendiness and recognition factor and has not yet caught on as a viable bottle option in most places outside of Galicia, but its time is coming.  I have wrongly predicted its meteoric rise on a couple of previous occasions, but I am a patient sort when it comes to worldwide taste revolutions.

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One recent hint that these northern Spanish grapes have been pegged for future expansion is the 2017 acquisition of small Valdeorras producer Virgen del Galir by Rioja legends CVNE, which has indirectly led to the introduction of the winery’s offerings into our market.  Virgen del Galir (“Virgin of Galir”, named for the nearby Galir river and potentially for a bit of religious double entendre, as the winery founder’s mother’s name was Mary) was founded in 2002 in a small village along the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail and focuses exclusively on making wines from its 20 hectares of estate Mencia and Godello vineyards scattered across a multitude of plots.  The vineyards are all steep and terraced, planted on soils of slate and decomposed schist, and all hand-harvested.  CVNE immediately invested in significant improvements to the winery facility to allow these local grapes to better tell their story to a world audience.  Here they are, half a world away; let’s see what they have to say.

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2017 Virgen del Galir “Pagos del Galir” Godello (~$26)

Valdeorras, the “Valley of Gold”, is sandwiched between the better-known Galician regions of Ribera Sacra and Bierzo, and like them is much cooler and rainier than the rest of Spain, which allows for an entirely different set of grapes to thrive than elsewhere in the country.  Valdeorras may be the only appellation in the world that is known foremost for Godello (pronounced “go-DAY-oh”), its flagship despite a scant 370 hectares of regional plantings and a varietal whose quality is immediately apparent, even if its distribution remains somewhat lacking.  Godello is the same grape as Portugal’s Gouveio and is sometimes called Verdelho in the latter country, even though Portugal also grows an entirely different grape called Verdelho (which in turn is an entirely different grape than Spain’s Verdejo, because wine can be endlessly and unnecessarily complicated).  Godello is sort of like Chardonnay with a twist:  capable of a variety of expressions and pleasing in all of them, effective with or without oak, with a generosity of texture and approachability of flavour that sees it work well in a range of settings.  It was only planted in its current Galician homeland in the 1920s, and almost became extinct in the 1970s before the growers and producers of Valdeorras worked hard to save it.

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The first noticeable thing about this bottle is what isn’t initially there:  a vintage date.  The vintage looks to have been hand-stamped on the label after the fact, which kind of undersells what had to be done to successfully bring in a crop in Valdeorras in 2017.  Significant spring frosts and other weather problems led to a microscopic harvest, although the tech sheet for the wine modestly notes that, “[a]s usual, thanks to the adequate works in the field we managed to maintain the excellent quality of the grapes.” I’m going to use “adequate” as a pump-up adjective more often if this is the result.  CVNE’s new Godello is a medium clear lemon hue and plays it fairly close to the vest aromatically, at least at first.  Pie crust, limeade, pink grapefruit, bath salts, daisies and rainwater are lent a careful streak of pizzazz by Rockets candy in an olfactory profile that seems delicate for the grape, if unafraid.  Godello’s rounded mouthfeel feels generous in spite of a middleweight body and prickly, fidgety acid, the polished texture likely the result of the 5 months the wine spent on lees prior to bottling, a common treatment for this pliant varietal.  The flavours echo the deft, mineral nose — lemon drop, chalk, lime zest, wading pool, Sour Patch Kids, rock salt — and exhibit the length and class of this criminally underrated offering.  This is a daintier, quieter take on Godello than I am used to, but it illustrates why Valdeorras was right to bet on it.

89+ points

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Cork Ratings:  6/10 & 6.5/10 (Why are these corks and foils so different from each other??)

2016 Virgen del Galir “Pagos del Galir” Mencia (~$26)

There appears to be some cosmic balance between Virgen del Galir’s red and white offerings; while the white is a lower-volume, more contemplative take on Godello, the red is an amplified, powerful approach to Mencia.  I have often heard this Galician red mainstay compared to Pinot Noir for its transparency, agility, lighter body and ability to convey a sense of place; this stays true to that comparison but definitely trends towards the brawnier edge of this elegant grape.  In addition to the after-the-fact hand-stamped vintage, the bottle of Pagos del Galir is also noteworthy for its shape:  every Mencia I have had previously has come in the gently sloping Burgundy bottle (as did the Godello above), but this one is housed in the sharp-shouldered Bordeaux bottle, home of many a Cab but far fewer wines outside of that spectrum.  Much like 2017, the 2016 vintage in Valdeorras revealed the joys of trying to grow grapes in an area of significant climatic variation:  harvest took two months to complete, and overall yields were nearly 30% lower than the previous year thanks to an all-too-familiar-in-Calgary combination of spring rain, summer hail and periodic temperature spikes, collectively resulting in mildew and other assorted vine diseases.

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It is immediately apparent visually that this Mencia is exploring its heftier side, as it emerges a nearly opaque, nearly purple colour, thinning and reddening at the edges but notably dark at the core.  This does nothing to hide a gorgeously herbal aromatic profile, spruce trees (and corresponding car air fresheners), autumn leaves and sumac broken by beams of cherry, licorice pipes and smoke, weighed down only slightly by an afterthought of molasses.  Silky and generous on the tongue, it communicates breadth without being dense or plodding, the fruit darkening and elongating, joined by singing florals and underbrush.  Rushes of third-rail acid are clamped down by prominent scrubby tannin in a structural battle that leaves a welcome trail of freshness in its wake.  This has a sense of the outdoors to it, wet woodlands in the fall, and would be rustic if it didn’t seem so composed.  Everyone needs more of these grapes in their life; Galicia’s specialities slot ideally into a market looking for something familiar yet different, novel but not wacky.  Valdeorras forever.

89 points 

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