Who: Bernardo Estévez.
What: D.O. Ribeiro.
Where: Arnoia, Ribadavia, Galicia, Spain.
When: Since 2009.
“I only bottle my work in the vineyard” says Bernardo Estévez. Few vigneron express outwardly as little interest in what happens in the cellar as Bernardo Estévez although it’s clear that he likes very much what he finds in his bottles. It’s his work in the vineyard that is engrossing and inspiring, and which has touched and influenced colleagues as far away as Nacho Gonzalez at La Perdida in the Valdeorras and Xico de Mandin in Monterrei.
Bernardo is a former mechanic from Vigo whose family comes from Arnoia, near Ribadavia and who has returned to his parents land to dedicate himself to recovering life in these vineyards by organic and biodynamic methods that almost no one else is doing now.
The Ribeiro is 70km inland from the Atlantic Ocean in Galicia in north-west Spain. In wine terms, it lies between the Rias Baixas and the Ribeira Sacra regions, with Valdeorras further west, before you trip into Bierzo in the next region, the Asturias. It’s a mountainous place with 20 valleys and 3000 hectares of vineyard. It’s also the oldest registered wine region in Spain; until the sixteenth century it exported its wines to England and they were more highly priced and prized than wines from Bordeaux. War put an end to business (and England developed Port instead) and it seems to have been all downhill since. In the twentieth century the focus became cheap exports and still today there are very few quality growers.
Bernardo is leading the way for organic growers. It’s an extraordinary landscape and the challenge to grow grapes healthily, organically is considerable. Bernardo cultivates just 3 hectares yet they’re spread steeply up and down 70 individual terraces in two valleys, between 185m and 250m, on soils of both granite and schist. He possesses 18 red varieties and 7 white – reflecting the reality that red wine production has historically been more important. Given the lack of flat land, vines are packed on to the terraces at a density of around 7 to 9,000 vines per hectare, which normally yield between 30 and 40 hl/ha. The climate presents challenges and opportunities, for it’s very hot in summer but humid, with the saving grace of cool, fresh nights. It’s this local climatic phenomenon, the granite and schist soil, and diversity of vine that makes for such exciting results, such tension in the bottle.
All around Bernardo’s vineyards are parcels of vines abandoned by those seeking a so-called easier life. So he could in theory recover more vines but the labour, both physical and mental, is intense so three hectares seem to be the current limit.
In the cellar the work is simple, he says simply it’s Grandfather’s way; he much prefers to be outside in the vines. In a good year he’ll make one red and white and one old vine red and white. Winemaking is natural but he uses a little sulphites to make sure that the wines stay clean and pure. The wines shimmer with purity and minerality, they’re both delicate and intense, always beautifully balanced.
We were introduced to Bernardo by his friend and “student” Nacho Gonzalez but had to wait to meet him for the challenges of 2018 meant he couldn’t leave his vineyard to meet visitors even at night. The wait was worth it.
In 2017 production was just 7,400 bottles in total of four wines. In 2016 just two wines were produced.