By Sarah WildmanThe New York Times
"For over 50 years, all this was in ruins," said Jose Luis Cuerda, nodding toward a mountainside covered with terraced rows of young winding vines and the massive stone home behind us, his adopted Galician sliver of Spain.
Stretched out before him now, spilling from lush terraces, were fledgling plants: albarino, treixadura, godello, torrontes, loureira. These are grape varietals native to the Ribeiro, a region of broad valleys near Ourense, the capital of the province of the same name.
This month, swollen balloons of green grapes will be harvested by hand in frenzied moments over three or four days. These will create the 2007 vintage - Year 3 - of Cuerda's tasty vino blanco, which he calls Sanclodio, named for the monks that cultivated this land for centuries and their former monastery down the road, San Clodio.
But it was late spring, and all was quiet; the harvest seemed far away. In Spain, Cuerda is known for films - he is a director, screenwriter and producer - not wine.
The label is too young for fame. And yes, he likes his food, evidenced by his Santa Claus-like belly. But while he brushes off any comparison to Francis Ford Coppola - that other director-winemaker, on the other side of the world - he speaks of a similar passion for his creative endeavors.
"I try to do cinema seriously, and I do this seriously," he says.
Cuerda has owned this place since just after his 1999 movie "La Lengua de las Mariposas" ("Butterfly's Tongue"), released as "Butterfly" in the United States, won a Goya, the Spanish equivalent to an Oscar, for best adapted screenplay in 2000.
"Butterfly" was shot about 20 miles from Leiro, the town where the Sanclodio vineyards grow, some 20 miles west of Ourense. During the filming, Cuerda noticed the many half-destroyed houses from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries scattered across the countryside.
"There are many parts of Galicia that have houses in ruins, and they are gorgeous sites," he said. Many were for sale, and Cuerda eventually bought a ruined bodega (or adega, as local wine-growing estates are called in the Galician language, Gallego), thus adding "winemaker" to his résumé.
When Americans think of Galicia - if they think of it at all - it is almost always because of Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage city on the northern Atlantic Coast.
Tucked in the northwest corner of Spain, the rest of Galicia is thinly populated and known less for its lusciously verdant scenery than for its lack of employment; its poverty was especially dire in the middle of the past century. Over hundreds of years, tens of thousands of Galicians left Spain, starting over elsewhere, abandoning pazos (country manor houses) and fincas (rural farms), leaving whole villages ghost towns.
For several days in late April, my partner, Ian, and I explored these places, focusing especially on the Ribeiro - a region on the cusp of opening up to tourists, and full of wine, antiquity and hospitality - with Cuerda.
Grapes have been cultivated in the Ribeiro since Roman times.
But in the 19th century, a vine plague nearly wiped out the industry, and desperate growers began importing grapes from other regions, like palomino from Jerez, which grew quickly but produced great quantities of low-quality wine. Galician harvests became associated with cheap, acidic table wine, drunk in tiny tumblers in sooty bars.
Cuerda, who has studied the history of the region for several years, has begun promoting a new palate for a more sophisticated Galician white. His oenological team researched the region, ripped out all the old plants that were growing wild on his land and planted only indigenous grapes.
The model was that of a handful of nearby bodegas, like Vina Mein, a 19-year-old vineyard up the road from the 12th-century Monasterio San Clodio (now a hotel). On the banks of the Avia River, Vina Mein has been a leader in the effort to reinvent Galician wines by taking what wine growers in Europe call a New World approach to creating rich, fruit-forward, easy drinking whites, planting only natives - like savory white- wine grapes, primarily treixadura, godello and albarino.
To understand Galicia, Cuerda asserted the next morning, you have to start at the beginning. We were heading northwest on a one-lane country road to San Ciprián de Las, a castro, Iron Age ruins that were inhabited through the Roman era. There are castros scattered throughout Ribeiro, high up on the mountainsides, eerie and beautiful archeological sites.
As we drove, every five or eight minutes, a tiny 12th- or 13th-century - or sometimes 16th-, 17th- or 18th-century - church appeared around a corner, darkened with age, but bells in good order.
Cuerda felt we should see Ourense, where he is shooting his next film. The city has a sloping and impressive Plaza Mayor, a medieval cathedral and the feel of a city that most tourists never see: The main squares and restaurants are filled with locals and businessmen rather than travelers.
It is known for its bridges that encompass the history of the city, from the Roman era to the modern. The winding streets are medieval, narrow, mysterious - perfect for Cuerda's film, to be set in 1940, the year after Franco came to full power. We sat for lunch at Restaurant San Miguel in the center of town. With a flourish, the waiter brought over a bottle of Sanclodio.
Cuerda took my notebook and wrote in Spanish: "The most important restaurant in the city of Ourense is San Miguel. The most important restaurant in the province is A Rexidora, in Bentraces. It has one Michelin star."
He listed several more restaurants, all with lyrical names - O Roupeiro, O Barazal, Galileo, O Mosteiro (next to the Hotel Monumento Monasterio de San Clodio). Each restaurant, not incidentally, now carries Sanclodio wines.
Ourense feels like a city, but when you leave, the urban landscape disappears in minutes. "It's the same as the 15th century!" exclaimed Cuerda, referring to the view.
We drove along rural routes, whipping through towns so small that they are mere dots on maps - towns with names like Pazos de Arenteiro, Osebe, Boboras and Carballino. Nearly every home we passed had a garden of grapes on gnarled vines producing only enough for individual home consumption.
Cuerda has a finca near Carballino, a place to work and relax, and we stopped there.
"I prefer working here to Madrid," he said. "It is tranquil here. Quieter."
On the shelf was a Spanish script for the 2001 film "The Others," which he co-produced. (It was the success of "The Others," starring Nicole Kidman, that gave him seed money for the bodega.) But it's hardly all work there - his office is filled with histories of Ourense; dictionaries of medieval Spanish and Gallego; a book on the Monasterio de Oseira, known as the Galician Escorial.
Cuerda decided we must hear the monks sing Gregorian chants at Oseira, where Sunday Mass is open to the public. Then we would understand the beauty and simplicity of the region, the wildness, the sheer distances, the isolation of centuries past.
The next morning, we drove through Cea - a town known for its pan de Cea, a wonderful rustic bread. A couple of miles out of town, the Oseira monastery looms from behind a bend.
Cuerda had promised us a visit to some thermal baths, but there was only time for lunch. As we asked for the check, the waiter ran over and in a burst of energy said: "Please! Could you write a note to my wife, Pilar? She loves your work!" Cuerda obliged, cheerfully.
"I make cinema," he'd said that first day. "I make wine, and maybe one person likes the cinema and the other person likes the wine. I diversify risks."
After you get over there, one- hour flights from Madrid to Vigo (on Iberia) and Santiago de Compostela (Iberia or Vueling) can be as low as 50 euros round-
trip. Both cities are about an hour's drive from the Ribeiro, while Madrid is about five hours.
Round-trip flights from Denver to Madrid in mid-September found fares starting at $886 on US Airways, American Airlines, Continental, Delta and Air France.
Stay and dine
We anchored our trip by sleeping in historic places: from the former Monasterio de San Clodio, which lends its name to Cuerda's wines, to the country estates called pazos, many of them former homes of parish priests, now loosely linked in a web of historic inns called Pazos de Galicia (pazosdegalicia.com).
If you are driving from Madrid, the seven-room Pazo de Bentraces (34-988-38-33-81, pazodebentraces.com) is a good first stop. The rooms in this 15th-century manor home in the tiny town of Bentraces, south of Ourense, are all slightly different. They start at 104 euros a night, about $145 at $1.38 to the euro.
Bentraces also has the Ourense province's only Michelin-starred restaurant, A Rexidora (34-988-383-078, arexidora.com). Dinner for two with wine, about 100 euros.
The Hotel Monumento Monasterio de San Clodio (Plaza San Clodio s/n; 34-988-485-601; euro starshotels.com) is a foreboding marvel. Built in the 12th century, it was for hundreds of years home for Cistercian monks who grew grapes for wine. When they renovated it in 1999, San Clodio's owners made little effort to soften the severity of its beauty. Doubles from 85 euros.
Our first glimpse of warm Galician hospitality came at the Hotel Dona Blanca (Plaza San Clodio s/n; 34-988-485-688; hotelruraldonablanca.com), a six-room 17th-century home just outside the monastery walls. Owned by Javier Alen, the wine grower who owns and runs Bodega Vina Mein (and another small rural hotel, Vina Mein, just down the road; 34-988-488-400 or 34-617-326-248), Dona Blanca was renovated in 2003. Most stunning is a small indoor pool, with redwood floors and a full Turkish bath. Rooms start at 85 euros, with breakfast.
Across the plaza, Restaurant O Mosteiro (Plaza Eladio Rodriguez 4; 34-988-48-87-27) offers traditional fish-based Galician fare. Dinner for two, about 50 euros.
We visited the Monasterio de Oseira, north of Cea, where the monks make 14 rooms available for pilgrims or those on religious retreats for 30 euros a night (four nights minimum), including three meals (34-988-282-004 or e-mail email@example.com). A grounds tour costs 2 euros.
In Rias Biaxas, we found the inviting Rectoral de Cobres (San Adrian de Cobres, Vilaboa; 34-986-673-810; rectoral.com).
Constructed in 1729, it was brought back to life in recent years by Randi Hanssen, a Norwegian interior designer, and Juan Carlos Madrinan, her musician husband. Doubles start at 80 euros with breakfast.
In nearby Arcade, we found Restaurante Arcadia (Avenida Castelao, 25; 34-986-700-037), where we gorged on oysters, fresh fish and endless fresh bread (75 euros for dinner for two).