Spain’s Quiet Corner
FOR over 50 years all this was in ruins,” said José Luis Cuerda, hands spread, 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: albariño, treixadura, godello, torrontés, 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.
In September, 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 Mr. 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, and the closest neighbor looked cartoonishly small on her terrace. A typically Galician rainstorm — short, strong and blustery — had just blown through, leaving moisture dripping from stones hewn centuries ago and from the gray wires hoisting the neat rows of grapevines. The ballroom-sized terrace of Mr. Cuerda’s Galician home/office/winery jutted out from the 15th-century house, a bottle of Sanclodio chilled in the modern kitchen and a large bowl of a local cheese was warming to room temperature.
In Spain, Mr. 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 both of his creative endeavors: “I try to do cinema seriously, and I do this seriously.”
Mr. 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 are situated, some 20 miles west of Ourense. During the filming, Mr. 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 Mr. 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. He has since become a committed one-man cheering section for the least-well-known part of Galicia.
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 last century. Over hundreds of years, tens of thousands of Galicians left Spain, starting over in Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, the United States, 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 under-the-radar places, focusing especially on the Ribeiro — a region on the cusp of opening up to tourists, and full of wine, antiquity and hospitality — with Mr. Cuerda.
Mr. Cuerda is a round man, tall but also wide, with a head of white hair that rings a bald pate and a C. Everett Koop white fringe of a beard. (His appearance, much as it may annoy him to say it, only adds to the impression of his connection to that other director in Napa Valley.) He can be serious, especially when talking about the Franco era, a presence in many of his films.
“Wine is bottled time,” he mused at one point. “It is a whole year encapsulated in a bottle. And that has something similar to the cinema, which is also a simulation of bottled time.”
But then a giggle escapes him; he doesn’t take himself terribly seriously. He is like the children he often includes in his films: he can be silly.
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.