Revisiting Godello, A Grape That Spain Has Rescued
The world of wine often seems like a laboratory with multiple experiments in progress. This is particulary so in Spain, where winemaking roots are ancient yet so much new again
All over Spain, old winemaking regions have been reconstituted. Grapes that were largely forgotten have been revived, and despite the economic difficulties and political impasses that have bedeviled the nation, excitement abounds for consumers.
Consider the godello grape. Just a few decades ago, it had virtually disappeared from Spain. But a concerted effort by a small number of growers not only saved godello but also inspired wine producers all over the northwestern part of the country to see what they could do with it. Results have been exceptionally promising, and the change has been rapid.
The wine panel first examined godello in 2012, when after several abortive efforts over the years, we were at last able to put together a group of 20 bottles for a tasting. I was impressed by the wines, and since then I’ve been looking forward to a return engagement.
Four years later seemed like a good time to check back in. This time, assembling 20 bottles of godello was a snap. In fact, rather than a complete tasting, 20 bottles now seems like a representative sample, with many more wines available today.
For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Ashley Santoro, wine director at the Standard East Village, and Arvid Rosengren, wine director at Charlie Bird, who was named best sommelier in the world this year in a competition held by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, a nonprofit educational organization.
We were all impressed by the wines we tasted, yet after four years, the issues seemed entirely different from last time. Back in 2012, our impression was that godello had much in common with chardonnay. It seemed to be somewhat neutral on its own, like chardonnay, and to have the chameleonlike ability to prosper in various guises, from lean and vibrant to dense, rich and textured.
This time around, the wines seemed more of one piece, though perhaps each of us had a slightly different interpretation.
For me, the wines did not so much evoke chardonnay as they did chenin blanc. The best were richly textured and floral, like chenin, but not heavy. Some had a lovely honeysuckle quality, as I often find in chenin blanc, and excellent minerality. My favorites were taut and energetic, well balanced and refreshing.
The inconsistency I noticed this time was not so much in style as in quality, which varied widely. For all the wines we really liked, just as many seemed overripe or flabby. Some seemed practically encased in the flavors of new oak barrels. Others seemed oxidized, though the tasting was made up almost entirely of the 2013 and ’14 vintages, with just a few 2012s.
My colleagues had their own opinions. Florence was reminded more of viogniers than of chenin blancs, while Arvid saw them more as a cross between chenin blanc and marsanne, a Loire-Rhône hybrid.
Ashley was disturbed by what she regarded as an overabundance of lees stirring, a technique common with chardonnay in which the wine is permitted to age with the remnants of yeast, or lees, after they are finished with fermentation. Occasionally the lees are stirred, which can contribute to a creamy texture while giving a little air to the wine.
Godello can benefit from a bit of air, as it has a tendency in its absence to develop off aromas, but the danger of too much lees stirring can be a flabbiness in the wine and, at worst, oxidation.
This, of course, involved some informed speculation on our part. It’s not easy to guess exactly what techniques were used in producing the wines, and winemakers are often opaque in their explanations.
All this is not to obscure the pleasure we took in our favorite wines. The bottom line is that 15 years ago, many of the producers in our tasting did not exist. More striking still, the lineup of top wines is completely different from the ones in our 2012 tasting. The progress has been astounding.
“They need a little more time to figure it all out, but this is really exciting,” Arvid said.
All of our wines came from a cluster of appellations in northwestern Spain, predominantly Valdeorras, but also Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo. These are influenced by the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean, and hence are cooler, damper areas than elsewhere in Spain.
Our top wine was the 2013 Vel’uveyra from Ronsel do Sil in Ribeira Sacra, a lively wine with savory floral and mineral flavors. It was also our best value at $20. Ronsel do Sil is typical of many of the godello producers. It has been in business only since 2010, and makes a just small amount of wine.
No. 2 was the 2014 Cuvée de O from Bodegas Avancia in Valdeorras, a vivacious wine with flavors of citrus, apples and honeysuckle. Our No. 3 was the 2014 from Bodegas Godelia in Bierzo, a tangy, earthy, textured wine with aromas of flowers and herbs. This wine in particular had notes that reminded me of chenin blanc.
No. 4 was the 2013 Sobre Lías from Bodegas Valdesil in Valdeorras, a rich, floral wine with flavors of apples and minerals. The phrase “sobre lías” indicates that the wine was aged on its lees, which was apparent by its rich texture. The other bottle in our tasting labeled sobre lías was our No. 7, the 2013 Viña Somoza from Valdeorras, which also showed a telltale creaminess, well balanced by good acidity. (Incidentally, the label indication is strictly optional.)
The other wines in our top 10 varied between the taut and tangy, like the 2014 Triay from Monterrei and the 2013 A. Coroa from Valdeorras, and the richer styles, like the 2014 Guímaro from Ribeira Sacra, the 2014 from Palacio de Canedo in Bierzo and the 2013 Cepas Vellas from Bodegas Godeval in Valdeorras.
For now, at least, these wines represent excellent values. Nothing in our top 10 cost more than $25, though the most expensive wine in our tasting — the 2013 As Sortes from Rafael Palacios in Valdeorras — did not make the cut. Nothing was wrong with the $65 bottle; it just did not rise above the others. Other producers worth looking for include Dominio do Bibei and Telmo Rodriguez.