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Galicia, Spain’s Paradise
"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.
Mr. Cuerda, who has studied the history of the region for several years, has begun actively 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 Viña 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, Viña Mein has been one of the leaders 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 native vines — like savory white-wine grapes, primarily treixadura, godello and albariño.
The day we explored the Sanclodio bodega — tasting samples from the harvests of 2006 and 2005 — Mr. Cuerda chastised us for never having visited Galicia. To remedy that, the director promised to fetch us in the morning from the Hotel Monumento Monasterio de San Clodio, the transformed monastery. (We had rented rooms there thinking they were connected to the eponymously named vineyard. They were — albeit centuries ago.)
To understand Galicia, Mr. Cuerda asserted the next morning from the driver’s seat of his slate-blue PT Cruiser, 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. In each yard there was something that looked like a coffin on stilts. They were 18th-century granaries called horreos, high above ground to prevent humidity and mold, with slats of wood spaced slightly apart to promote air circulation. Many are still in use.
At San Ciprián de Las, we parked and walked. Under construction nearby is a research center that will highlight these ancient ruins, Mr. Cuerda said, but that morning we were alone. This castro was an entire city — it was probably Celtic, explained Mr. Cuerda — with a well-preserved Roman cobblestone road running up the center. There are circles and squares where each house stood, stones perched on stones, held together only by pressure; the fireplaces are still blackened from ancient cooking fires.
We hiked to the top of the hill. On the other side there were still more circles — home-foundations more than 2,000 years old. Church bells chimed in the distance.
“They are announcing a death in the town,” Mr. Cuerda said. “The sound is different for a death.”
BUT nothing could have felt less dead than the green hillside, the distant vineyards and the River Miño far below. Along the Miño are natural thermal sulfur baths, some easy to get to, some incorporated into hotels, some that require hiking.
Mr. Cuerda promised to take us to one — but first he 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Boborás and Carballiño. Nearly every home we passed had its own garden of grapes on gnarled vines producing only enough for individual home consumption.
Galicians — women in faded housedresses, weathered-looking men — stared at the car, bemused. Mr. Cuerda has a finca near Carballiño, 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.
Mr. 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. This is what a monastery is supposed to feel like — stark, isolated and ethereal.
The Sunday we visited, a young monk was professing his vows to the Cistercian order — unusual these days — and the church was packed. Monks sang Gregorian chants, the novice’s biological siblings took digital pictures.
Mr. Cuerda whispered to me throughout the service: “Look at the late Baroque touches,” he said, pointing at frescoes and painted wood. “And the 13th-century statues.”
At the end of the service, Francisco José Fraga Civeira stopped us. Only 35, he is the mayor of a nearby town, Piñor, and a friend of Mr. Cuerda’s. Mr. Fraga Civeira offered to give us a tour of the monastery.
Oseira was built from the 12th to the 18th centuries but abandoned from 1835 until 1929. Today, monks live there again — and pilgrims can rent rooms there. “Graham Greene stayed here!” more than one monk told us.
There is a musty but impressive library that holds the archives of the region as well as poorly preserved books dating back centuries. The monastery is known for its architectural peculiarities, like 15th-century palm-shaped pillars of carved granite, and an ancient water conducting system.
“In the time of Franco, it was briefly a prison,” Mr. Fraga Civeira said, “and parents would say to kids, ‘If you’re bad, you’ll go to Oseira!’ ”
As if on cue, we were locked in. Having slipped off the main tour meant that no one was aware we were still there. It took us 20 minutes to find a monk to let us out.
As promised, after the tour, Mr. Cuerda took us on to the 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!”
Mr. 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.”