Faced with an Uncertain Future, Ribeiro Is at a Crossroads

Faced with an Uncertain Future, Ribeiro Is at a Crossroads

A man walks into a restaurant and the waiter shows him to his table. There’s jazz playing in the background, cutlery softly clinks against plates, and the well-dressed, attractive people at the other tables show us that this is an Upscale Modern Restaurant. A woman glances over her shoulder, trying to flag down the waiter.

“Treixadura, per favore,” she orders, with a smile. The other guests follow suit in Spanish and French, because, in addition to being an Upscale Modern Restaurant, this is a restaurant staffed by polyglots. When it’s time for our protagonist to order in English, he utters the highest form of blasphemy: “White wine, please.”

The entire place comes to a screeching halt—accompanied by a record scratch, of course—and the other diners whirl around in shock as the waiter glowers at the poor sap, who probably just wanted to drink a glass of Pinot Grigio with his dinner. Finally, the waiter holds up a card. Our man reads it and, to everyone’s relief, orders the right wine: “Treixadura, please.”

Cut to two wine glasses marked with the logo of the Ribeiro Denominación de Origen (DO) as our affable Englishman says the tagline: “It sounds good. It sounds like Treixadura. It sounds like Ribeiro.”

This is the latest advertising campaign from Ribeiro DO. It puts the spotlight on Treixadura, one of nine white grapes allowed for production there. Anyone can pronounce Treixadura, the ad seems to say. Even the English! One might wonder at the effort to teach people how to pronounce Treixadura (thats tray-sha-DOO-ra,” for the uninitiated) when they could just say Ribeiro, but thats not the point of the ad, which is part of a three-year campaign designed to leverage recognition of Treixadura as the wine regions main grape and bring Ribeiro to a wider wine-drinking public.

Ribeiro is facing a crisis—or several crises, really. For one, it has an age problem. The average grower is 65 years old and getting ready to retire. The flood of emigration that gutted Ribeiros population in the 20th century has been replaced with a steady trickle of young people leaving the countryside in search of better opportunities. In many cases, theres no one to take on elderly growers’ vines and continue farming them independently. Many parcels end up either consolidated in the hands of a few large wineries or simply neglected. Unlike other parts of the world, including Valais, Napa, and Bordeaux, there are no rules against abandoning vineyards in Ribeiro. Untended vines simply disappear into the rapidly growing underbrush. Ribeiros territory has shrunk by nearly 1,000 hectares (2,400 acres) over the past 20 years, and the prognosis for the next decade is bleak.

Ribeiro also has an image problem. At home in Galicia, wine from Ribeiro takes a back seat to more popular white wines, including Albariño from Rías Baixas, Verdejo from Rueda, and Godello from Valdeorras or even Bierzo. In the export market, if buyers have heard of Ribeiro, they tend to know only a handful of producers, such as Emilio Rojo and Luis Anxo Rodríguez.

And these days, Ribeiro also has a marketing problem: how can it differentiate itself from the rest of the panoply of wines available to the modern consumer? For many winemakers, the answer is clear. They must return to their history.

History Lesson

Ribeiro was once the biggest and richest winegrowing region in Galicia. It supplied wines to not only northern Spain but Europe as well. The oldest documents from Ribeiro date to the ninth century and mention the vines growing there. Since Galicia was barely affected by the Muslim conquest of Spain, it is possible that Ribeiros three valleys have been continuously planted with vines since the Roman era. Winemaking accelerated in the medieval period, driven by demand from landowning nobles and a handful of Cistercian monasteries that had established themselves in and around the region. The church and the nobility shared a desire for top-quality wine, and, in medieval Galicia, Ribeiro was the best place to find it. Wine from Ribeiro quickly became prized throughout Galicia, and Ribeiros fame gradually spread along Spains northern coast to the rest of Europe. The first client was Santiago de Compostela, which became known as the third-holiest pilgrimage site in Christendom after the discovery of the remains of Saint James in the ninth century. Pilgrims finishing their trek to the city celebrated in one of the many taverns that popped up to serve them. From there, the wine trade extended to the whole northern coast of Spain, from Galicia to the Basque Country.

Ribeiros first successes outside Spain can probably be attributed to the ancient British custom of traveling to Spain and getting really drunk. In 1386, the duke of Lancaster mounted a short-lived invasion of Galicia, sacking important towns, including Ribadavia, where his men found wine so strong they could barely drink it,” according to the chronicler of their misadventures, Jean Froissart. He went on to say that, if they drank too much, the hangover lasted two days. Obviously, this was no deterrent to anyone; over the next few centuries, the wine trade started booming. Although both red and white wines were made in Ribeiro, it was the white wines that became popular all over Europe. Ships full of wine came streaming out of Galicias ports, headed for France, Venice, Flanders, and England. Wine from Ribeiro even reached the Americas, where it was sold for nearly the same price as Sherry.

To stop anyone trying to capitalize on the Ribeiro boom with fraudulent trading, wine merchants drew up the Ordinances of 1579, establishing limits on what kinds of wine could enter Ribadavia and be sold as Ribeiro. This sounds similar to the modern-day concept of a wine appellation, suggesting that Ribeiros rules predate the Douros demarcation by about 200 years. When wars between Protestant England and Catholic Spain ended all trade between the two countries, however, the Portuguese benefited. English merchants were driven out of Galicia by accusations of heresy from the church and accusations of driving up prices from Galician wine traders. They left Galicia, quietly set up shop in a little town called Porto, and the rest is history.

Thus began the dark times for Ribeiro, which never really recovered after the English left. The region was devastated by one thing after another, continuing into the 20th century. Emigration, vine disease, poverty, civil war, and widespread wine fraud left Ribeiro in a shadow of its former glory. High-yielding grapes, including Palomino and Alicante Bouschet, replaced almost all the regions native varieties as struggling growers looked for the best way to make money. Merchants mixed cheap wine from grapes they grew in Castilla with wine from Ribeiro and sold it as authentic Ribeiro wine, capitalizing on the regions popularity among Galicians. The Spanish government granted Ribeiro DO status in 1932, but that didnt prevent fraudulent wine from reaching the marketplace. It wasnt until the 1960s that Ribeiro’s regulatory council began a push to declare harvests and control winemaking. Ribeiros modern renaissance came in the early 1990s, when a handful of producers decided to experiment with native grapes, including Treixadura, Lado, Albariño, and Godello. Driven by the success of neighboring Rías Baixas and positive press for winemakers, such as Emilio Rojo and Luis Anxo Rodríguez, others in Ribeiro eventually decided that the way forward was to replant vineyards with traditional grapes.

Which brings us to Treixadura.

The Treixadura Campaign

In a region whose wines were historically blends of different grape varieties, elevating one grape above the rest marks a shift in tone. According to Juan Manuel Casares, the president of Ribeiros regulatory council, the reasoning behind the change in communication is that modern consumers order not by appellation but by grape variety. This is common practice in Galicias other wine regions: instead of asking for a Rías Baixas, consumers ask for Albariño. Its the same with Mencía from Ribeira Sacra and Godello from Valdeorras. To avoid being the only Galician wine region without a signature grape, Ribeiro has hitched its wagon to Treixadura. Although Casares recognizes the departure from tradition, he insists that the messaging is still compatible with the regions multivarietal history, and that it links what he calls Ribeiros main grape with the Ribeiro brand to better market the region.

Not everyone agrees. Many winemakers in Ribeiro argue that the regions success doesnt come from a single grape; rather, it lies in Ribeiros history and terroir. Other Spanish appellations have certainly taken this approach: rarely would a Spaniard order a Tempranillo instead of a Rioja or a Ribera del Duero, for example. These winemakers view the push for Treixadura as benefiting only a few large wineries that produce huge amounts of value” wines—the type sold in supermarkets for less than 10. Cheaper wines often contain non-Galician grapes, such as Palomino—still very present in Ribeiro—but they can be sold with the DO Ribeiro label. Viña Costeira, Ribeiros largest cooperative, for example, makes a Ribeiro wine entirely from Palomino for the supermarket chain Eroski. Only around 5% of Ribeiros wineries operate at such a large scale.

The regions regulations divide wineries into the categories of adegas and colleiteiros. The former can make wine using grapes from their own vineyards or buy from other growers, and there are no limits on the amount of wine they can produce. The latter must produce fewer than 60,000 liters per year, using only grapes they farm themselves, but many colleiteiros dont come close to the 60,000-liter mark. Just under half of Ribeiros 101 wineries fall into the colleiteiro category. Many of these small producers worry that popularizing Treixadura will confuse consumers, leading them to associate the grape with any wine made from Treixadura, regardless of its origin. Rías Baixas is reckoning with a similar issue as growers in Uruguay, California, and even CastillaLa Mancha plant Albariño.

Casares rejects these predictions, saying, Ribeiro is always there. Were leveraging its main grape to give it a modern image, but always with the word Ribeiro in the advertisement.” While Casares insists on Treixaduras importance, he admits that the regulatory council never considered another campaign based only on Ribeiro,because practically no one knows Ribeiro on the international level.”

Small wineries also fear being pushed out of the market by a Treixadura boom that could lead consumers to choose cheaper options over high-quality artisan wines. Whats more, the reliance on a single grape variety can cause terroir ambiguities. Alberto Úbeda, the vice president of the Colleiteiro Association, says, Were surrounded by a lot of regions that grow Treixadura, or Trajadura.” In nearby Monterrei and in Condado do Tea, a subzone of Rías Baixas, some growers market monovarietal Treixadura. Examples grown across the border in Melgaço, Portugal (where the grape is called Trajadura), are much cheaper than Ribeiros Treixadura wines.

Úbeda believes that colleiteiros have no choice but to promote Ribeiros territory as its distinguishing quality. He explains, Bigger winery groups can open other wineries in different areas to increase profits, but we cant. If Treixadura becomes popular, the big wineries can just go make it in other regions at much more competitive prices. But then where does that leave Ribeiro?”

The grower Antonio Amil has no doubts about where it leaves Ribeiro. He predicts, Theyre going to plant Treixadura in Extremadura, La Mancha, and Requena. And youre going to have to make people see that Treixadura from Ribeiro is different, but then you have to ask yourself why you didnt just start by promoting Ribeiros terroir in the first place. But by that point nobody will be listening, because the people who order wine by grape variety will just order the cheapest wine.”

Looking Ahead

The disagreement over the Treixadura campaign is just a small part of the battle for Ribeiros future. Expansion is also on the horizon as larger wineries and the regulatory council push for new plantings. Casares says, If we want to have a competitive Ribeiro, we need to resize its territory.” Plans are underway to add several hundred hectares of vines, some of which will be on recovered land, and some of which will be newly planted.

Colleiteiros worry that planting more vines will cause already-low grape prices to plummet, and that a push to simply sell more wine will flood the market with low-priced wines that may or may not sustain demand. This isnt unique to Ribeiro. Elsewhere in Spain, Rioja is facing its own crisis as its wineries have more than 150 million liters of surplus wine. After years of larger wineries pushing to plant more vines and increase production, decreasing demand in the global market has finally caught up with Rioja, prompting the Spanish government to pay growers to distill their excess wine into fuel alcohol. In 2022, growers in Bordeaux protested in the streets after dwindling sales of value wines left many on the brink of financial ruin. A lack of successors in Bordeaux’s vineyards, like Ribeiro’s, poses a problem. More than half the growers in Bordeaux are over 55 years old, and more than a third of them are over 60.

Ribeiro can learn from these other wine regions and promote its terroir, says Úbeda. The future lies in the past, with the colleiteiros who are forming what I call wine start-ups,” he says. Theres no future in just growing grapes. Winemaking is the future. We need to recover that image of Ribeiro as a wine region that was lost.”

From the regulatory councils point of view, modernization is whats needed most. Casares explains, Ribeiro was the national wineof Galicia for centuries, but, at the same time, it was linked to a bucolic past. The advertising was always the same: small holdings [minifundios], a grower harvesting a parcel and speaking in rustic terms. Now theres a process underway to create something new. This doesnt mean breaking with the past but modernizing.”

Úbeda isnt so sure. Campaigns like these are based on trends, which are fleeting,” he says. This is short-term thinking on the part of large wineries, not small family wineries. We cant think about two, three, or five years from now. I need to think about what grapes my children are going to harvest.”

But Ribeiros future isnt so black and white. In recent years, wineries in Ribeiro have been acquired by major players, such as Matarromera and Pago de Carraovejas, the latter of which bought the winery that arguably put Ribeiro back on the map: Emilio Rojo. Úbeda thinks these outside wineries are a harbinger of big things to come. Ribeiro could surge in the next five years, he says, paving the way for more young people to get into viticulture and inject welcome human capital into the region.

Úbeda, however, warns that the future is uncertain if current trends continue. If Ribeiro fails, the large wineries have a plan B,” he says. We dont have a plan B.”

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Photo credit: Ribeiro DO