In 2018, Javier Fernández González made a phone call that would alter the course of his already quietly celebrated Ribeira Sacra winery. Born into a family with a history of farming, Javier’s dream of the future went beyond the continuation of his father’s construction business, where he worked during the week. On weekends he focused on a winemaking project with the vineyards, most of which came from the family of his wife, María Jesús. He would go on to increase his family’s vineyard holdings to five hectares, with many old-vine parcels of local, indigenous varieties, along with a large focus on Mencía, the most widely planted red grape variety in Ribeira Sacra.
I met Javier once, before he fell ill, but it was obvious that he was a hard worker, as evidenced by the vineyards he planted and the strength of his hands, along with his reputation in the region. My experience with him was of a quiet man, not only because of the language barrier between us—what with his lack of English and my (for now) rudimentary Spanish—but because, as his family says, that’s just the way he was. Not only was he a workaholic, it was clear that he was a deep thinker about his life and what he was doing. Sadly, a few months after my visit he received a diagnoses of cancer. It took only a few months before he succumbed.
Enter Pablo Soldavini
It was Pablo Soldavini, a middle-aged Argentinian with a special talent for winegrowing, who Javier called in 2018 to discuss the future of Adegas Saíñas and a possible collaboration. Javier began to feel the toll of the years in construction work with his father before he started the winery, and then the years of planting and tending to vines and making wine began to pile up. From the outside, winegrowing might seem like a romantic way of life, and it can be, but it’s backbreaking work—especially the vineyard work. While it builds strength in one’s youth and physical prime, ultimately there’s a heavy price to pay. He needed help, and his daughter, Saleta and her husband, Jorge, had built a different life harvesting something else: energy. They traveled the globe assisting with the commissioning of electrical power plants, sometimes living for years in various locations such as Brazil, South Africa, Holland, Israel and the Dominican Republic. They were not winemakers, but today it seems like that was their destiny.
Pablo Soldavini’s grandfather, Antonio Amaro, left the small Ribeira Sacra town, Castro Caldelas, in the 1930s at the age of ten. His mother died during childbirth and after years of struggle with his father and the new wife, his father sent him to Argentina to live with his two uncles. Pablo grew up in the small town Punta Alta, just outside of Bahía Blanca, a medium-sized port city in Argentina to the south of Buenos Aires. After primary school, he went on to study and eventually work in graphic design with some carpentry jobs on the side. The idea of returning to his grandfather’s Galician roots began to take hold, and he was simply too full of energy for the years of sitting in one place required to succeed as a graphic designer.
With a magnetic draw toward his family’s ancestral stomping grounds along with an interest in the romantic side of wine, Pablo left Argentina in 2000. After about a year meandering through Mexico (where his son and his son’s mother lived), followed by Paris, and the British city, Lancaster, he finally arrived at his grandfather’s home in Castro Caldelas, the unexpectedly beautiful medieval Galician town, atop a hill in the Ribeira Sacra with a well-preserved castle called Castillo de Castro Caldelas.
In Galicia, with the “romantic wine life” in mind, he was introduced to the completely unromantic side of the business, with its industrially-processed grapes one wouldn’t even want to eat, and chemically farmed and over-cropped vineyards void of nearly all life beyond the vines. None of this end of the wine trade made sense to him, especially the fact that just to make a couple extra bucks, many small grape growers would spray herbicide and pesticide chemicals in their vineyards, just to increase their yields a bit, even where they were growing other crops for their own family’s consumption. He started to feel disillusioned about wine, but he began to work with his cousins who made vineyard work for growers in the area and worked in a more natural way. There he learned better ways to farm, and began taking courses on pruning and grape growing in general, and the romance was rekindled.
Pablo’s viticultural ideas are centered on respect for nature, and his mind is open to the world of possibilities in this regard. While he’s quirky and fun, and even a little antsy (well, maybe more than a little…), he’s also mentally calm and extremely thoughtful about the choices he and others make. When he’s learned something, he’s not pushy, but rather humble and is able to deliver the message to his fellow Gallegan winegrowers in a realistic and pragmatic fashion. The best thing about Pablo, aside from his natural generosity and effusiveness, is that his ambition is focused on learning things and experiencing life without a preoccupation with money. In our many conversations about wine and life, he has reiterated his disinterest in being wealthy, how he only wants to work in a way that supplies him with enough to live, while giving him a sense of meaning.
At The Source, we are infatuated with terroir but we’re even more infatuated by the people; it’s the influence of those who work the terroirs that has a greater voice than any other element of a wine. Every grape Pablo Soldavini comes in contact with seems to benefit from his touch—somehow this Galician outsider has that special instinct, and his ability to quickly understand the nature of a terroir and to coax it into breakout performance is a rare thing indeed.
Pablo attributes much of his knowledge to his time working with his cousins in the early 2010s, followed by his time as a former partner at the Fedellos do Couto Ribeira Sacra winery, and others he admires for their work in the Ribeira Sacra, like Pedro Rodríguez of Guimaro, and even more so, his close relationship to Alfonso Torrento, from Envínate. The mutual respect for Pablo and his compatriots in Galicia is clear, and even wine writers, like one of Spain’s most passionate, Luis Gutiérrez, understand how Pablo can swing the fortunes of those he works with quite dramatically.
Moving Forward After Javier
Javier’s wife, María Jésus, and his daughter and her husband, Saleta and Jorge, were forced to move forward in the business. In the 2020 vintage, Saleta and Jorge have taken on the challenge and immediately continued Javier’s work in the cellar and vineyards. With their motivation to carry on what was so well-established by Javier combined with the support of Pablo’s expertise and the day-to-day support of María Jésus, the family business is in capable hands.
Vineyard Philosophy and Practice
All the vineyards of Saíñas are slowly being converted to organic farming. Pablo believes that too much of an abrupt change from conventional farming to organic can be a costly mistake—a shared belief with many winegrowers who have converted. The break from their dependence on those treatments that had been used since they were planted can shock the plant and possibly stunt the growth and production of the vineyards, sometimes for longer than expected or needed. It may take about six years for completion, but the process has already had notable effect in some vineyard sections.
In the vineyards Mencía is the most widely planted grape, but also there is a good proportion of Garnacha Tintorera, Alicante Bouschet, Mouratón, Merenzao (Trousseau, in French), Godello, Palomino, Caíño Bravo, and probably some others as well. The age of the wines range between 60-70 years, with some that are twenty.
In the cellar there are a couple of different camps. The first is what Jorge and Saleta envision for the overall practice and style—perhaps a continuation of Javier’s ideas on wine. The other, that of Pablo, is more or less a continuation of his ideas around wine developed over the years before Saíñas, which are a combination of gentle winemaking and a move away from single-variety dominated blends. Starting with the 2020 vintage, the team worked all the grapes together with the different methods, all with the oversight and expertise of Pablo along the way.
In general, the first sulfite additions are made at harvest time, but this depends on the fruit. Most of the fermentations are made in open-top 1000-liter fermenters and there are no added yeast cultures, only natural fermentations. The stems are used almost in entirety with an average of about 90%, and the extractions are extremely gentle and could be considered a quasi-infusion style with the grape cap only wetted a couple of times per day to keep the must healthy through fermentation. The fermentations on skins last around a month before pressing and the juice spends a night in tank before transfer to either stainless steel tanks or barrels where they spend between six months to one year before bottling.
Ribeiras do Sil, A Ribeira Sacra Subzone
Between the rivers Miño and Sil, the Cabe flows through Monforte de Lemos, the historical and closest hub for the Ribeira Sacra. As this small river meanders southwest into the Ribeira Sacra subzone, Ribeiras do Miño, eight or nine kilometers before it spills into the Sil, are the winery and vineyards of Saiñas.
Saiñas is in a highly polycultural agricultural land with expansive natural biodiversity. Like much of northwestern Spain and Portugal, most families in the countryside grow a multitude of different seasonal crops, including grapes, mostly for personal consumption, but the excess is either exchanged with others or sold at local markets. The average countryside galego is quite capable in growing things.
Vineyards are scattered among a patchwork of different crops, some on flat areas and others on steeper hillsides. A drive through the thick forests close to the river reveals evidence of ancient, steeply terraced vineyards, likely first cultivated by the Romans. Sometime between the late 1800s and early 1900s these vineyards and most others in Galician were gradually abandoned. That time period began with a series of challenges brought in from America, starting with the foreign mildews, powdery and downey, and the famous root louse, phylloxera—all were devastating and took decades to work around. Already economically off balance, the people suffered a series of wars and a dictatorship, which led most into financial ruin. Most able workers were forced into city centers to make a living in the industrial sector—a familiar story in many European wine areas, with Galicia a nearly perfect parallel to Piemonte, in Italy; most notably the Alto Piemonte, at the base of the Alps.
Saiñas has five main vineyards that all sit around three hundred meters of altitude and they are located in a geologically complex system within this area of the Ribeiras do Miño. (See the vineyards on Google Earth here) Two are by the Cabe on terraces, and three are inside a small, north to south valley. There are a lot of grape varieties planted and in the flatter vineyards is a treasure trove of old vines and rare varieties, with some of them more than eighty years old. There’s a mix of Mencía, Garnacha Tintorera, Mouratón, Merenzao, and the white grapes, Godello and Palomino. Mencia was a focal point for most of the newer plantings, and I suppose that if there is a Ribeira Sacra subzone ideally suited to help retain the much needed acidity in Mencia grapes, it could be here in the Ribeiras do Miño as much as anywhere else; and perhaps even more so along the Cabe surrounded by thick forest with its naturally cooling effect, like Saiñas’s star vineyards, O Bolino and Castro das Saiñas. These two vineyards are in a rare and privileged position where the southwest meandering Cabe takes a hard right turn toward the west and holds the direction for just short of a kilometer, placing these two in a privileged south-facing position.
Castro das Saíñas
Early in the 1990s, Javier took on the task to replant a mostly abandoned, precariously steep, two-hectare granite hill he would later call Castro das Saíñas. Its eastern and upper section is sunk back into the hill in a sort of miniature amphitheater, facing south and slightly southwest. The lower section, a granite outcrop has the feeling that it protrudes out of the hill and overhead, and most of the terraces are chaotically laid out because of the amount of granite boulders on the hill. Planted entirely to Mencia, the vines grow on thin topsoil composed of extremely fine-grained granite sand derived from the bedrock. Castro das Saíñas also has the added advantage of thick, wild and green forest below the vineyard and to the west, patches of indigenous trees and other cultivated orchards above and around it.
O Boliño, the nickname of its former owner, is also close to the river but a little further away toward the east, just out of sight of Castro das Saíñas. The vines here have an average age of around eighty years and are Mencía (70%), Garnacha Tintorera (10%), and the remaining vines more or less equally planted between Mouratón, Merenzao, and the white grapes, Godello and Palomino. The terraces are not extreme like those on Castro das Saiñas, but rather on a softer slope with many more vine rows on each terrace. The parcel is on the eastern side of a south-facing amphitheater composed of heavily decomposed granite bedrock and a medium-grain, sandy topsoil composed entirely of granite derived from the bedrock—think a mini version of Cornas, but less steep. The parcel is also set next to a grove of indigenous trees on its eastern flank. (Galicia is a land invaded by eucalyptus trees which can mark wines grown in close proximity to them, and I think it’s interesting to note the composition of surrounding forests and whether they include this invasive Australian tree, or not.) The close proximity to the forest improves the freshness of its temperature during scorching hot days. It also improves the overall biodiversity inside the vineyard, and delays the sun’s influence until later in the morning—and these elements are felt in this fresh tasting wine.
The other three vineyards, Eirexa, Campo da Festa, and the vineyard that surrounds the winery and family home, As Laxas, are located away from the river, above the O Boliño and Castro, in a small, wide valley with less wild forest groves but great agricultural and natural biodiversity. Here there are numerous hamlets, different crops, and a lot of scattered vineyard parcels.
Inside this small valley the bedrock and topsoil is different than O Boliño and Castro das Saíñas. Within each vineyard, the topsoil can be derived from a mix of granodiorite (an intrusive igneous rock closely related to granite with the same mineral composition but in slightly different proportions) and/or schist, the latter an unexpected geological twist inside this area almost completely composed of igneous rock, save this sliver of metamorphic rock that follows a long, north to south fault. The topsoil in this valley is notably redder in color than those by the river, indicating the likelihood of iron oxide, likely influenced by the nearby schist formation. It is my experience, and the experience of some other winemakers I’ve spoken with, that iron oxide in soil (presuming that it is indeed that in this case) often impart more flesh, roundness, suppleness, and sometimes particular palate textures; all generally leading to wines with more the impression of more power—take as examples much of the Pinot Noir hotspots in Burgundy with iron oxide-rich clay, or the rich, spicy and fuller Rieslings grown in Germany on red slate compared blue or grey.
Many sections of these vineyards are flat while others are mildly sloped, but not even close to the steepness of those vineyards closer to the river. However, in this land known for its extreme vineyards, it doesn’t automatically mean less visually impressive vineyards produce lesser wines; nor does it mean the opposite—they’re just different. From a finished wine standpoint, the visual and romantic feeling that surrounds crazy-steep vineyards makes them automatically impressive in our minds, but it’s the balance of each specific vineyard that matters. Sometimes it’s the contrary, flatter can be better; think of the incredible wines rendered from the grand cru Chambertin, or the Châteauneuf-du-Pape legend, Château Rayas, or the flat vineyards of Spain’s national monument, Vega Sicilia. It depends on what lies below the surface, the quality of the vineyard’s genetic material, and how in tune the grower is with his or her vineyard along with the level of craftsmanship and knowledge they possess to potentially craft compelling wines.
Located next to an old chapel, Eirexa is the vineyard that supplies the grapes for Granito Rosa wine. It’s flat, and the topsoil is dark and more fertile. This leads some of the old vine trunks to resemble those of a squat, old tree trunk more than a vine. Scattered about are igneous rocks (granodiorite and likely some granite too) and orangish/brown schist, the latter probably deposited by water from some other location. There’s a mix of all different types of grapevines: Mencía, Garnacha Tintorera, Mouratón, Merenzao, Godello, Palomino and probably some others too; most of the time in field blends people no longer know exactly what they have. Pablo Soldavini, their consultant, believes that these vines have great potential to produce compelling wines and plans to explore them more thoroughly, as he will with all of the Saiñas vineyards. For the record, the vineyard’s historic names are As Bruxas and Manoliche.
Campo da Festa and the As Laxas vineyards sit inside a geological convergent point. Just a few hundred meters to the east is granite bedrock, but here the bedrock is composed of granodiorite and metamorphic rock—the latter is mostly schist, but with some remnants of slate scattered on the surface, which may have been brought in from elsewhere. This seemingly out of place metamorphic outcrop enters the valley from the northeast like a knife wedge piercing the igenous rock-dominated landscape. Campo da Festa is much more sloped than Eirexa and Castro das Saiñas, and is composed of a mixture of sandy granodiorite and schist topsoil, likely derived from the bedrock. The grain is coarse sand with a lot of quartz. The grapes planted are Mencia, Alicante Bouschet, Mouratón, Palomino, Godello and a few plants of the rare red, Caiño Bravo. As Laxas is mostly on a flat, igneous and metamorphic bedrock, and planted entirely to Mencia.