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.