"It has always been more important to gain perspective and knowledge from the expression of the vineyards, and from there understand what they need; to be able to read the vines is to be able to defend them.”
Many describe the Ribeira Sacra as being home to "impossibly" steep slopes, but it’s clear that nothing is impossible for Fedellos do Couto. Rather, their boy-ish charm tells us that it is somewhat an act of rebellion for them to take on the steep, partially abandoned vines of the Ribeira Sacra with such fervour.
You might know the Ribeira Sacra from the easily recognisable images of the ‘Golden Mile’; a glorious stretch of terraced vines which, comparatively, have been well conserved. But that’s just not Fedellos do Couto’s jam. Instead, by embracing the challenging nature of old and neglected vines, the trio has rescued a struggling area and turned it into one of the region’s most exciting young projects.
Meet The Fedellos
“We’d have to clone ourselves to be able to do all of the things we’d like to do.”
Fedellos translates loosely as brats or young troublemakers — a fitting moniker for three friends whose mission is to shake up the Galician status quo. The Fedellos in question are winemakers Jesús Olivares and Curro Bareño, two university friends who spent their formative years in the Sierra de Gredos with Daniel Landi, before establishing themselves in Galicia as consultants to Ronsel do Sil. And Luis Tabaoda; an astro-physisist by trade, whose family have owned the 12th Century Couto manor for generations.
As we chat with Curro Bareño, we learn that he grew up in Méntrida, a small wine region in north-west Spain. Here, he grew up amongst the vines (his grandmother has some vineyards in the area), and fell in love with the notion from an early age. It was in Mentrida that Curro met Daniel Landi;
“We can’t remember when we first met. Our families had known each other for years, so essentially we met when we were in the cradle.”
Unbeknownst to him that his career (and first cuvée) would be a partnership with his cradle-companion, Curro set off for the Universidad Internacional de La Rioja (UNIR) to begin a degree in Agriculture. Ironically, when finishing his degree, Curro found out that Daniel had taken over his grandfather's vineyards and begun to make wine. Since Curro had specialised in environmental studies and spent a considerable amount of his degree focussing on bodega and vineyard management, winemaking had always been the natural pathway for him. However, as often goes with brotherly relationships;
“I thought ‘no… if Danny is doing this then I’m not going to go into the wine business.’”
Luckily, one of his teachers realised his defiance and insisted to him that his passion for viticulture wasn’t something he could simply ignore. The teacher – or divine interventionist, as we should probably call him – took Curro under his wing and invited him to work with him at his bodega; researching at first, since he had been reluctant to get stuck in at the winery.
“I remember at the time I was refusing to do the winemaking. I was quite a sceptic at the time. I was drinking rubbish wines, and my knowledge about wine was next to nothing.”
Curro pauses for a second, and chuckles. It’s funny how defiance can only really get you so far.
It was also at UNIR that Curro met Jesús. After a three-year stint working at a bodega in Galicia (where his love of the region was ignited) Curro moved on to a winery near to Mentrida, back to his roots. But, as fate would have it, destiny stepped in and veered his course back to Galicia, where a friend then happened to get in touch to call upon Curro’s help for a project in the Ribeira Sacra. Curro enlisted the help of Jesús (why have two hands when you can have four?) and the duo worked together for Ronsel do Cil for almost three years.
After spending three years leading the project—from finding vineyards and planting vines, to designing the labels, to mapping out a commercial and global plan—Jesús and Curro had become rooted in the area. They knew that they had to initiate a new project there, an independent venture, but the question was simply, ‘how?’
Whilst at Ronsel do Cil, the two met Pablo Soldavini;
“He’s a good guy with such a good energy and passion for wine, so we thought OK we need this guy to help us start this ‘thing’. We really wanted to emancipate ourselves. It was going to be something that we were really doing alone.”
Somewhere along the way their paths crossed with Luis Taboada, who would become the final piece of the Fedellos puzzle.
“Luis came back to his roots in Tenerife to try and get back his family house, which was in ruins. One of his ideas was also to make a bodega, so he started to make his own wine.”
The trio spent a lot of time exchanging ideas and plans, with Curro and Jesús advising Luis on his winemaking.
“After some time he asked us to actually help him make his wine and so we said ‘yeah, we’ll give you a hand for sure!’ We also said, ‘why don’t you give us a little space to make our wine too?’ He was up for it. His first vintage was 2012, and ours was 2013. Just as harvest was about to start for us, he said ‘look, why don’t we just gang up together?’”
Curro laughs, and Lupo, his canine vineyard companion pops his head in to say hello,
“Luis’ mantra is quite… let’s call it ‘hippyish’. It was becoming too much for him to run it on his own, and so in the end Jesús and I took over. And that’s how it started.”
“We work organically, and that’s our sole perspective.”
Farming organically and with some biodynamic principles, the project is based in the wild and very remote south-eastern corner of the Ribeira Sacra, between Ribeiras do Sil and Bibei. In Madrid, Curro explains that it’s much easier to work organically because it’s so dry; the soils, the landscape and the climate make farming vineyards much simpler. More importantly, the land in Madrid can be worked by tractor, but in Ribeira Sacra, the steep terraced vineyards mean that work can only be done by hand (with some very steady footing required!)
Whilst the region is known for its glorious landscapes and breathtaking sloped terraces, it is of little interest to big wineries due to the impossibility of using machinery.
“In Spain, at the moment, you have big bodegas striking back and buying land in many places… but it’s not in Ribeira Sacra due to the cost of managing the vineyards. For one of these bodegas to be interested, you have to be able to cultivate the land with a tractor.”
This is a breath of fresh air (and a weight off their backs), allowing the Fedellos to continue their project without having to watch their backs.
The Fedellos’ vineyards tend to miss the full sun that strikes the terraces on the Golden Mile, on the northern bank of the Sil. With less sun comes lighter, higher acidity and lower alcohol. Often, the vineyards have been abandoned by retired farmers, so many of the vines recovered by the trio are in need of some serious TLC.
“When you get to Bibei, it’s a pretty abandoned area. There are many vineyards that are still untended..”
It can seem like a marathon at times. Curro explains,
“We are, at heart, minimal interventionists. We have some vines which we take care of more closely, the ones we’ve had for longer. We also have some vineyards that we have had to recover very slowly, and from those we get very few grapes.”
When it comes to tending to his vines, Curro notes that the bulk of his knowledge of biodynamics came from working in the vineyard.
“I knew the plants, because I had studied botany, but I didn’t know that I could use horsetail to prevent some diseases, for example. I probably learnt more about how to use less resources and to create better energy for agriculture from two months in a bodega.”
This is crucial knowledge for both organic viticulture and for reviving neglected vines.
“Our point of view is to work naturally in the vineyards, and most of our work is done there.. For the wines, we do add sulphites, but that’s the only thing we add.”
During their time in Ribeira Sacra, they’ve managed to map out the soil types of the region and to collect samples of plots that span the four distinct soil types of the area. Though they might call themselves the Brats of Couto, their daredevil nature has enabled the revival of a region which might otherwise have slowly disappeared on the winemakers’ map.
When Jesús and Curro arrived in Bibei, they were penniless but hungry to start something of their own. They had realised that although in the Golden Mile things were much simpler, the diversity of plantings and grape varieties in the Bibei posed a much more exciting project.
“Vineyards are coplanted to many different varieties. They’re all mixed up together, red and white, in no particular order. It’s random, which was an agricultural strategy from the old days. For us, it had everything—the purity of old vineyards, and it had retained the cultural integrity of the area.”
Moving from valley to valley (from Bibei, one side of the Ribeira Sacra, to Valdeorras on the other) you’ll find a pack of varieties. There is Mencía, the most notable grape of the region and one which features in many of the Fedellos’ wines, plus Negreda, Garnacha Tintorera and Merenzao (also known Bastarda in Portugal and Trousseau in the Jura), from which they make their iconic Bastarda cuvée. To protect the culture of the land, Curro tells us that it’s illegal to plant certain grapes in various areas of Spain.
“In some areas, French varieties that were not really suited to the area were planted. That’s why you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Petit Verdot in some places.”
In the winery, the Fedellos follow a minimal interventionist path. Fermentations occur with whole bunches, relying solely on indigenous yeasts, after which the wines are aged for over a year in old oak barrels. They are bottled, unfined and unfiltered.
Agriculturalists at heart, the Fedellos’ wines respect the natural environment and celebrate the traditional agriculture of the region and its previous farmers. The wines reflect the terroir, with a freshness and specific minerality that only comes from Galician vines.
As for what’s next?
“We’d have to clone ourselves to be able to do all of the things we’d like to do. For the most recent project, we’ve found some Carignan and some Garnacha, both Mediterranean varieties. They’re in a tiny area between some terraces; it’s quite abandoned in terms of agriculture, and really quite special. Until you arrive at the vineyard and you can walk around, it’s really difficult to explain. You know when you see a place and you think; “I have to come here... I have to do something here...”
He trails off, picturing the vineyard. We hope to see it for ourselves one day. As we realise we’ve been on the phone for an hour, we ask him how the 2020 vintage has been. He says,
“We had hail in some places. But we’re used to it by now. It’s like when you have a cold – it’s something you get over and that’s it. In agriculture it’s something that you just simply have to deal with. If not, we could jump off a cliff – I’ve got one very near me.”
He’s kidding, of course. It’s this pragmatic optimism – and dark humour – that makes us love Fedellos do Couto as much as we love their wines. And that’s a lot.