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Ribeiro: the First Wine that Christopher Columbus Brought to America

The Blog Post is my English translation of an article written by the top Galician storyteller and writer, Iván Fernández Amil, who kindly decided to help me with my research into the history of Ribeiro wine and by giving his permission to publish it. I have always been fascinated with the history and its importance of the wine producing area of Ribeiro. The history deserves to be rediscovered so we can start to value Ribeiro’s world importance and encourage people to try and rediscover these ancient wines.

The discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 had a secret ingredient for such a long and risky journey: Galician wine.

On 12th of October 1492, a Spanish expedition reached a new continent, beginning a new era in the history of humanity. It was Christopher Columbus, who had left Huelva on 3rd of August of that same year to find a new route to the Indies. The island they had arrived at was present day Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas that they named San Salvador. After reaching Cuba and Santo Domingo they returned to Spain with objects and indigenous people from the new lands. This fact is one of the fundamental moments of universal history. And in this historic event Galicia participated, of course. And in addition to other known facts, she did it in a surprising and unexpected way. The wine that the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María carried on board was one of the most appreciated of their time, a treasure from one of the most magical places in Galicia, Ribeiro wine, the first to cross the Atlantic and arrive in America, and one of the oldest Appellations of Origin in the world.

The ships of discovery : La Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María

The nucleus of the Ribeiro region is located in the town of Ribadavia, west of the city of Ourense, and has unique climatic conditions as it is located between mountains and canyons excavated by the Miño, Avia, Arnoia and Barbantiño rivers. Ribeiro wine has an incredibly old history and, although the origin of its varieties is not known with certainty, everything seems to indicate that its rise began with the Romans, forerunners of almost everything in the Iberian Peninsula. When they colonised an area, they promoted its own agriculture and, above all, that related to wine, of which they were great lovers.

Map of Ribeiro Denomination of Origin

The discovery of roman wine presses (bases of presses dug into the rock to crush the grapes) from the third century, seems to indicate that at that time wine was already made in the area, which makes it the oldest wine in Spain and one of the oldest in the world.

Roman Wine Press

In the 5th century, with the decline of the Empire, the barbarian invasions of Hispania took place, which almost made the vine growing in the area disappear. Fortunately, not only did it not disappear, but it reappeared thanks to the appearance of a large number of monasteries and palatial houses, dedicated almost exclusively to the production of Ribeiro wine, due to its high market value.

Typical Ribeiro Vineyards

It was regarded to such an extent as a highly valued asset, that in 1133 a decree was published in Santiago de Compostela in which the provisions that were marketed in the city were listed, this wine being the product with the highest price on this list.

It is said that in the 14th century, during the confrontations between Spain, Portugal and England, Edward from Woodstock,the  Prince of Wales, accompanied by his invincible archers, after passing through Ribadavia and tasting her famous wines began to import them to England. In addition, in 1386 the siege took place and the town was taken by the English troops of the Duke of Lancaster. Ribeiro wine appears in the chronicles of the time with a reputation for high quality wine, and from this date there was an important boom in the export of these to England, which would last for more than 350 years, outshining the rest of the French and Spanish wines.

Its greatest splendour occurs between the 15th and 16th centuries, becoming one of the best wines in the world, being exported to France, Portugal, Italy, Great Britain … It was transported in carriages and embarked in the ports of Pontevedra, Vigo, Baiona or A Coruña bound for the Bay of Biscay, Brittany, Flanders and… America.

In 1500, the Catholic Monarchs heard news of the bad government of Columbus in the Americas, which led them to commission Francisco de Bobadilla to carry out a trial, which would become known as the “Inquest of  Bobadilla”. The records of this trial were lost for a long time until, in 2006, experts in Wine History from the Ourense Campus of the University of Vigo, rediscovered in the National Archive of Simancas a document related to the interrogations that linked the presence of wine from Ribeiro with the first trip of Columbus.

The document that was used in that trial as evidence against the Admiral’s actions includes the testimony of a priest who had fallen ill during the trip. The daily diet of the crew included a litre of water and three quarters of a litre of wine, but this priest had asked Columbus,for a larger amount than the allotted share,to speed up his healing, of the “good wine from Ribadavia”,a request that Columbus denied.

Copy of “Inquest of Bobadilla”

Ribeiro was highly appreciated in the Spanish Court and even universal writers such as Cervantes or Quevedo already brought this wine to their works, and it is likely that the Catholic Monarchs themselves decided to order Ribeiro to embark on Columbus’ expedition to the Indies.

In any case, the first consignment of wine officially registered as such bound for America, was issued in 1502, and it was wine from Villalba del Alcor, County of Huelva, and it was 295kg worth 1,422 maravedies that were shipped aboard the Spaniard.

The first official expedition of Ribeiro wine to the New Continent occurred in 1592, the year in which over 26,500 litres of this wine were shipped from Ferrol to America for a value of 190 reales.

Due to the vital importance of wine in the region, its fraudulent trade began to emerge. In order to regulate, guarantee and protect its quality and its productive area, in 1589 the Ribadavia Ordinances were drawn up, which specified the cultivation areas, their practices and sanctions in case of non-compliance. These Ordinances are considered as a precedent of the current regulations of Denominations of Origin and the World Intellectual Property Organisation recognises them as the oldest regulatory document of a Denomination of Origin in Spain and one of the oldest on the planet.

Ribadavia Castle

This is how Ribeiro wine, considered one of the best wines in the world, was possibly the first to reach America. And all, thanks to Christopher Columbus. Perhaps the Admiral is more related to Galicia than we think … Although that will already be another of our Histories of History. As another illustrious Galician said: VIVA EL VINO! LONG LIVE WINE!


Iván Fernández Amil , 14th February 2021

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