The Ancient Exportation of Ribeiro Wine (“Ribadavia”) to Great Britain
This Blog Post is dedicated to an article written by local historian Clodio González Pérez from the Royal Galician Academy whom I recently met at the 2021 Ribeiro Wine Festival as the article is based on his talk. I have always been fascinated with the history of the wine producing area of Ribeiro and the importance of its history including as it relates to Great Britain. The history deserves to be rediscovered so we can start to rebuild the excellent relations that existed between the British and the people and wineries from Ribeiro. The article is my translation of Clodio’s article.
The Ancient Exportation of Ribeiro Wine (“Ribadavia”) to Great Britain
Ribeiro or Ribadavia wine, as it was known before, is produced in the region of the same name, just over 20 km from the capital of the province, Ourense, and the same distance from the border with Portugal.
These mountainous lands located in the basins of the River Miño and its tributaries the Avia and Arnoia, enjoy an excellent Mediterranean microclimate for the cultivation of the vine and conservation of the grape, with moderately dry and hot summers and cold winters but without major frosts. The beginning of viticulture dates back to Roman times, reaching great prestige during the Middle Ages (5-15th centuries), as demonstrated by documentary sources since the 9th century, due, above all, to the work of various monasteries and, in particular, of the Benedictine of San Clodio from Ribeiro, currently converted into a large hotel.
During the Middle Ages, it was already considered one of the most famous in the Iberian Peninsula, as evidenced by the fact that ecclesiastics and nobles wanted to have land here with vineyards, even an occasional King, such as Bermudo III (1027-1037), or that he was praised by others in their poems, including Alfonso X El Sabio.
It is still not known exactly when exportation commenced to Great Britain, but it was during the Middle Ages and, to begin with,certainly related to the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. As documented by the fact that every year in the decade from 1389 to 1399 several ships with English pilgrims arrived at the Port of A Coruña (for example 25 in 1395), that what they used to bring back the most was wine. Despite not being entirely sure of its origin, we can be pretty confident that it was indeed from Ribeiro, as it is one of the best and, furthermore, one of the few Galician wines with enough body to survive the journey.
John of Gaunt and Ribeiro Wine
In 1386 the Duke of Lancaster invaded Galicia with the intention of making effective his legitimate claims to the throne of Castile with the death of Pedro I, since he was married to his daughter Constanza de Castilla. He disembarked in the Port of A Coruña from where he seized the most important towns, some agreeing with his claims and others by arms. The description of his campaign is told by the chronicler Jean Froissart, paying special attention to the siege and capture of Ribadavia, in the many deaths that occurred and in which the English got drunk with the good, strong and ardent wines of this town and its region.
A century later, the Sicilian humanist Lucio Marineo Siculo, Professor of Greek and Latin first in Palermo and later at the University of Salamanca, chaplain and chronicler of King Fernando El Catolico, in the book De Hispaniae laudibus published in 1496 or 1497,states in the chapter devoted to wine in the Iberian Peninsula, the best were four: one from the province of Ávila, another from Madrid, the one from Ribadavia and the Portuguese from Caparica (Setúbal). This book, written in Latin, the international language of that time, made it known the great quality of wine throughout Europe.
Ribeiro Exportation : England
In addition to other parts of the peninsula, especially the towns located on the Cantabrian coast, it was also exported to several northern countries, such as England, Holland, Flanders, Germany, etc., which, although they had some wine production, the product was of much lower quality than Ribeiro.
It was transported mainly by muleteers in wineskins on the back of horses and mules, and some also in rafts on the River Miño, to the Ports of A Coruña, Pontevedra, Vigo, Baiona, Tui, etc., which represented almost a third of the value of the wine.
As has been said, there’s no doubt that they had already been exporting well before, but the first time that it was fully documented was in 1527. That year an army was prepared and supplied in A Coruña to go to the Moluccas Islands, and for this reason, a large quantity of wine was ordered to be seized, of which from Ribadavia there were 2,000 “moios” (one “moio” = 132 litres). Several growers claimed that they could not deliver it because they had already sold it to other people, among whom one from the tiny village of Sadurnín (Cenlle) claimed that 30 “moios” of white wine had already been sold to the English.
The lack of data is due to the fact that no type of contract was usually made between sellers and buyers, as was common until fairly recent. In 1543 the Florentine Francisco Corbiny chartered a ship from Castro Urdiales (Cantabria), but which was in the Galician Port of Corcubión, to transport wine from Ribadavia to London. And in 1564 several English, French, Venetian and Flemish ships were loaded in Vigo, among other goods with Ribadavia wine.
In 1727 the Bishop of Ourense, Juan Muñoz de la Cueva, published a book about his diocese, in which he stated that Ribeiro wine was famous throughout Spain and that it was exported to Flanders, Holland and England. In the middle of the same century, the merchant Manuel Ojea and the Parish Priest of Bieite (Leiro) sold 151 “moios” (almost 20,000 litres ) of red wine to the English dealer Carlos Veritey.
At this time, the presence of British buyers in the region was very important, as proved by the fact that on 25th of August 1760, the Bishop of Tui (on whom part of this territory depended), forbade the parish priests the custom of accompanying English merchants to the wineries, as well as acting as intermediaries and appreciators of the quality of the wine, for which it is presumably that they received some remuneration.
From this date, no further documentation is available, but without a doubt it must have been when the consumption of “Ribadavia” began to decline in Great Britain, in favour of wine from Porto.
“Ribadavia” and “Porto”
In 1787 the first edition came out of the press and the following year the second, both in York, of John Croft’s (1732-1820) book A Treatise on the Wines of Portugal; also a Dissertation on the Nature and Use of Wines in general imported into Great Britain. John Croft, in addition to being a wine merchant, also published several books. He was a partner of the firm Tilden, Thompson & Croft, a company that exported Portuguese wines to England from 1697, and one of the most prominent members of the English colony in Portugal of his time, receiving from the Prince Regent (João VI), the commission of the Tower and Sword and the title of Baron of the Serra da Estrela.
As a great connoisseur of wines, he points out right at the beginning of the book that those from Portugal began to be introduced in England mainly during the Government of Queen Anne (1702 – 1714) and that before, those of Ribadavia were imported, although not in great quantity, between two and three thousand “pipes” (about one and a half million litres !).
At the end he returns again to mention Ribeiro. He said that in 1732 the Port wines were not considered full enough, so they were mixed with others from Benicarló (Castellón) and Alicante, strong, heavy, sweet and thick like the blood of the ox, and some time later with the fine wines of Galicia called “Ribadavias”.
It is unknown until when the custom of mixing Porto with Ribeiro was maintained, but it had already been lost at the end of the 18th century, when John Croft published his book.
The memory of the presence of British buyers remains in Ribeiro to this day, and even in the mid-nineteenth century in the casks of several wineries with the preserved stamps used by some English companies to mark those they chose for the quality of the wine, that when the moment came, the muleteers were in charge of transporting them to the nearest ports (Pontevedra, Vigo, Baiona, Redondela …), and from here to Great Britain.
Clodio González Pérez Royal Galician Academy