The Grapes Of Galicia


Ask most oenophiles about the kosher wines of Spain, and they may say they’re a work-in-progress. An emerging specialty. A tiny, if growing, subculture within the great, centuries-old Iberian wine tradition.

But as anyone can tell you in Ribadavia — a village of just 3,300 tucked into the grape-covered hills of Galicia, Spain — Spanish winemaking has long roots in Jewish tradition. Deep in the Dark Ages, Catholic monks revived the long-dormant winemaking tradition of Roman Europe in this rugged, misty corner of Iberia’s Atlantic Northwest; their Jewish neighbors, meanwhile, were quietly preparing ritual wine according to Torah guidelines.

Jews from around the Peninsula reportedly arrived in Ribadavia around the time of its zenith as the first-century capital of the Kingdom of Galicia. Then the British conquered the territory, and apart from a brief economic surge in the 1500s, Ribadavia declined into the pleasant backwater it has remained for a millennium.

But the vineyards stuck. The first wine to reach the Americas, we are told, probably came from Ribadavia on one of Columbus’ voyages. And the Jews of what would later become Spain were among the prominent wine merchants, artisans and financiers who contributed to this region’s proud oenophilic tradition, which today is celebrated with the Denomination of Origin Ribeiro.

Today, Ribadavia is back on the tourism map for its well-preserved Jewish quarter (judería in Castilian Spanish; barrio xudeo or xudería in Galician, the local dialect), which was established in the late 1300s.

Ribadavia is a key stop on Spain’s Sephardic heritage route, the “Caminos de Sefarad.” There’s a small but informative Sephardic Museum inside the Center of Information for the Jewry of Galicia, the Jewish quarter’s tourism office.

Visitors can wander the tight-knit neighborhood of damp alleys and winding steps where early Jewish winemakers and merchants lived, worked and worshipped. Stars of David adorn a recently installed gate marking the site of Ribadavia’s 16th-century synagogue, where Sephardim worshipped covertly as the Inquisition raged.

Of course — as elsewhere in Iberia — with roughly a half-millennium since the last Jewish communities were vanquished, there isn’t a lot to see. But in a country where Jewish life, past or present, can feel almost eerily absent, the sight of painted menorah tiles on buildings, or Star of David plaques engraved into streets, has a vivid significance.

And with little else to generate income, locals embrace a Jewish heritage that sets this village apart from so many others that are equally charming, equally historic — and equally sleepy. A Tafona da Herminia, a non-kosher bakery themed around traditional Sephardic fare, has won worldwide press for its lightly sweet, puffed pastries shaped like Stars of David, along with other “dulces hebreos” scented with cloves and almonds.

Ribadavia itself is so tiny that most people can do it in a day. Hardly a destination, it’s a picturesque heritage stop best folded into a driving tour.

The closest town of any size is Ourense, a provincial city best known for its graceful, Roman-arch bridge spanning the Minho River; it is also a stop on the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic spiritual itinerary. Further down the Minho, Ribadavia is easily tacked onto a driving tour of Portugal — Porto is a two-hour drive to the south — and/or Galicia: The coastal port of Vigo is nearby, and Santiago de Compostela is an hour north.

Still, Ribadavia is far enough from major cities that its alleys are often empty; few tourists of any religious persuasion make it here. Those who do invariably visit the 15th-century Castle of the Counts, a pile of mossy stone ruins whose towers, walls and select interior spaces are a testament to Ribadavia’s glory days.

Rent the audio guide for helpful historical context as you explore the castle alongside other relicts of medieval Ribadavia, including a town hall from the same era.

For oenophiles, the best month to visit might be May, when Ribadavia hosts its annual wine festival; at any time, the Red de Juderías can advise Jewish travelers on a “Viñas de la Sefarad” itinerary of bodegas (family-run wineries), wine bars and other venues with a connection to Jewish or kosher winemaking.

Without a doubt, Ribadavia is at its liveliest in late August for the “Festa da Istoria,” a three-day festival (Aug. 27-29 this year) that fills streets and plazas with artisan markets, troubadour concerts and performances of traditional song and dance. An annual highlight is the re-enactment of a Sephardic Jewish wedding with period dress and music.

And doubtless there will be a toast — to life, and also to the fruit of the vine, a Sephardic legacy to savor.