Godello, a case study in the character of wine

From left: The 2015 Valdeorras Godello from A. Coroa, 2014 Valdeorras Godello Sobre Lías from Valdesil and 2014 Ribeira Sacra Vino Blanco from Guimaro.
From left: The 2015 Valdeorras Godello from A. Coroa, 2014 Valdeorras Godello Sobre Lías from Valdesil and 2014 Ribeira Sacra Vino Blanco from Guimaro.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - No wine can be said to possess an innate character. How a wine ultimately evolves depends on a balance of place, grape, grower and producer.  

Some wines, like Burgundy, have come to be understood over the course of centuries and many generations. Vignerons in say, Chambolle-Musigny, grasp the potential of each piece of farmland practically by the sliver, and a consensus exists on a set of ideal Chambolle wine characteristics. 

This is not to say all Chambolle wines will taste the same, even those that come from the same particular vineyard. The vintage characteristics and the stylistic inclinations of each producer will always influence the outcome and the wines will vary accordingly. But they will often have some genetic resemblance, some family characteristic that, no matter how pronounced or reticent, states, “This is Chambolle-Musigny.”

Other types of wine are in their infancy and the nature of their potential and characteristics are still being worked out. In that category, I would place godello, a white grape that had practically died out in the 1970s, before making a strong comeback in several appellations in north-western Spain. Godello is now the basis for excellent white wines from places such as Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and Monterrei in Galicia.  

Welcome back to Wine School, where we cherish the opportunity to revisit old, established benchmarks like Burgundy but we also embrace what is new and intriguing like godello.  

Wines like godello offer wonderful opportunities for exploration, both external and internal. Learning about new wines adds to our understanding of the marketplace and what sorts of flavours are available to us. But wines such as godello are also especially interesting because a convention for how it ought to taste has yet to be written. This allows a freer hand for winemakers to experiment with the grape and for consumers to measure their own reactions, as no standard text for godello yet exists.  

Each month at Wine School, I select a particular type of wine to investigate and suggest a few representative examples. Readers then drink the wines in a natural setting with other people over a meal. At the end of the month, we convene to discuss the wines. Meanwhile, we welcome your thoughts, which can be posted in the comments section online.  

The three wines I recommended were the 2014 Ribeira Sacra Vino Blanco from Guimaro, the 2015 Valdeorras Godello from A. Coroa and the 2014 Valdeorras Godello Sobre Lias from Valdesil. I asked readers whether the wines reminded them of any others they had tried.  

In retrospect, maybe this wasn’t the wisest question as it compelled readers to discuss the godellos in terms of other wines. But the answers were intriguing.  “There are characteristics of chardonnay, chenin blanc and Muscadet, and other whites,” wrote Mr Joseph of Ile-de-France, who had tried each of the three recommended bottles, “but nothing that I can identify as essential, that says, ‘Hey, I’m godello.’”

Mr Martin Schappeit of Forest, Virginia, tried a 2015 Valdeorras godello from Avancia, which he found spicy and herbal, “like a white Bordeaux on steroids.” And Mr Bunk McNulty of Northampton, Massachusetts, whom I must commend for his “Wire” combo handle, simply quoted a friend: “California chardonnay without the nonsense.”

I’ve likened godello to other genres in the past. Back in 2012, I compared it with chardonnay for its shape-shifting ability to take on a variety of guises, from lean and vibrant to dense and textured, depending on where it was from and the inclinations of the winemaker. In 2016, godello reminded me more of chenin blanc for its richness and floral qualities.  

This time, the godellos called to mind several different wines, namely white Burgundy, Muscadet and Champagne. What do all these wines have in common? They generally spend quite a bit of time as they age in contact with the lees, a collective term for the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation, grape fragments and other sediment. Over time, the lees settle to the bottom of the container in which the wine is stored.  

It doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but contact with lees can be beneficial to a wine, particularly to whites. It can contribute to a wine’s flavour, make the texture more interesting and add to its ability to withstand the effects of air. These effects can be enhanced by stirring the lees periodically, though they can also be overdone, resulting in an overly rich wine that is paradoxically prone to oxidation.  With each of the wines I mentioned – Champagne, Muscadet and white Burgundy (particularly from the Cote de Beaune region) – contact with lees is an essential step in making the wine.  

How is the influence of the lees felt in the wine? Partly, it’s in the richness of the textures. Unlike leaner wines, which can have a flatness to them, these wines feel more dimensional. I have the sensation of being able to explore the folds and creases of the wines as I roll them around in my mouth. They also each had a mild, underlying minerality, which can be augmented by contact with lees.  

Beyond that, the Guimaro had a sort of smokiness to it, which could be mistaken for barrel ageing, except that none of these wines spent time in wood. Nothing is wrong with barrel ageing. Each of these producers also makes a godello aged in barrels and those bottles would be delicious, I’m sure, though more expensive and harder to find.

The three bottles we looked at this month were aged solely in steel tanks, which amplified their fruitiness.  I sensed tropical fruit aromas and flavours in each of them, as well as a floral quality. The Guimaro seemed the most exotic, while the Coroa had a peachiness, as well as some herbal flavours. The Valdesil was the most subtle of the three, I thought, with an attractive bitterness as a lasting reminder of the wine.  

All told, these wines offered a lot to like but maybe not yet enough to love. Most readers seemed to feel as if these wines were a decent first date. Not swooning material, maybe, but pleasant enough.  

“This was a wine you could serve to a difficult guest,” Mr Ferguson wrote. “You may not buy a case of it but you can count on it to behave.”

Mr Maurice Rosenfeld in Antwerp, Belgium, called godello honest and unpretentious, “a pleasant vin d’ete, or summer wine.”

And Mr Dan Barron of New York likened godello to “a mystery that I don’t quite understand.”

That, I submit, can be high praise for a wine. I’ve had that experience, particularly with young white Burgundies, where I taste and taste, but I cannot quite grasp the core of the wine. And because I am so eager to figure it out, the wine keeps bringing me back.  

Is the mystery of godello gripping enough to keep tasting?  Enough is there to warrant regularly checking in, though, as Mr Ferguson put it, you may not want to buy it by the case.

It does seem as if the godello experimentation is settling down. Having tried enough of them over the years now, I think we can safely assume that basic godello wines like these will be rich, textured and floral, with a spine of minerality and lively acidity.  

While they may now remind us of many other white wines, perhaps we’ll come to recognise this specific combination of elements as distinctively godello.