"I see your vineyard in a museum", the story of a spectacular 19th century estate recovered today
With the patience that characterizes fishing enthusiasts, Fernando González began planting grapes at Finca Cortezada around 2004, several years after noticing its terraces for the first time. González, owner of Adega Algueira, founded his project in 1980, on a family farm on the Lugo riverside of the Sil. "There he planted everything, but there were varieties that did not work." Native grapes such as Souson, Caíño or Brancellao “suffered”, as he explains. “45 years ago we were going blind, but after several trips and learning a lot, I crossed the river” to plant on hillsides with other orientations.
The insect that changed the wine
But when he came across Cortezada, at the end of the 1990s, he was not looking for vines, but fish: he was walking along paths towards the Edo River —one of the Sil's tributaries— to fish, when he saw some “spectacular” terraces, but absolutely covered with vegetation. Four or five hectares of terraces for which he asked a friend in the area. "He told me that her mother had worked there when she was a child," she says. When she inquired about ownership of the plot, she learned that a reservoir with a small power plant was planned to be built there. The entire lower part of Cortezada could now be covered by water, but the project was never carried out. So, González insisted that they sell it to her and some 15 years later she bottled the first wine from these spectacular stands of the Ribeira Sacra in Ourense. For this producer, plots like this, in the mountains, with different orientations, with shade, can be the solution for wine in the face of climate change.
“If I wait any longer, everything would have been lost,” says González. Nature invades the terraces and, from time to time, maintenance work must be carried out. “A terrace can fall and it takes a month or so to raise it again. The most important thing is that we recover the history. It cost time and money, but it was worth it”, insists the owner of Cortezada, who describes this vineyard as iconic. "People stop the car and waste time taking pictures." But those images are missing something that only Fernando González sees every time he goes to that vineyard: the crew of 14 men that Cortezada built a century ago. It is not a product of their imagination: they were photographed by Nebraska photographer Ruth Matilda Anderson in 1925.
history in photographs
González learned of the existence of that photograph of the farm through a call from New York from a friend of his from Castro Caldelas. "I'm seeing your vineyard in a museum," he told her. She was at the Hispanic Society, a foundation that in the mid-1920s commissioned Ruth Matilda Anderson to write a paper on Spanish clothing, customs, monuments, and landscapes. Anderson made several trips between 1924 and 1930 and took more than 14,000 photographs in Spain, 5,200 of them in Galicia. First accompanied by her father, and later by the Hispanic Society photographer Frances Spalding, Anderson traveled the country in trains, buses, cars and even cars to portray with her cameras the most remote places of the Spanish geography, according to Patrick Lenaghan for the book A look from the past (Afundación), which compiles a large number of images taken in Galicia by Ruth Anderson.
With the clue of his friend, the new owner of Cortezada obtained the book that had been published after two photographic exhibitions in Santiago and A Coruña, and continued investigating the history of the estate. “In the photo it is practically built, but they told me that it had taken about 28 years to do it, so the vineyard would start at the end of the 19th century. There are walls 200 meters long and three meters high, it is a pharaonic work”, describes González, who has a very simple answer to a question that may arise after carefully observing – he has done it for hours – Anderson's snapshot: All the workers in the crew wear white shirts, but he maintains that they didn't wear them to look more handsome in the photo. "At that time there were no shirts of other colors," he clarifies.
The young photographer took several images of Cortezada. González believes that she “had to be impressed” when she verified that, where there was no soil, man created it. But the estate was not exploited for a long time. A decade later the Civil War would begin and later, the rural exodus also affected the Ribeira Sacra. The vineyard was abandoned between the 60s and 70s, until almost three decades later, Fernando, from Algueira, noticed the terraces when he went fishing in Edo. Now they are busy with Godello, Albariño and Treixadura, below the road, and with indigenous red varieties at the top.
The farm was rebuilt by a crew, with time and patience, almost in the style of the men in white shirts portrayed by Ruth Anderson. “This cannot be done quickly, sewing by hand is not the same as sewing by machine”. González wonders how they were able to do it then. "If you look at the photo, there is only one lever and one cart for two-meter-long terraces and stones that can weigh up to 200 kilos." And he affirms that, no matter how hard the recovery of the farm was, he lived it as if he were discovering "a treasure" every day.
The locals may not have found it so striking either to see an American woman, back in 1925, taking landscape photographs in a remote part of inland Galicia. After all, they were braving a steep hillside in order to make wine.