On my first trip to Galicia's Rías Baixas district a couple of years ago, I thought that I had entered another country. This was not the Spain that I knew. Spain, to me, meant hot, sunny, clear days, and very dry in most places.
Each day that week in late September in Rîas Baixas and in the nearby pilgrim mecca of Santiago de Compostela, of Crusades fame, the sky was dark and gloomy, and it rained ceaselessly. I later confirmed that it doesn't rain every day in Galicia; we just picked a bad week.
Many residents of Galicia hardly look Spanish. Descendants of the Celts who settled in the area in the 11th century B.C., they are fair-skinned. The Celts also left a local version of the bagpipes, which later found its way to Ireland and Scotland. Formerly an area visited only by religious pilgrims, Galicia is now beginning to host another group of people in its land, wine-lovers. Another thing about Galicia that is different: more than half of the winemakers are women, mainly young. Fishing is still the main occupation of the men.
Galicia, Spain's most isolated and unique province, is in the northwest corner of the country, directly north of Portugal. The nearby Atlantic Ocean has created a maritime climate, with abundant green hills and valleys, very reminiscent of Ireland. Galician cuisine resembles Ireland's as well; along with fish and seafood, potatoes are served with most meals. The damp, cool weather I ran into in Rías Baixas--although not unusual--occurs mainly in the fall and winter. Galicia does get plenty of sunshine in the spring and summer, when it's relatively dry, creating an ideal environment for certain white grape varieties, particularly Albariño.
Rías Baixas, Galicia's most important wine district, is in the southwest corner of the province, near the Atlantic Ocean. The Miño River, which forms the border between Spain and Portugal, also influences the climate. The thick-skinned Albariño variety thrives in this environment; its sturdy skin helps to prevent fungal diseases, an occupational hazard of damp climates. Across the border, the same grape, known in Portugal as the Alvarinho, is the premium variety in Portugal's better Vinho Verde white wines.
As recently as five years ago many winedrinkers had never heard of Albariño or Rías Baixas. Today you can find Albariño varietal wines on many restaurant wine lists and in better wine shops throughout the U.S. Albariño wines seem to fit the tastes of many of today's consumers: the wines are crisp, fresh, aromatic, and medium bodied, with a fairly rich texture and lots of flavor--mainly reminiscent of apple, peach and lemon. They go extremely well with fish and seafood, and yet are sturdy enough to accompany poultry dishes, roast pork and veal.
Albariño accounts for 90 percent of the vine plantings in Rías Baixas. Its principal home is the Salnés Valley sub-zone, its birthplace. The Salnés Valley, the oldest, largest, and most important of five sub-zones, and also the coolest and the wettest, sits next to the Atlantic Ocean. Its annual mean temperature is 55 degrees farenheit. The two next most-important sub-zones are Condado do Tea, the second-largest, located in a mountainous area farther inland along the Miño River, and O Rosal, also along the Miño, near the coast. The soil in all three of these sub-zones is granitic and rocky, but rich in minerals. In short, ideal for wine-grape growing, but not much else.
The Condado do Tea zone also features Treixadura, a delicate, intensely scented variety that is added to some Albariño wines. O Rosal grows a little of Loureira, a highly acidic variety that is usually blended with Albariño, but sometimes made as a separate varietal wine. A small amount of red Loureira exists, but it's extremely rare. Over 99 percent of Rías Baixas wines are white. Most Rías Baixas wines contain 85 to 90 percent Albariño, and those that are labeled Albariño are 100 percent of this variety.
Most Rías Baixas wines have moderate alcohol, about 12 percent, and most are made without oak aging, although a few are barrel-fermented or barrel-aged. Skin contact before fermentation and malolactic fermentation (ML) are two techniques that winemakers use to create their particular style of Albariño. The wines that have skin contact are the most aromatic, especially when they have not undergone ML, while those that undergo ML tend to be the broadest and the earthiest.
Production of wines in Rías Baixas is now five times greater than it was in 1990. In 1980, about five wineries of any size existed there; in 1990, there were 60 wineries, and today there are 190--32 of which sell wines in the U.S. This country is Rías Baixas' most important export market, accounting for about 50 percent of all exported wines. American wine drinkers looking for a white-wine alternative to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have rapidly found it in Albariño and Rías Baixas' other white wines.
The following is a review of some of the Rías Baixas wines that I have tasted recently:
Vionta, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño 2004 ($18, Freixenet USA): The 2004 Vionta, a single-vineyard wine, might be this estate's best wine yet. It is dry and crisp, concentrated, with good length, a great combination of richness along with tart, green-apple flavors. From the Salnés Valley. 90
Terras Gauda, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño, Abadia de San Campio 2004 ($17, AV Imports; Paramount Brands): The 2004 Abadia de San Campio of Terras Gauda has a deep lemon yellow color, intense aromas of ripe apple and hints of orange, along with flavors of peach and apricot. It is dry, with a silky texture, subdued acidity, and good concentration. From the O Rosal sub-zone. 89
Santiago Ruiz, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño, Santa Ruiz 2004 ($17, Monsieur Touton; Grape Expectations): The 2004 Santa Ruiz has a deep straw color, aromas of apple and passion fruit, with flavors suggesting apple and orange. It is dry, with crisp acidity, more earthy and minerally than aromatic. From O Rosal. 88
Martin Codax, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño, Burgans 2004 ($12, Eric Solomon): Martin Codax Albariños are perhaps the most easily found in the U.S. The 2004 Burgans has mineral aromas and a hint of apple, with ripe apple and melony flavors. It is fairly low in acidity and a bit sweet, but quite aromatic. From the Salnés Valley. 87
Salneval, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño, Condes de Albarei 2004 ($15, C.I.V. USA): The 2004 Condes de Albarei has broad apple and mineral aromas, is dry with crisp acidity and lots of weight, and flavors of green apple. From the Salnés Valley. 88
Pazo de Barrantes, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño 2004 ($18, Eber Brothers/Paramount): The 2004 Pazo de Barrantes has rather intense aromas of grapefruit and peach, is rich and weighty, with concentrated citrus flavors and good length. From the Salnés Valley. 89
Pazo San Mauro, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño 2004 ($20, Billington Imports): The 2004 Pazo San Mauro, from the Condado de Tea sub-zone, has fresh apple aromas, good concentration, and flavors that are sweet and tart at the same time, like mango. It is sleek and lean, still a bit tight. 88
Torre La Moreira, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño, Marques de Vizhoja 2004 ($12, Spain Wine Collection): The 2004 Marques de Vizhoja has intense aromas of lemon peel, honey and ripe apple. It is dry, with earthy, minerally flavors. From Conddado do Tea. 88
Morgadío, Rías Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño 2004 ($20, Classical Wines): Morgadío was one of the pioneer Albariño wines in the U.S., thanks to Steve Metzler of Classical Wines, and remains one of the best. The 2004 has citrus, minerally, floral aromas, is dry, with crisp acidity, and good length. 90