The region of Galicia wants independence from Spain – and its white wines certainly have their own voice. For publication in week starting 20 June 2016.
Rias Baixas has rapidly become the face of modern Spanish white wine making. Working almost exclusively with the Albarino grape, the region produces bright, aromatic, refreshing and fruity wines with lively acidity.
This style of wine speaks directly to the kind of not-too-demanding white wines beloved by consumers the world over. Yet the quality gap between the wines of Rias Baixas, and the oceans of monotonous Pinot Grigio and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc out there is broad.
To give some context: Of the 80 appellations in Spain, Rias Baixas ranks 50th in terms of size, and covers about 4,000 hectares. The region has 181 wineries but in excess of 6,000 growers, so plots and wineries tend to be on the small side. The excellent cooperative Martin Codax, with its annual production of four million bottles, is the exception.
Small-scale production is one factor that does tend to lead to higher prices. Even the entry level Martin Codax – a lovely, textural wine with tingling salinity and a sweet fruit finish – would retail at perhaps US$20.
For such a small region, it has a great deal of diversity in wine style due largely to climatic variation. It is tucked into the south-west corner of Galicia, just across the River Minho from Portugal’s Vinho Verde. With a climate dominated by the Atlantic Ocean, this is a cool and damp area. It does benefit from abundant sunshine hours though ripening does not tend to be a problem. But too much rain at the wrong time can be a problem – about which more later.
The region’s topography is highly distinctive, and one of the reasons that comparisons with wines from Portugal’s Vinho Verde region lack relevance. Rias Baixas is Galician for “Lower Rias” and refers to four estuaries – tracts of land stretching into the sea – where fresh and salt water mix.
According to local legend, these estuaries are the traces left by the fingers of God’s hands when, after creation, he rested for a moment in Galicia. Some vineyards are planted very close to the water – as if they’re on the beach – though much of the viticultural practice still operates according to the traditional pergola system.
The best wines from the region tend to be made with the robust, thick-skinned Albarino grape, which can more or less handle the maritime conditions. The 2015 vintage was rather an interesting one, with a 36-hour storm blowing in from the Atlantic in mid-September at harvest time.
One producer took the decision to pick immediately he knew of the brewing storm, and managed to get about 90 per cent of the grapes into the winery before the storm hit. Locals report that wines made with pre-storm grapes were markedly different from those made from post-storm grapes. The latter were literally more diluted.
If there’s been some criticism of the region, it has been that some producers have been making wine in an overly commercial style, rather “watered down”. But these are the exception. Moreover, some highly personal, idiosyncratic wines are being made very successfully there.
Within its land mass the region is divided up into five sub-regions (one of which has only one winery). The most significant sub-regions are Val do Salnes, Condado do Tea, and O Rosal. Interestingly, Condado do Tea is not in direct proximity to the sea, making it the warmest region, and O Rosal is also relatively warm. This warmth can be readily picked up in the Bodegas Marques de Vizhoja Senor da Folla Verde 2015 (made by Condado do Tea) which is heavily scented and almost luscious in texture; and Quinta de Couselo 2015, which is rich with blossoms and orchard fruits.
But it is in the exposed Val do Salnes that most of the best wines are believed to be produced. They’re not shy, by any means. Pazo de Senorans Albarino 2015 is a powerful wine with a satin-like texture (this producer is regarded as being among the very best). The Albarino de Fefinanes 111 Ano 2015 made by Bodegas del Palacio is huge and intense with aromas reminiscent of a top Rhone white blend. The price is also serious (in excess of US$50) but even the rather more modestly priced Bodegas del Palacio Albarino de Fefinanes 2015 is very impressive and could be mistaken for a rose on the nose.
Most of these can be termed gastronomic wines, given they work with a number of cuisines and not just the fish and seafood for which Galicia is famous. In this they differ most definitively from the typically light whites we’re too often offered on wine-by-the-glass lists.