Condes de Albarei
Palacio de Fefinaņes
Pazo de Senorans
Visiting Rias Baixas, you fly
in over low green hills, and that view, together with the sound
of bagpipes, can make you think you accidentally boarded a plane
to Shannon instead of Galicia. There’s also a good chance
of rain to encourage the illusion. However, the warmth, seafood,
and especially the wine tell you otherwise.
Those hills reach out into the
Atlantic, creating fjord-like inlets that give the DO of Rías
Baixas its name in Gallego, the local language. The soils are largely
granite, with some chalk and clay – even the posts for supporting
the grapevines are made from granite instead of wood. The earth
here offers lots of minerals but few nutrients, making it perfect
for wine-growing. The slopes encourage good drainage so the vines
still reach deep into the earth. Given the high rainfall –
this may be the only winegrowing area of Spain that did not get
excited about the loosening of irrigation regulations in 1996 –
that drainage is important. The neighboring Atlantic Ocean provides
not only rain but also humidity, so growers have traditionally favored
trellising their vines with pergolas, allowing air to circulate
around the grapes, thereby preventing rot and fostering ripening.
More recently, lower, Guyot-trained vines have become more common,
especially in the south of the region; in these cases modern canopy
management techniques help prevent rot and the other ravages of
humidity. Fortunately, late summer is usually the driest part of
the year, providing perfect ripening conditions for harvest in October.
The grapes do well here.
And they are also unique to the
region. Rías Baixas boasts a number of high-quality grapes;
chief among them is Albariņo, occupying
more than 90% of the DO’s vineyard area. It’s thought
to be related to Riesling, and some theorize that it was brought
to the area by pilgrims or monks traveling to the medieval town
of Santiago de Compostela. Popular blending grapes, when they are
used, include Treixadura, Loureira,
and Torrontés. The first two are often employed
to heighten the aromatics of a wine, while the last can add a charge
of acidity as well. These are all white grapes; a tiny amount of
red wine is produced from Caiño, Espadeiro,
Alicante, and some other varietals, but it is the
refreshing white wines of the appellation that have brought Rías
Baixas to the world’s attention.
wines dominate production; in keeping with EU regulations, they
must consist of 100% Albariņo to be labeled as such. There
are five subzones to the appellation, and all five are permitted
to produce pure Albariņo wines. The largest, Valle de Salnés,
and the smallest, Soutomaior, also permit production of blends of
approved grapes with a minimum of 70% Albariņo, as does the
newest subzone, Ribeira del Ulla, in the northern part of the appellation.
The two southern appellations along the Miño River allow
some variations on this figure; in El Rosal, Albariņo together
with loureira must make up 70% of the blend, while Condado de Tea
has the same minimum requirement for Albariņo and Treixadura.
Clearly Albariņo rules the roost, and plantings of this grape
are on the rise throughout the DO.
What does all this taste like
then? Fresh, aromatic, light. Notes of peach, melon, pear, and sometimes
even apricot countered by a crystalline minerality. The vibrant
acidity is occasionally smoothed out with the slightest of petillance.
Some producers are experimenting with oak-aging, but this is certainly
the exception so far.
This is the perfect wine for
demonstrating the adage that a wine matches with the cuisine of
the region where it is made. Galicia’s inlets make it a shellfish
lover’s paradise, and these wines, with their crisp character,
are a natural partner. Seafood is loved throughout Spain, so it
should come as no surprise that Rías Baixas has become the
country’s number one white wine region.
A cooperative formed in 1985, Martin Codax is one of the area’s
larger operators with approximately 530 acres of vineyards. The
growers in the coop work well together and maintain a high level
of quality. They make several bottlings, all from 100% Albariņo.
The eponymous label is very good and sports that typical mineral
and fruit balance, whereas the the Burgans is fruitier and leavens
the acidity with a light touch of sweetness. The gently oak-aged
Organistrum and late harvest Gallaecia are not currently available
in the U.S.
Condes de Albarei:
Also formed in the mid-80s in response to EU funds that aided the
building of state-of-the-art winemaking facilities throughout the
region. Both of their U.S.-imported wines are good values, 100%
Albariņo and classic examples of the grape’s character.
Palacio de Fefinañes:
An older producer, founded in 1904; the winery is inside a stone
baronial palace built in 1647. The first winery to use the Rias
Baixas DO on the label, they make a refined, focused Albariņo
that is enjoyable upon release but also develops further complexity
after a couple of years in the bottle.
Pazo de Senorans:
Consistently one of Rias Baixas’ most expressive wines. While
unavailable in the U.S., their aguardientes, distilled in large
copper stills, are also tops and definitely worth tracking down
should you visit Spain.
Also look out for:
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