Wine Regions: DO Rias Baixas
Rias Baixas is the most North-Westerly Denominación de Origen in Spain, lying almost at the border between Spain and Portugal, right against the Atlantic coast. The name Rias Baixas (Ree-as-by-shass) literally means “low estuaries” and is purely a way of differentiating from the region to the North, unsurprisingly known as Rias Altas. Only granted DO status in 1988, Rias Baixas is responsible for producing the single most celebrated style of white wine to come out of Spain; aromatic, fine white wine made from the Albariño grape, which whilst being popular in modern markets now was originally consumed locally as the perfect pairing with the abundance of fresh, high quality sea-food that compromises the local diet. Should you find yourself in Pontevedra or Santiago de Compostela, order a glass of Albariño and you will almost definitely receive free tapas to match; a lovely custom!
There are 5 sub-zones within the DO, known as Riberio do Ulla, Val do Sanes, Soutomaior, O Rosal and Condado de Tea; often you will see this appended to the bottle of Albariño in order to give it an element of geographical specificity. Despite there being a slight difference in appellation laws regarding the wines made from these different sub-zones, the truth is most producers are interested in making 100% Albariño wines as a priority, with a lesser number of producers choosing to blend with other grapes such as Loureira Blanca and Caiño Blanca. To give you an idea of this, despite there being 11 authorised grapes available for commercial use, 90% of the wines are white with the vast majority of these being a Albariño dominated blend or 100% Albariño. Red wine is produced but is best avoided; the same climate that lends itself to producing a fresh, lively and aromatic white wine tends to produce harsh, sour reds that are consumed almost exclusively by locals, usually with the help of a large dose of soda water!
Viticulture here is something of a challenge; with up to 80 inches of rainfall a year and temperatures rarely exceeded 25–28 degrees even in the summer, there are a few natural obstacles to producing high quality grapes with the desired level of ripeness. Vines are trained in on pergolas high in the air, up to 8ft, and are usually anchored or individually trained to a granite post. Due to the wet conditions and the constant sunshine (2500 hours a year is not uncommon) humidity is an issue as the sun warms the wet soil, contributing to rot and fungus growths to grapes near the ground. Growing your grapes 6–8ft above the ground addresses this issue and also allows for increased exposure to the sunshine; helping these grapes ripen to produce wines from 11–13%alcohol, although 12–12.5% is most common. These vines naturally cannot be harvest mechanically and production costs are higher than would be normal, especially as most producers tend to be very small in size, often only selling their wines locally. Other complications for the area include frost, hail and strong winds, the latter being particularly problematic for western facing vineyards.
Stylistically, Albariño is high in acidity, low in alcohol and medium in body with crisp smells and flavours of peach, citrus, green or golden apples, white flowers and often a marked leanness, often described as ‘minerality’. It is sometimes but rarely oaked and is usually best consumed very young where the racy acidity is at an all time high and the pure flavours most clearly expressed. There is some thought being given to ageing Albariño but it is not common and only a few producers will make a wine that is likely to be improved with bottle age. Interestingly, nearly all Albariño undergoes full malolactic fermentation, the process of converting malic acid into lactic acid, which is not a common practice in Spain. Normally producers in other regions will stop this process to preserve the fresh acidity of their wines, whereas with Albariño the natural acidity and liveliness of the wine is still apparent and with the extra benefit of a creamier feeling to the body of the wine. Food pairings are quite obvious with fresh fish and seafood being ideal, although the acidity and crispness of the wine will stand up to salad dressings, citrus fruits and rich, fatty foods as well. Ideally try it with a freshly fried plate of Chipirones (baby squids) drizzled in lemon juice, stunning!
In terms of purchasing Albariño from Rias Baixas, there are usually a whole host of options available throughout Spain; all good wine shops will store at least 1–2 styles of this wine and lower quality Albariño wines are even making an appearance in supermarkets. Internationally, the biggest importer is America followed by various European countries; I have not yet managed to find it on any shelves back in the UK, although I believe it is available! I have yet to meet a white wine lover who has not enjoyed the style of Albariño and I recommend you give it a shot; check with your local wine store and see what they have available. Below are some recommendations of Bodegas with a short description of their production. Also, should you fancy an affordable city break I can’t recommend Pontevedra highly enough. Great quality food and wine in a beautiful town in the middle of wine country. What could be better?
Martin Codax: The largest producer in the region, a co-operative and producer of high quality wines. Most famous for Martin Codax Albariño, a fresh and lively expression that costs between 9 and 10 euros a bottle. Easy to find and I believe even has a ‘Tesco’s Own’ Albariño available in the UK.
Paco y Lola: A young and exciting winery founded in 2005 in the Val do Salnés sub-region by a group of independent wine-makers. With a wide portfolio of high quality products, expect to see this winery make strides in the coming years. Spear-headed by Paco y Lola Albariño, their signature wine, available for between 9 and 11 euros a bottle.
Terras Gauda: Located in the O Rosal sub-region, Terras Gauda is famous for producing high quality blends of Albariño, Loureira blanca and Caiño blanca. These wines tend to be slightly less acidic and creamier due to the blending and the marginally warmer climate to the south of Rias Baixas.
Fillaboa: A small winery next to Pontevedra, producing excellent quality young wines. One of the few wineries to experiment with older vintages of Albariño. Wines range in price widely but a bottle of Fillaboa Albariño is likely to start around 12–13 euros a bottle.
Gerardo Mendez: A small producer but of the absolute highest quality. Founded in 1973 and famous for the flagship wine, DO Ferreiro Cepas Vellas; Albariño vines between the ages of 150 and 200 years! Extremely difficult to find and at 30 euros a bottle, not cheap but absolutely worth it.
Wine Cuentista: The literal translation is ‘Wine story-teller’. We run high quality wine tastings in central Barcelona, Borne area, with the intention of tasting and learning about high quality Spanish and Catalan wines in a relaxed atmosphere — perfect for a fun evening out in Barcelona! If you would like to get in touch or see our services, check out the website here: winecuentista.com Thanks!