When I arrived in Galicia this April, the Miño, Sil, Lérez and Avia rivers were flowing strongly into the Atlantic Ocean, while the countryside, lush with vegetation, was as green as an emerald.
Welcome to Galicia, one of Spain’s most economically vital regions, where the fishing, wine, timber and mining industries operate in harmony amid the shadows of hydroelectric dams and power lines.
Here, there’s little doubt that you are in a different kind of Spain, one where the old-timers speak Gallego, and where seafood, not meat, bolsters the diet.
Wine production in Galicia dates back nearly 2,000 years to the time of Roman occupation. Although the details of those wines are lost to time, today’s offerings are almost entirely white, and, in general, made to be drunk within a year—two maximum—after bottling.
Galicia boasts five denominated wine regions (D.O.s). Rías Baixas, closest to the coast, is the largest and best known of them, where Albariño is the dominant grape. Further inland lie the smaller regions of Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei.
Briny Rías Baixas
Where Galicia’s major rivers empty into the Atlantic, large estuaries (or rías) are formed. Scattered around the lower estuaries of Galicia, or the rías baixas, are more than 9,000 acres of mostly Albariño grapes.
There are five subzones within Rías Baixas—Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Ribeira do Ulla and Soutomaior—but Salnés is ground zero for the Albariño trade. Condado and O Rosal, which sit alongside the Miño River that separates Spain from Portugal, are warmer areas where grapes like Treixadura and Loureiro are worked into Albariño-based blends.
The base soil throughout Rías Baixas is granitic, so a good Albariño should show a minerally component along with fresh aromas and flavors of the sea, citrus, green apple, stone fruits and tropical fruits. The 2012 vintage of Albariño, which arrives during the late spring into summer, is excellent in quality. Most 2011s are still in good shape, but they should be finished off this year.
Wines from Rías Baixas
Palacio de Fefiñanes sits a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, in the town of Cambados in Salnés. The overriding style at this palace-housed winery, which first bottled Albariño in the 1920s, is feminine and racy. That’s no surprise, given that the winemaker is Cristina Mantilla, who consults for a number of Galician wineries and is known for a light-handed touch. Fefiñanes, owned by Juan Gil de Araujo and family, bottles three wines: a lime- and ocean-driven Albariño; 1583, which is aged in oak for six months; and III Año, which spends three years on its lees prior to bottling.
Recommended Wine: Palacio de Fefiñanes 2012 Albariño de Fefiñanes; $23
Santiago Ruiz, the man, has been referred to as the “father of Albariño.” His family’s winery, now owned by Sogrape, the large Portuguese wine company, has helped define O Rosal, the subzone located in the southwest corner of the D.O., along the banks of the Miño. Santiago Ruiz (the wine) is identified by its hand-sketched label as well as not being 100% Albariño. Winemaker Luisa Freire says that most vintages are at least 70% Albariño, with the remainder a blend of Loureiro, Treixadura, Godello and Caiño Blanca.
Recommended Wine: Santiago Ruiz 2012 O Rosal; $20
Pazo de Señoráns is situated in Salnés. For more than 20 years, this winery has been a quality leader. It produces two elegant Albariños, including one that’s aged up to three years on its lees. Winemaking is overseen by Ana Quintela, although founder Marisol Bueno is never too far from the goings on at this well-kept estate that frequently hosts weddings and other events.
Recommended Wine: Pazo Señoráns 2011 Albariño; $24
Other recommended producers: As Laxas, Condes de Albarei, Lusco, Mar de Frades, Martín Códax, Paco & Lola, Pazo San Mauro, Pazo Torrado, Valmiñor
To famed Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote), the Ribadavia section of Ribeiro was Spain’s “Mother of Wine.” Through the 16th century, Ribeiro, which means “river bank” in Gallego, was one of Europe’s most active wine communities. But like many traditional Spanish wine regions, centuries of apathy followed by a desire for more volume saw indigenous varieties like Treixadura and Albariño bumped aside by bland, high-yielding grapes like Palomino and Garnacha.
Ribeiro, however, is on the comeback trail. Split into three sections—Miño (most commercial), Arnoia (smallest vineyards) and Avia (the prime cut, containing the subzone of Gomariz)—Ribeiro is building a reputation for fresh but elevated Treixadura-driven wines made from grapes planted on hillside terraces.
The combination of Atlantic and Mediterranean influences gives Ribeiro wines more body and floral richness than Albariño from Rías Baixas. The 2011 harvest in Ribeiro was abundant and of good quality, while 2012 was small, but excellent. The 2011s are largely what you will see for the rest of the year.
Wines from Ribeiro
Casal de Armán operates out of a renovated 18th-century monastery perched atop a hill in Ribadavia. Acquired in 1996 by the González Vázquez family, Casal de Armán relies on about 30 acres of mostly Treixadura grapes drawn from several microplots throughout the region. Winemaker José Manuel Martínez, known as Juste (his mother’s family name), produces a single-vineyard wine, Finca Viñoa, which is one of Ribeiro’s classiest offerings.
Recommended Wine: Casal de Armán 2011 Blanco; $23
Other recommended producers: Coto de Gomariz, Emilio Rojo, Luis Anxo Rodríguez, Viña Costeira, Viña Mein
Breathtaking Ribeira Sacra
If you want to be blown away by the sheer physical nature of a wine region, head to Ribeira Sacra, the “Sacred Bank,” located between Ribeiro and Valdeorras along the Sil and Miño rivers. With terraced, vertigo-inducing vineyards dotting incredibly steep hillsides, Ribeira Sacra, on first take, appears better left for the goats.
But wineries like Adega Algueira and Dominio do Bibei are waging a friendly battle with the terrain and hot summers to produce a limited number of excellent white and red wines. The whites are made mostly from Godello, while the reds are made from Mencía, Merenzao (Trousseau) and Garnacha.
The decomposed nature of the Ribeira Sacra soils lends an extra level of elegance to its wines. Standing hundreds of feet above the Sil River, in crumbling schist-based vineyards that require a manual elevator system to get grapes up to the main road, one particular Spanish word comes to mind: excitante (exciting).
Wines from Ribeira Sacra
Adega Algueira is owner Fernando González’s labor of love. On precipitous hillsides, he has spent the past 25 years rebuilding and replanting Roman terraces that in the 12th century were maintained by monks. Algueira is producing some of Spain’s top light-bodied red wines from Merenzao and Mencía, while the tightly structured whites from varietal Godello or blends of Godello, Albariño and Treixadura are stars.
Recommended Wine: Algueira 2012 Brandan Godello; $19
Other recommended producers: Dominio do Bibei, Ponte da Boga
Valdeorras, the slate-mining capital of Spain, is the easternmost (and highest) of Galicia’s wine regions. The only grape that matters in Valdeorras is Godello, a high-quality, indigenous variety that in some cases is being made into wines that are similar in character to the Chardonnays of Burgundy.
Godello can be made in a minerally, slate-infused style that emphasizes crisp acidity and vivid citrus flavors (think Chablis). However, it’s the fruit harvested later in the season and fermented and aged in large oak barrels that’s potentially amazing. When Godello is done like this (the master of this style is Rafael Palacios, younger brother of famed winemaker Alvaro Palacios), the wines smell and taste more like white Burgundies from Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet than any other white wine made in Spain.
Wines from Valdeorras
Valdesil, owned by the Prada Gayoso family, is a pioneer in slate-rich Valdeorras, having planted vines as far back as the 1880s, many of which still thrive today. Consultant Cristina Mantilla makes a good-value Godello (Montenovo), a midlevel Godello (Valdesil), and a top-shelf offering (Pezas da Portela), which resembles Burgundy in weight, acidity and character.
Recommended Wine: Valdesil 2010 Pezas da Portela Godello; $34
Other recommended producers: A Coroa, Avanthia, Bodegas Godeval, Casal Novo, Gaba do Xil, Guitián, Rafael Palacios
Monterrei, located in the southeastern corner of Galicia along the border with Portugal, is the province’s least-known region. In part because of its isolation, only a handful of its wines make it to the United States. Like its regional brethren, Monterrei (the “King’s Mountain;” namesake for the city of Monterrey in Mexico) has a long history of winemaking. Godello, Treixadura, Albariño and Mencía vines brave the elements on steep slopes that overlook the Támega River. Monterrei is the hottest subregion of Galicia in summer, but the coldest in winter.
Recommended producers: Pazo das Tapias, Pazos del Rey