A Very Different Spain

Galicia is becoming one of the world's premier white-wine regions.


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The fertile waters off Spain's Galician coast produce more than half of the country's seafood. And luckily, those who enjoy the mountains of fish, scallops, crab and octopus pulled from this part of the Atlantic Ocean have plenty of wine to pair with it, because Galicia is also home to three of Iberia's most highly regarded appellations for white wines: Rías Baixas, Ribeiro and Valdeorras.

In June, under azure skies and rising temperatures, I traveled across this province of northwestern Spain that was long ago inhabited by Vikings, Celts and Romans. I discovered that, true to what I had heard, verdant Galicia couldn't be more different from the traditionally held image of Spain as an arid country with a monochromatic, brown hue.

In late springtime, Galicia is awash in green, whether it be forests of chestnut, eucalyptus or pine trees, or vineyards that, come September, will offer their crops of shiny Albariño, Loureira and Treixadura grapes. Keeping the land so lush is a series of rivers that flow from the Barbanza and Castrove ranges westward to the sea, each culminating in an estuary locally referred to as a ría. And it's these rías, such as Arousa, Pontevedra and Vigo, that inspire the name given to Galicia's largest and most prominent wine region: Rías Baixas.

A Mixed Case of Top Galician Wines

92 Bodegas Valderroa 2004 Pezas da Portela (Valdeorras); $35. Pezas is the Meursault of Valdeorras. It starts with a smoky, slate-driven nose and then opens to reveal pear, green apple and vanilla flavors. Shows excellent backbone courtesy of refined but powerful acidity. One of Galicia's few ageworthy whites; good through at least 2008.

92 Rafael Palacios 2005 As Sortes (Valdeorras); $32. Palacios started his Valdeorras winery in 2004, and in short order he has established himself as a quality leader. His As Sortes is 100% Godello, from dry-farmed vines with age. This wine is rich, with ample oak, fresh and dry fruit flavors, and a walnut-infused finish. Quite Burgundian in style.

92 Emilio Rojo 2005 Blanco (Ribeiro); $40. This five-grape blend is based on Treixadura but also includes Albariño, Loureira, Lado and Torrontès. The grapes were picked well into October, so the richness and alcohol are up there. Still, the flowery aromas are alluring and the flavors of mango, pear and apple are clean despite some oak aging. Only 50 cases imported into the States.

91 Adega Martínez Serantes 2005 Dona Rosa Albariño (Rías Baixas); $17. A powerful wine with forceful minerality. Still, it's loaded with expressive fruit that falls squarely into the pineapple/mango category. Finishes crisp but precise, with notes of wet stone and lingering nips of green apple and peach. Editors' Choice.

91 Pazo Señorans 2005 Albariño (Rías Baixas); $22. A small portion of the wine went through malolactic fermentation, so it offers a lovely roundness. Features floral aromas backed by pure tangerine and nectarine flavors. Registers more fruity and smooth than minerally, with a perfect finish. Editors' Choice.

91 Viña Mein 2005 Blanco (Ribeiro); $18. Treixadura-based, with Godello, Loureira and tiny portions of Albariño, Torrontès, Caiño Blanca and Albilla. The whole, however, is all that counts, and this is simply an excellent white that's aromatic, dry as a bone, and fresh as spring. Editors' Choice.

90 Burgáns 2005 Albariño (Rías Baixas); $12. Burgáns is the slightly sweeter, arguably more "international" Albariño from the Martin Códax co-op, and it's defined by ripe peach and melon aromas, fresh yet full-bodied fruit flavors, and a smooth finish. One of the best values in Albariño. Best Buy.

89 Santiago Ruiz 2005 O Rosal (Rías Baixas); $18. This winery, with its sketched labels, is classic O Rosal all the way. The wine is 90% Albariño and Loureira, with some Caiño Blanca thrown in. The color is pale but convincing, while the palate offers bright apple, apricot and nectarine flavors meshed with cutting acidity.

89 Terras Gauda 2005 Abadía de San Campio Albariño (Rías Baixas); $16. Lucid in appearance, with mineral aromas adding complexity to the otherwise clean, floral nose. Very dry in style, with apple and pineapple flavors. So crisp and precise that "honest" is the best way to sum it up.

89 Viña Godeval 2005 Godello (Valdeorras); $15. More available than most Valdeorras wines—and very good in 2005—Godeval offers a no-nonsense version of the Godello grape. There's typical slate on the nose but even more apple, pear, nectarine and banana. Friendly, with medium acidity.

88 Adegas Valmiñor 2005 Davila (Rías Baixas); $15. Valmiñor's signature wine since 2001 is 75% Albariño, with 20% Loureira and 5% Treixadura. It is ultrafloral and a touch sweeter than a varietal Albariño. A pleasure to quaff, with citrus and mango flavors.

88 Condes de Albarei 2005 Albariño (Rías Baixas); $16. More than 80,000 cases of this wine were made, making it a huge endeavor by local standards. But that doesn't mean it's not a quality white. In fact, everything about it is really good, from the crystalline nose to the ripe palate to the clean, exact finish. — M.S.

Rías Baixas
Rías Baixas, which means the "lower rías" in Gallego, a language that's a mix of Spanish and Portuguese, became an official denominación de origen (DO) in 1988. Today there are about 7,000 acres of vineyards in Rías Baixas, 90 percent of which are planted to Albariño, a variety some wine experts suggest is related to Riesling (but local winemakers and growers insist has nothing to do with that variety).

Rías Baixas is a region in which pretty much every landowner has at least a few vines of Albariño in the ground. As a result, there are more than 6,000 grape growers spread throughout the D.O., yet the average vineyard size is less than 300 square meters. A 30-acre vineyard, for example, is considered huge. One hundred-acre vineyards, meanwhile, are nonexistent.

"It is not uncommon for a grower to bring in one or two trays of grapes, and that's it for him," says Ramón Huidobro, director of the Rías Baixas regulatory council, as we drive back to Pontevedra after a long and satisfying seafood lunch in the fishing village of O Grove.

Today Rías Baixas boasts more than 190 wineries, although fewer than 40 produce more than 10,000 cases of wine in a given year. A slightly smaller number are exporting to the United States, but the good thing for fans of crisp, refreshing, bracingly acidic Albariño is that availability has been increasing and the past two vintages—2004 and 2005—are sensational in quality, with 2005 showing all the signs of being a benchmark year.

Divided into five subzones, the three major growing areas within Rías Baixas are Salnés in the north, and O Rosal and Condado do Tea in the south. Ribeira do Ulla and Soutomaior round out the field, but they are smaller than the other three, and not as advanced.

It is the Salnés Valley that's home to the greatest number of Rías Baixas wineries and growers, and the region's calling card is its decomposed granite soils, which give the wines a slight minerality. The other thing that the region is known for is its marked humidity, which necessitates the almost universal use of pergola-like training systems called parras or emparrados.

Vineyards in Salnés are almost exclusively planted to Albariño; as such, it is not even an issue for wineries in this area to adhere to the Rías Baixas D.O. rule that wines that are called "Albariño" on the label be 100 percent varietal. This is why wines that are, say, 80 percent Albariño and 20 percent something else must bear proprietary names.

About 40 miles south of Salnés are the warmer, slightly drier Condado do Tea and O Rosal zones. Here along the banks of the Miño River, which separates Spain from Portugal, the soil is fairly sandy, but with some slate as well. That, combined with toastier, slightly drier weather, generally yields rounder, more aromatic wines than those from cooler, moister Salnés. More important in creating a difference between the subzones, however, is that in O Rosal, Loureira is almost always blended with Albariño, while Treixadura often enters the mix (along with Loureira) in Condado do Tea.

"Loureira comes in big bunches, with big grapes. It's vigorous and aromatic," notes Emilio Rodríguez, technical director at Terras Gauda in O Rosal, which also blends 10 percent Caiño Blanca into its wines. "Albariño is more acidic, less fragrant, with smaller berries. But it's also of higher quality."

And with respect to quality, any fan of fresh, zesty white wines—the type of wines that go fabulously with food—would be hard pressed to find better whites than the 2005 Albariños. Every winemaker I spoke to touted 2005 as a tremendous year, and it's these wines, the overwhelming majority of which never see even a trace of oak, that should be arriving in the U.S. right about now.

"It's probably the best year we've seen since 1995," insists Marisol Bueno, owner of quality leader Pazo Señorans in Salnés. "It was such
a long and complete growing season, a little warmer and drier than normal."

Ribeiro
About 35 miles inland from the Atlantic lies the small but serious Ribeiro D.O. Much more compact than sprawling Rías Baixas, with hillier terrain and hotter temperatures, Ribeiro is home to only a few legitimate commercial wineries. Its climate is part maritime, part continental. Like Rías Baixas, the soils are generally alluvial atop decomposed granite.
The main grape in Ribeiro is Treixadura; scattered plantings of Godello, Loureira, Albariño, Torrontès, Albilla and Caiño Blanca are also found in the region.

Since 1988, one of the pacesetters for this fairly unheralded region has been Viña Mein, majority owned by Javier Alén, a Madrid-based lawyer and businessman. From the beginning, Mein has been a winery dedicated to modern technology and winemaking techniques. The winery, with its 40 acres of vineyards, sits on the grounds of the former Monastery of San Clodio, but with its new-age cement structures, glass rooftops and vaulted wood ceilings, it's quite the architectural marvel. Equally marvelous are Viña Mein's 2005 Treixadura-dominant wine, which is unoaked, and its 2004 barrel-aged white, known as Barrica.

Another Ribeiro wine that, despite its paltry production, is just too good to be ignored is the Treixadura-dominated blend made by Emilio Rojo, a character of the first order who sports a bushy mustache and is fond of lamenting the rough-and-tumble economics of modern life.

Rojo, a former telecommunications engineer who grew up in Ribeiro and learned winemaking from his father, makes all 700 cases of his wine in a little stone house marked only by a sign that was put into place by an anonymous individual from the local chamber of commerce. Quite the sommelier's favorite, Rojo's wine is indeed special. It's richer than most Galician whites, with higher alcohol. But I've had it with seafood, and you do not notice any heat or heft. Unfortunately, a meager 50 cases are imported into the United States.

Valdeorras
Our Galician journey concludes in Valdeorras, the slate mining capital of Spain. Throughout the Valdeorras D.O.,

 
which sits on the eastern frontier of Galicia and thus is much hotter than coastal Rías Baixas, or even Ribeiro, nearly every house or building has a black slate roof, and open mines are fairly ubiquitous.

Slate soils make for excellent, mineral-infused white wines, and the grape of choice in Valdeorras is Godello. In fact, the only white grape that's farmed and made into wine here is Godello, which was an almost lost variety until it was reclaimed in the 1970s by a group of enologists and agronomists headed by Horacio Fernández.

Now 75 years of age and still very actively running Viña Godeval in O Barco de Valdeorras, Fernández smiles bashfully when I label him "El Abuelo de Godello," the grandfather of Godello. But without his steadfast commitment to reestablishing Godello, who knows what type of wine might exist today in this region.

Surely it's doubtful that Rafael Palacios, the younger brother of star winemaker Alvaro Palacios, would have invested so much into a start-up project in Valdeorras had it not been for Fernández's legwork. But in 2004 that's exactly what Palacios, 37, did by starting up an eponymous operation that produces the sensational As Sortes Godello from a collection of tiny plots he bought in the Valle del Bibei subsection.

"This is where we will make Spain's first great wine," Palacios boldly proclaims, as he shows me his collection of oak fermenters sitting in the basement of a house he's renting as a bodega until his winery breaks ground this year or next. "Bibei has the highest elevation in Valdeorras and the vineyards have no slate, just decomposed granite. Most of my vines are about 30 years old, and that's the perfect age for Godello."

Palacios, who was largely responsible for making his family's very good white Rioja, called Placet, understands how to coax deep flavors and a lot of color from his grapes. To call his sole Valdeorras wine, As Sortes, a Corton-Charlemagne impersonator would not be an exaggeration or an insult; it's fairly massive, a direct reflection of being fermented in big oak tanks and later aged in 500-liter barrels.

More along the lines of Meursault than Corton are the wines that consulting winemaker Cristina Mantilla is making at Bodegas Valderroa. Mantilla also works for Adegas Valmiñor and other Rías Baixas wineries.

Owned by the Prada Gayoso family, natives of the region, the range of Valderroa wines are crisp, minerally (once again the slate factor) and full of life—quite a feat, considering that some of the family's vines date back to 1885. Still, from the basic Montenovo to the more advanced Val de Sil all the way up to the highly expressive, barrel-fermented Pezas da Portela, Valderroa's wines are extremely elegant, each offering a different take on the eminently food-friendly Godello.


If You Go

Galicia is not explicitly known for wine tourism, although Rías Baixas sports a few annual wine fairs. But as for regular tourism, the type that entails visits to beaches, historical sights and seafood restaurants, it can hardly be beaten. And while you're there, nestled into a cozy corner of Spain surrounded on two sides by the Atlantic Ocean and with Portugal to the immediate south, you are likely to get your fill of the region's food-friendly white wines, Albariño in particular.

Among the Galician cities and towns worth visiting, tops would have to be Santiago de Compostela, once the final stop for pilgrims on the road to Santiago and nowadays a destination for well-equipped hikers and cyclists reenacting the trek. Its cathedral (right) is one of the most impressive in Europe, and the city is home to a handful of critically acclaimed restaurants, including Casa Marcelo and Toñi Vicente.

In Pontevedra, about 50 miles south of Santiago, the Lérez River cuts through town, ending in an estuary called the Ría Pontevedra. Along this estuary, which meanders around finger-like land masses until it eventually blends into the Ría Arousa, are towns like Sanxenxo, O Grove, Cambados and Carril, each with its collection of beaches, hotels and marisquerías (seafood houses). While exploring the Ría Pontevedra, a must-see is the pristine half-moon beach at A Lanzada; walking it back and forth (5km) takes about 60 to 90 minutes.

Hotels
Parador Hostal Dos Reyes Católicas is a five-star, traditional hotel lodged in what was originally a hospital for ailing pilgrims just arriving in Santiago.
1 Plaza do Obradoira, 15705 Santiago de Compostela (A Coruña); tel. (34) 981.582.200; www.parador.es

Parador de Pontevedra, a k a Casa Del Barón is located in the city's old quarter, just off the banks of the Lérez River.
19 Calle Barón, 36002 Pontevedra; tel. (34) 986.855.800; www.parador.es

Pazo do Castro is a comfortable country inn located in sparsely populated Valdeorras.
Vila do Castro, 32318 O Barco de Valdeorras (Ourense); tel. (34) 988.347.423; www.pazodocastro.com

Restaurants
Toñi Vicente, with all dishes prepared by chef/owner Toñi herself, offers refined Galician food in a slightly formal setting. Amazing red tuna is a seasonal highlight.
24 Rosalia de Castro, Santiago de Compostela; tel. (34) 981.594.100; www.tonivicente.com

Casa Marcelo is chef/owner Marcelo Tejedor's intimate culinary playground. True gourmands will appreciate the house's nouveau Galician fare.
1 Rúa Hortas, Santiago de Compostela; tel. (34) 981.558.580; www.casamarcelo.net

O Dezaseis specializes in traditional Galician fare such as the soup known as caldo gallego, octopus, grilled fish and shellfish.
16 Rúa de San Pedro, Santiago de Compostela; tel. (34) 981.564.880; www.dezaseis.com

Alameda is a throwback Spanish restaurant in Pontevedra, which after many days of eating only seafood may come in handy. Try the steak (solomillo) or pork tenderloin.
10 Alameda, Pontevedra; tel. (34) 986.857.412

Solaina is a quintessential marisquería located in picturesque O Grove. Excellent king crabs (centolla), baby scallops (zamburiñas) and lobster in spicy saffron rice.
8 Calle Peralto B, O Grove; tel. (34) 986.733.404

Trasmallo is in A Guarda, which is about as close as one can get to Portugal and still be in Spain. The thing to order here is grilled lobster (ubrigante a la plancha).
59 Rúa do Porto, A Guarda; tel. (34) 986.610.473; www.restaurantetrasmallo.com

Annual Wine Fests
Festival of Salnés Wines in Cambados; first Sunday of August
Festival of O Rosal Wines in O Rosal; second two weeks of July
Festival of Condado do Tea Wines in Salvaterra de Miño; last Sunday of August
Festival of Eau-de-Vie in Valga; last weekend of August

 

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