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’re in a different kind of Spain, one that’s lush and green. Old-timers speak a dialect called Gallego, and seafood, not meat, bolsters the local 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 enjoyed within a year or two after bottling. As for red wines, there aren’t many, but the best are made from Mencía, the same grape that drives the fortunes of nearby Bierzo.
Galicia boasts five denominated wine regions (DOs). Rías Baixas, closest to the Atlantic coast, is the largest and best known of the quintet. Here, Albariño is the dominant grape. Further inland lie the smaller regions of Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei.
Briny Rías Baixas
Where Galicia’s main rivers—the Miño, Sil, Ulla and Lérez—empty into the Atlantic, large estuaries (or rías) are formed. Scattered around the lower estuaries of Galicia, or the rías baixas, are nearly 10,000 acres of mostly Albariño grapes.
There are five subzones within the Rías Baixas DO—Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Ribeira do Ulla and Soutomaior—but it is Salnés that operates as ground zero for the Albariño trade. Condado and O Rosal, which sit along the northern banks of 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 mineral component along with fresh aromas and flavors of the sea, citrus, green apple, stone fruits and tropical fruits. The 2014 Albariños, which arrived in the United States in the summer of 2015, remain the current vintage. It was adequate in quality, but not great. Some wines from this harvest are already fading.
Since it’s always advisable to seek fresh, crisp Albariño, it might be best to wait for the 2015s to arrive in the late spring and summer.
Despite bold acidity, Albariño tends to break down after about a year in bottle. The grape’s floral aromas, briny citrus flavors and patented minerally mouthfeel are replaced by leesy, wheat-like scents, dull flavors and a soft mouthfeel.
The Best of Rías Baixas
Recommended producers: Adegas Gran Vinum, As Laxas, Condes de Albarei, Do Ferreiro, Fillaboa, Granbazán, La Caña, Lusco, Mar de Frades, Martín Códax, Morgadío, Paco & Lola, Palacio de Fefiñanes, Pazo de Señorans, Pazo San Mauro, Santiago Ruiz, Valmiñor
As Laxas 2014 Albariño; $22; 92 points. Mineral, peach and melon aromas come with a hint of leesy dust. This is elegant and chiseled on the palate. Flavors of apple and citrus end long and stony. Frontier Wine Imports. Editors’ Choice.
According to famed Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), the Ribadavia section of Ribeiro was once 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 high-yielding grapes like Palomino and Garnacha.
Ribeiro, however, has spent the last decade on the comeback trail. The region is located about an hour inland from Rías Baixas and split into three sections—Miño (the most commercial), Arnoia (the 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. A combination of Atlantic and Mediterranean influences gives Ribeiro wines more body and floral richness than Albariño from Rías Baixas.
The Best of Ribeiro
Terra do Castelo 2013 Godello; $19, 89 points. Apple, pear and melon aromas are clean and inviting. Focused and succinct on the palate, this offers apple, nectarine and peach flavors that don’t break down on the finish. Hand Picked Selections.
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 the Ribeiro and Valdeorras regions 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).
The Best of Ribeira Sacra
Dominio do Bibei 2011 Lapola Godello; $36, 90 points. Dusty apple and mineral aromas are composed, not loud, while additional peach-pit notes are tight and crisp. This mature Godello is round and solid in composition, while stony apple and quince flavors finish long, with good shape. Drink now. De Maison Selections.
Valdeorras, the slate-mining capital of Spain, is the easternmost (and highest) of Galicia’s wine regions. The principal grape in Valdeorras is Godello, a high-quality, indigenous white variety that in some cases is being made into wines similar in character to the Chardonnays of Burgundy. Godello can be made with a minerally, slate-infused approach that emphasizes crisp acidity and vivid citrus flavors (think Chablis). However, another style using fruit harvested later in the season that’s fermented and aged in large oak barrels holds amazing potential.
When Godello is done like this (the master of this method is Rafael Palacios, younger brother of renowned 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.
The Best of Valdeorras
Avancia 2014 Cuveé De O Godello; $18, 88 points. Leesy white-fruit aromas come with hints of corn and slate. This feels plump, but it’s cut by a beam of acidity. Chunky, leesy flavors of apple and kiwi finish fleshy, pulpy and round. Fine Estates From Spain.
Galicia’s least-known wine region, Monterrei, is located along the border with Portugal. In part because of its isolation, only a handful of Monterrei wines make it to the United States.
Like its regional brethren, Monterrei (the “King’s Mountain”) 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.
The Best of Monterrei
Pazos del Rey 2013 Pazo de Monterrey; $16, 87 points. Lees and mineral notes blend with green apple and pear aromas to create an inviting nose. This feels fresh, with citric acidity. Peach, green banana and papaya flavors finish with pithy notes and mild bitterness. Aviva Vino.