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October 31, 2023updated 07 Nov 2023 6:00pm

Rías Baixas: A vinous pilgrimage to green Spain

The first installment of an in-depth two-part look at the Atlantic Coast home of Albariño.

By Sarah Marsh MW

It’s possible that Albariño was brought to Galicia along the pilgrim route in the 12th century. I fell for the charms of Galicia crisscrossing it on foot with my son on the home stretch of several caminos to Santiago de Compostela. Galicia is known as “green” Spain, where it often rains, and the climate is cooled and moderated by the Atlantic Ocean. This is a sharp contrast with neighboring Castilla y León, a hot and dry region, where we strode through the golden grain fields of the high Meseta. Galicia’s verdant, gentle hills, soft misty air, and Celtic mysticism are intoxicating. After weeks of walking and at the end of the day there are few things more pleasing than a glass of Albariño: crisp and sea-breeze salty.

Albariño is grown throughout Galicia, traditionally as part of a blend, but Rías Baixas is where it reaches its finest expression. What to expect from Albariño? Well, it’s high in terpenes, compounds that make the wine it produces highly aromatic. A young Albariño has citrus, floral, white peach, and apricot flavours with notes of lemongrass and Granny Smith apple. It is often quite spicy with hints of ginger. In a “classic” vintage such as 2021, it will have slicing acidity and veer towards fresh herbs, asparagus, and white pepper. The body will be lightly rounded with slight viscosity, and you’d expect the alcohol to be in the region of 12%. However, in hotter vintages, of which there have been a run since 2014 (2022 was hot, 2019 and 2020 were warm) the wine quickly takes on more volume, glycerol, and alcohol. The fruit expression will be richer with golden peach and crystallized ginger, but the acidity holds fast.

The variety has naturally high acidity, which makes the wine vibrantly fresh and mouthwatering. This acidity cuts through the fatty richness of pork which is as important in the Galician diet as the seafood with which Albariño also works a treat. One of my all-time favorite food-and-wine parings is Albariño with pulpo á feira—a Galician dish of octopus which is boiled, then flashed over a fire and doused with olive oil, garlic, and pimentón.

The Denominación de Origen (DO) of Rías Baixas authorizes 14 varieties, but many producers have chosen to hang their hat on Albariño and it’s become fashionable to promote Rías Baixas as a single-varietal wine. You can understand why: Such a personable varietal certainly cuts a dash on the international wine scene. But this has left Rías Baixas exposed to imitators, not least from the US, where plantings of Albariño are growing rapidly. Some Rías Baixas producers are using the term “Atlantic Albariño” to combat pretenders. Bodegas Castro Martin is contemplating going a step further with “the authentic Atlantic Albariño.”

I’m not sure about this. As an onlooker—and one completely sold on Rías Baixas—I’d suggest a more precise focus on terroir would be a stronger marketing strategy. No one can copy the expression of a specific place. The wines of Rías Baixas have a marine saltiness which is special and different. Labelling and marketing efforts may be better directed to promoting regional identity. Those who champion Rías Baixas DO have the possibility of further defining their provenance on the label by using the subregion.

There are five subregions in Rías Baixas encompassing a total of 4,321ha (10,677 acres): Val do Salnés (or Salnés Valley), O Rosal, and Condado do Tea, plus the somewhat newer and arguably less important Soutomaior and Ribera do Ulla. Ninety-nine percent of Rías Baixas wine production is white. The smidgen of red can be made of six varieties. For the whites Albariño represents 96 percent, but Godello, Caiño Blanco, Treixadura, Torrontés, and Loureira Blanca may also be used.

The impressive Palacio de Fefiñanes, home of the eponymous producer, one of the leaders of the “Rías Baixas re-set.” Photography by Shutterstock.

Loureira Blanca is a high-quality variety mainly found in O Rosal and to a lesser extent in Condado do Tea. These two subregions are situated on the border of Portugal, hugging the hillsides that slope towards the Minho River. Seventy percent of the blend in the subregions must be either Albariño or Loureira or a combination of the two. Further north in the coastal region of Val do Salnés, Rías Baixas must contain a minimum of 70 percent Albariño. That said many producers across the region showcase Albariño on the label and where this is the case the wine must contain 100 percent of the variety.

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Climate and Soil

The grape variety is important of course, but I’m always more interested in the terroir. Considering the broader aspects of climate and soil, Rías Baixas has a cool and wet climate for Spain, although in recent summers, such as 2022, the temperature has escalated. The average annual rainfall is 1,500–1,700mm (59–67 inches) and in some places can be three times the national average, a statistic which I can readily believe having been soaked many a time in Galicia. The Atlantic Ocean moderates the climate so there is no significant drop in temperature at night in Val do Salnés and O Rosal, particularly in the most coastal vineyards, while in Condado do Tea, which lies somewhat inland, there is a more pronounced diurnal shift.

Val do Salnés is the coolest region. At Bodega Pazo Señorans, an historic estate in that subregion, Javier Izurieta Romero observes, “The ocean gives us soft weather and a smooth climate more like a Mediterranean climate.” It’s a bit warmer in the southern sub regions of O Rosal and notably so in Condado do Tea.

Rías” means lower estuary and the rugged coastline of Galicia is punctuated by shallow estuaries, while the landscape is one of gentle hills on which the vines are planted at relatively low altitude from 50–170m (164–558ft). It’s very charming.

Granite is the bedrock here. The granite is weathered and decomposed—know as xabre—it is quite sandy in texture and drains well. This is covered by alluvial and colluvial top soils: sand, silt, and gravel left behind by the large rivers which cross the subregions. Naturally the soil is deeper at the bottom of slopes where alluvial matter has washed down from the hills.

Granite dominates, but across the subregions there are variations. Some places have more schist. In the Val do Salnés, Angela Martin Serantes mentioned slate and quartz in her vineyards at Castro Martin. Further south in the subregion of O Rosal, Emilio Rodríguez, winemaker at Bodega Terras Gauda, describes the slate in a large vineyard called La Mar which I will come back to later. “Below a 25cm [10 inches] alluvial top soil there is schistous slate aligned in a vertical strata which allows the roots to easily penetrate.” And several producers alluded to a seam of clay in the Val do Salnés.

Granite soil is acidic—the most acidic in Spain—so the low pH, which ranges from between 4.5 to 5.5, must be adjusted to 6 to 6.2 for grape vines to flourish. The distinctive savory minerality of Rías Baixas must in some way derive from the granite for it is the most significant common denominator among the subregions, while the influence of the Atlantic on the meso climate varies as do the grape varieties.

The road to success

But let’s back track for a moment to set the scene. On my visits to Pazo Señorans and Castro Martin—where I met Marisol Bueno with her daughter Vicky Mareque; and Angela Martin Serantes with her husband Andrew McCarthy—a picture emerged of coastal Galicia in which families supplemented an income from fishing through selling grapes to local wineries. In this cottage industry, vines were planted wherever it was convenient and were trained on high pergolas supported by granite posts called parrales. This was, and sometimes still is, a practical polyculture approach where the vines often share the land with vegetables and chickens on garden-scale plots. The image seems rosy, but chemicals were widely used and the wines produced were inconsistent. The whites were often oxidized. 

In the 1980s, a number of bodega owners came together to save Albariño which was in danger of disappearing. Albariño is difficult to grow and susceptible to rot in Galicia’s humid climate, so it was being replanted with more disease-resistant varieties. In 1988, a Denominación de Origen (DO) for Rías Baixas was formed which encompassed land in Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, and O Rosal and with this the future of Albariño was secured.

Biologist and politician, Marisol Bueno, was elected president of the new DO, of which she was co-founder. Bueno had been growing and selling grapes since purchasing an estate in Val do Salnés in 1979. This became Pazo Señorans when she began bottling her own wine in 1989 and her daughter Vicky still produces a benchmark Rías Baixas. The DO established new regulations designed to raise the quality of production across the region. These included a maximum yield per hectare. Albariño is a vigorous variety and curbing yields to a maximum of 12,000 kilos per hectare was a step in the right direction, although today most quality producers take half this volume. 

There are now 179 wine producers in Rías Baixas. The largest—which includes the three Rías-Baixas co-operatives—each produce between 200,000 and one million liters annually. Most bodegas own some land, but many of the larger operators are principally supplied by contract growers. There are 5,011 growers in Rías Baixas, the vast majority of which grow grapes, but do not make wine commercially. Marcos Barros—who was responsible for Martin Codax, a co-operative brand which is one of the best known Rías Baixas labels on the international market—tells me, “Eighty percent of the vineyards here are in the hands of non-professional wine growers who have an average of 0.4 hectares divided into several parcels.” That’s micro-production. He went on to explain that work in the vineyard, including harvest, traditionally took place at weekends. This was when people had spare time, rather than the optimum moment to produce quality grapes.

These days vineyard management has greatly improved not least because quality-conscious estates, which purchase grapes, want to ensure they get the best quality fruit. They are on hand to advise their suppliers. Green cover has replaced the use of herbicides and considerably improved the life of the soils. And there are other benefits to this approach. In Pazo Señorans’ own vineyards, Vicky Mareque has noticed that green cover is helpful in keeping the pH of the soil consistent, requiring fewer adjustments. Like many, Mareque ensures she gets the best quality fruit from her suppliers by paying a bonus over the current rate per kilo, based on the analysis of sugar and acidity.

The region has seen an influx of investment. McCarthy tells me that two thirds of bodegas are owned by outside investors. Apparently, all viable viticultural land in the Val do Salnés is now covered by vines. Land prices for established vineyards have rocketed to €250,000/300,000 a hectare. Put in context, this is on par with Chianti Classico.

This land grab has been followed by a grape grab. Newly founded companies, waiting for their vineyards to come on stream, are competing for a limited supply of grapes and are prepared to pay twice the going rate to secure them. Consequently, grape prices have doubled in the past couple of vintages from €1.50 to €3 a kilo. This has been described by frustrated producers as the “great grape scandal.”

But pressure to find both grapes and land is not new. In a move to increase plantable land, the DO of Rías Baixas was extended in 2000 to incorporate the subregions of Ribeira do Ulla, a large inland expanse of land south of Santiago de Compostela, and, in 1996, the much smaller Soutomaior, a coastal spot at the head of the Ría de Vigo.

The soils in Ribeira do Ulla are generally alluvial and the producers I spoke with (in the original DOs) voiced skepticism about this subregion, which they feel was created for political reasons to satisfy the demands of larger companies and outside investors. The land is cheaper, flatter, and easier to develop. There are economies of scale in vineyards which span 30–40ha (74–99 acres), considerably larger than small traditional plots. Moreover, the vines here are grown on vertical trellis, rather than pergola, which can be worked cost-effectively by machine.

But it’s not only the new subregions which are planted this way. A move to espalier or vertical trellising systems goes back 25 years in Val do Salnés, O Rosal, and Condado do Tea. At the time, espalier training was seen as a solution to colder seasons in which it was difficult to achieve full ripeness and acidity was rather more assertive than fresh and vibrant. Of course, recent hotter vintages have prompted a reappraisal and renewed appreciation of the traditional pergola system, despite the expensive and time consuming manual work it requires—not least the backbreaking harvest.

Vineyard and winery

Grape vines trained on pergolas are an integral part of the Galician landscape and it’s worth a moment to consider why this system was used. Pergolas have several advantages. In the misty, humid climate of Galicia they allow air to circulate more readily than an espalier system. This reduces the risk of mildew and botrytis to which Albariño is particularly susceptible. At Viña Nora in Condado do Tea I met with the young winemaker Alexia Luca de Tena. “We have days of 100 percent humidity. It’s a miracle we have wine at all!” She is pragmatic and honest about her approach. “We still have to use some systemic sprays.”

The pergola system also affords some shade—grapes are more exposed to sunburn on the espalier system—and it’s easier to contain the vigor of Albariño using pergola. On an espalier system, where the vines are much more tightly packed, Albariño requires extensive green work. The DO has no regulations about spacing or the number of vines per hectare. A 4m x 4m (13ft x 13ft) spacing seems fairly typical for pergola in Rías Baixas, but Maior de Mendoza in Val do Salnés has a vineyard planted in the 1970s on a spacing of 2.3m x 6m (7.5ft x 25ft). 

Pergola-trained vines are an integral feature of the Galician landscape. Photography by Shutterstock.

So much for the vineyard, what about the winemaking? As you might imagine the “Rías Baixas re-set” in the 1980s prompted a headlong dash into clean and reductive winemaking with an emphasis on stainless steel, temperature control, and cultured yeast. Out with the old and oxidative ways and in with the new, in a bid to make fresh, fruit-driven wine especially for the entry or “estate” level. This has matured into a more measured approach with a focus on lees aging and more careful use of sulfur.

It seems that most producers like some skin contact—anything from four to ten hours—which they use to increase the aromatic intensity of the wine, so the grapes are lightly crushed before pressing, rather than pressing the intact bunch. For larger cuvées of estate wine, cultured yeast is widely preferred to indigenous yeast and the inoculated juice is generally fermented in stainless steel tanks at quite a low temperature (16-18°C [61-64°F]), to preserve the fruity esters. The malolactic is not encouraged. In any event, naturally low pH together with a low temperature will discourage lactic bacteria from working. The malic acid would account for the green apple notes in many young Rías Baixas wines.

After fermentation, estate-level wines are typically aged for three months or so on lees to fill out the mid palate. This works well in cushioning the high acidity. At harvest, Albariño will typically have a pH of 2.9, which is really quite low and it can be lower still. Even in hot vintages it is still low at 3.05, but the alcohol can leap from 12% to 13.5%. Since the malic acid is not converted, the pH does not change much, which accounts for the vibrant citrus acidity of Rías Baixas. All the bodegas I visited had an attractive example of a fruit-driven estate wine.

At Maior de Mendoza, I particularly liked the Rías Baixas Sobre Lías which has three months’ lees aging after ten hours’ skin contact and fermentation which relies on indigenous yeast. This label is produced from Albariño grown in the widely spaced pergola vineyard previously mentioned. The wine from 2022 vintage is peppery and lightly creamy with lemongrass notes. The 2017, with some years in bottle, has developed an attractive singed-orange-skin bitterness and saltiness.

As you might expect Rías Baixas is a hotbed of innovation. At Mar de Frades (part of the Ramón Bilbao group) Paula Fandino is using a Ganimede approach to preserve the floral aromas of Albariño. She holds the de-stemmed grapes at 12°C (54°F) under CO2 for 12 to 60 hours before pressing. But nothing is truly new in the winery, so any discussion of innovation must also include reinterpretations of traditional techniques. At the upper-end, Rías Baixas will typically have longer lees aging and rely on indigenous yeasts. Wines may be aged, and possibly fermented, in older foudres in the traditional manner, but with a keen eye on cleanliness, oxidation, and the like, the results are quite different.

Many producers use oak, but other materials, among them acacia, granite, and concrete in a variety of shapes and sizes, are used for aging. As for oak, I’m uncomfortable with obvious oak in Albariño, although just a touch can work. Palacio de Fefiñanes 1583 is aged in stainless but it has a whisper—no more—of oak from a fermentation in used barrels. In the 2022 vintage the oak brought an appealing toasted coriander note. Palacio de Fefiñanes Armas de Lanzós has 30 months’ aging with the final 18 months in 500-liter French oak, which, for the 2018 vintage, brings a savory, salted-almond profile with the oak quite well integrated after five years.

Viña Nora, Nora de Neve 2020 had the most assertive oak among all the Rías Baixas wines I tried. It’s a rich and concentrated wine, although rather too oaky for my palate. Terras Gauda Black Label 2021 is made in foudres, one third of which are new. This spicy wine is full and generously rounded with notes of jasmine, orange peel, and coriander with some attractive oaky notes. Perhaps new oak has greater affinity with the richer wines of Condado do Tea and possibly with O Rosal than with Salnés?

Most producers eschew wood altogether, preferring to concentrate on lees aging to add complexity and texture. In Condado do Tea I met with winemaker Isabel Salgado who manages Bodegas Fillaboa, a 75ha (estate, half of which is planted with Albariño.

In certain vintages—2010, 2016, and 2020—she makes a wine which is aged for six years on lees called Bodegas Fillaboa 1898. “I believe in the capacity for Albariño to age for an extensive time on lees,” she explains.

Salgado started experimenting in 2010. She matured the same wine for six years in tank on lees, while the principal part was bottled in 2011 after just a few months of lees aging. We tasted them side by side, although the latter was a magnum. The bottle with extensive lees aging (bottled in 2017) had more textural richness and was surprisingly youthful and fruity, while the same wine which had been in magnum for twelve years was spicier with candied ginger and pineapple, but slimmer bodied, lighter textured, and more salty. This certainly demonstrates that Rías Baixas has the capacity to mature, but this is a topic for another article.

Focusing on young Rías Baixas, it’s fair to say that Albariño’s varietal character is assertive while Loureira Blanca is floral and rather more restrained. I only tasted Caiño Blanco at Terras Gauda, but it made an impression. Bear in mind that Albariño represents 96 percent of all planting in Rías Baixas.

Terras Gauda, which is a large bodega in O Rosal producing 1.7 million bottles annually, is particularly interesting for their focus on Caiño Blanco, but it also produces a delicious Rías Baixas. In O Rosal it’s traditional to blend grapes. Terras Gauda Rías Baixas 2022 is a blend of 70 percent Albariño, 20 percent Caiño Blanco, and 10 percent Loureira Blanca. It has white flower and lime characters, a plump and rounded palate with a touch of minerality. Winemaker Emilio Rodríguez remarks: “Loureira has Muscat-like floral aromas and is very light on the palate so we will decrease it to seven percent. This will be enough to get the interesting aromas. We are looking for more body and structure and for that we want Caiño Blanco.” 

“2022 was a very hot vintage,” recalls Rodríguez. “For more than five days it was 38°C (100°F) for over five hours a day. Crazy! We are just 10km (62 miles) from the sea and we’re not used to this. It was also very dry, although we had a little rain in September which re-hydrated the berries.” He goes on to say that if the climate continues to get warmer it will not be enough only to harvest the grapes earlier. He believes the answer, and indeed the future of Rías Baixas, lies with a different grape variety—Caiño Blanco rather than Albariño.

He describes Caiño Blanco as a thin-skinned variety with small bunches and berries and even more acidity than Albariño. Many of the vineyards were pulled up 40 years ago because it is low yielding and ripens late. When harvest typically took place in October it was unreliable, “but with climate change the high acidity and slower maturity are an advantage” remarks Rodríguez who is convinced that “Caiño Blanco is the best white variety of Rías Baixas.”

At Terras Gauda, where they work with growers in a shareholder relationship, they have been able to access some old vines of Caiño Blanco. One such shareholder has a couple of parcels of Caiño Blanco—with 85- and 35-year-old vines. Clearly such parcels are rare, but Terras Gauda also has a much newer and extensive vineyard of its own called La Mar. 

The steepish slopes of La Mar vineyard reach 170m (560ft) above sea level which is unusual in O Rosal where most vineyards lie at 50m (165ft), just above sea level. “Although the altitude seems small, it makes a significant difference,” Rodríguez says. The site has multiple aspects and schistous soils with a natural pH of 4.5. In 1989 it was planted with Albariño on espalier trellising. Rodríguez tells me that the trellising decision was based on experiments at the time which showed that Albariño grown this way had 0.5% more alcohol and 1 g/l lower acidity than on pergola. It was grafted over to Caiño Blanco in 2003 and the first vintage of La Mar—a wine made with Caiño Blanco—was 2009.

La Mar 2021 has structure and tension. Tasted in the context of so many Albariños it is not notably floral or fruity, but it showed good density, body, and gravelly, mineral grip. Someone obliging searched for an older vintage and came up with 2011. La Mar 2011 had developed honeyed, caramel, and sweet hay characters, with firm acidity and a steely feel—impressive from young vines of Caiño Blanco (in the early days 17 percent Albariño was added). Shortly after my visit I received a bottle of 2019 which was nicely rounded, showing savory richness, creamy nuttiness, with hints of roasted fennel and lemon. The acidity was good which carried to the bitter, salted-almond finish. This small tasting indicates the aging capacity of Caiño Blanco. It is less instantly fruity and engaging in youth than Albariño, but gathers complexity with bottle age and would appear to be a good conduit of terroir. “Caiño Blanco has lower terpenes and more glycerol and acidity than Albariño and extracts the character of the terroir more accurately,” says Rodríguez.

Putting Caiño Blanco aside for a moment (since it represents a minuscule fraction of planting in Rías Baixas), after tasting young wines and old, I think it’s fair to say that the wines of Rías Baixas are a partnership between terroir and variety. In youth, Albariño grabs attention, but with bottle age the aromatics change, and terroir is more exposed, while the acidity remains fresh and constant. In this respect it has more in common with Riesling’s relationship with terroir than the more self-effacing Chardonnay in Burgundy.

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