Rias Baixas: Wine from Celtic Spain

Visiting Rias Baixas, you fly in over low green hills, and that view, together with the sound of bagpipes, can make you think you accidentally boarded a plane to Shannon instead of Galicia. There’s also a good chance of rain to encourage the illusion. However, the warmth, seafood, and especially the wine tell you otherwise.
Those hills reach out into the Atlantic, creating fjord-like inlets that give the DO of Rías Baixas its name in Gallego, the local language. The soils are largely granite, with some chalk and clay – even the posts for supporting the grapevines are made from granite instead of wood. The earth here offers lots of minerals but few nutrients, making it perfect for wine-growing. The slopes encourage good drainage so the vines still reach deep into the earth. Given the high rainfall – this may be the only winegrowing area of Spain that did not get excited about the loosening of irrigation regulations in 1996 – that drainage is important. The neighboring Atlantic Ocean provides not only rain but also humidity, so growers have traditionally favored trellising their vines with pergolas, allowing air to circulate around the grapes, thereby preventing rot and fostering ripening. More recently, lower, Guyot-trained vines have become more common, especially in the south of the region; in these cases modern canopy management techniques help prevent rot and the other ravages of humidity. Fortunately, late summer is usually the driest part of the year, providing perfect ripening conditions for harvest in October. The grapes do well here.
And they are also unique to the region. Rías Baixas boasts a number of high-quality grapes; chief among them is Albariño, occupying more than 90% of the DO’s vineyard area. It’s thought to be related to Riesling, and some theorize that it was brought to the area by pilgrims or monks traveling to the medieval town of Santiago de Compostela. Popular blending grapes, when they are used, include Treixadura, Loureira, and Torrontés. The first two are often employed to heighten the aromatics of a wine, while the last can add a charge of acidity as well. These are all white grapes; a tiny amount of red wine is produced from Caiño, Espadeiro, Alicante, and some other varietals, but it is the refreshing white wines of the appellation that have brought Rías Baixas to the world’s attention.
Single-varietal Albariño wines dominate production; in keeping with EU regulations, they must consist of 100% Albariño to be labeled as such. There are five subzones to the appellation, and all five are permitted to produce pure Albariño wines. The largest, Valle de Salnés, and the smallest, Soutomaior, also permit production of blends of approved grapes with a minimum of 70% Albariño, as does the newest subzone, Ribeira del Ulla, in the northern part of the appellation. The two southern appellations along the Miño River allow some variations on this figure; in El Rosal, Albariño together with loureira must make up 70% of the blend, while Condado de Tea has the same minimum requirement for Albariño and Treixadura. Clearly Albariño rules the roost, and plantings of this grape are on the rise throughout the DO.
What does all this taste like then? Fresh, aromatic, light. Notes of peach, melon, pear, and sometimes even apricot countered by a crystalline minerality. The vibrant acidity is occasionally smoothed out with the slightest of petillance. Some producers are experimenting with oak-aging, but this is certainly the exception so far.
This is the perfect wine for demonstrating the adage that a wine matches with the cuisine of the region where it is made. Galicia’s inlets make it a shellfish lover’s paradise, and these wines, with their crisp character, are a natural partner. Seafood is loved throughout Spain, so it should come as no surprise that Rías Baixas has become the country’s number one white wine region.
Some producers:
Martin Codax: A cooperative formed in 1985, Martin Codax is one of the area’s larger operators with approximately 530 acres of vineyards. The growers in the coop work well together and maintain a high level of quality. They make several bottlings, all from 100% Albariño. The eponymous label is very good and sports that typical mineral and fruit balance, whereas the the Burgans is fruitier and leavens the acidity with a light touch of sweetness. The gently oak-aged Organistrum and late harvest Gallaecia are not currently available in the U.S.
Condes de Albarei: Also formed in the mid-80s in response to EU funds that aided the building of state-of-the-art winemaking facilities throughout the region. Both of their U.S.-imported wines are good values, 100% Albariño and classic examples of the grape’s character.
Palacio de Fefinañes: An older producer, founded in 1904; the winery is inside a stone baronial palace built in 1647. The first winery to use the Rias Baixas DO on the label, they make a refined, focused Albariño that is enjoyable upon release but also develops further complexity after a couple of years in the bottle.
Pazo de Senorans: Consistently one of Rias Baixas’ most expressive wines. While unavailable in the U.S., their aguardientes, distilled in large copper stills, are also tops and definitely worth tracking down should you visit Spain.
Source: http://www.starchefs.com/wine/features/html/rias_baixas/html/index.shtml

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