Tasting the Wines of Rías Baixas
Wine Tasting & Styles
Over 99% of all wine produced in Rías Baixas is white. Differences in microclimates, terroir and grape varieties in the five sub-zones, as well as different winemaking techniques, make for wonderful diversity. Styles range from a crisp, aromatic “melony” character in Val do Salnés, to a peachier, softer style in O Rosal, and a less fruity and earthier style in Condado do Tea.
While the different sub-zones express subtle differences, the wines all share a number of characteristics. Pale golden lemon, they are all crisp, elegant and fresh. These wines are bone-dry and aromatic, packed with flavors of white peach, apricot, melon, pineapple, mango and honeysuckle. They share good natural acidity, have mineral overtones, and are medium bodied with moderate alcohol (12%).
DO Rías Baixas permits eight types of wines:
- Rías Baixas
- Rías Baixas Albariño –100% Albariño, grapes can be sourced from any sub-zone
- Rías Baixas Salnés
- Rías Baixas Condado
- Rías Baixas Rosal
- Rías Baixas Barrica – wines aged in oak, can be red or white
- Rías Baixas Tinto – red wine, less than 1% of all production
- Rías Baixas Espumoso – sparkling wine, limited production
While twelve grape varieties are permitted in the DO, the white Albariño grape represents 90% of all plantings. Other important permitted grapes include Treixadura, traditionally blended with Albariño; and Loureiro, a high-quality local variety particularly associated with O Rosal. Caiño Blanco, Torrontes and Godello are also planted to a lesser extent throughout the region.
Planting Albariño at the proper height and exposure to ensure even, healthy ripening is essential to quality. Vines are traditionally widely spaced and trained on stone pergolas hewn of the same granite as the soils below. To counter the region’s rainfall and humidity, most vines are trained on a wire trellis called a “parra” anchored by granite posts. Parras are up to seven feet high, allowing breezes to flow through for maximum circulation to prevent mildew and to promote even ripening. In the fall, ripened grape bunches form a ceiling-like canopy and are harvested by pickers standing on grape bins. Some vineyards are replacing the traditional parra canopy and using a European double cordon system called espaldera. Throughout the region, yields are low, ranging from three to five tons per acre.
Careful harvesting (the grapes are hand-picked in small plastic 40 pound crates) and temperature control have revolutionized winemaking in Rías Baixas. Grapes are delivered to the winery as fast as possible to avoid oxidation, and the must is fermented under meticulous temperature control in modern, stainless steel installations.
Winemaking Trends & Techniques
After harvest, the Albariño grapes are lightly pressed. The juice, pulp and skins are left to macerate at low temperature from several hours to several days to increase the wine’s aromatic complexity and structure. This is a practice gaining popularity among Rias Baixas wineries.
Many Rías Baixas winemakers now favor fermenting their grapes with the native yeasts found in their vineyards. Though it can be challenging to make wine with wild yeasts, they believe the resulting aromas are a more authentic reflection of the characteristics of the Albariño grape and their terroir.
Barrel fermentation and ageing
Barrel fermentation can be used to impart additional texture and increase the ageing potential of Rias Baixas wines. Though not common, barrel ageing adds complexity, flavors and structure. These techniques are often used in a year of extraordinary ripeness, when the wines are robust enough to benefit from oak treatment.
With abundant natural acidity, Rias Baixas wines are characterized by their crisp personality. Malolactic fermentation, which mutes the sensation of a type of acid, can be prevented by the winemaker to maintain freshness. Alternatively, complete or partial malolactic fermentation can be used to produce a rounder, softer profile, which helps the wines to age gracefully. There is a minimum alcohol level of 11.3% for Albariño wines, 11.5% for wines aged in oak and 11% for other white wine blends.
Extended contact with the lees
Normally, the sediment that remains in a wine after fermentation is removed. However, the small particles known as yeast lees can release compounds that enhance flavors and aromas, and produce a rounder texture. Contact with the lees also helps to preserve its freshness until bottling. This is a very common practice in Rias Baixas and is a technique that is constantly being perfected by winemakers.
To guarantee origin and adherence to the highest quality standards, all wines from Rías Baixas carry an official label from the Consejo Regulador. The Consejo conducts regular vineyard inspections during the growing year and harvest to ensure that growers respect regulations on grape varieties planted, planting density, pruning and training methods, and authorized yields. Following harvest, cellars are inspected to make certain that the volumes of grape must correspond with the volumes harvested. Prior to bottling, a tasting committee from the Consejo samples each vat of wine for quality and performs a sensory evaluation. Only wines that pass all of the quality control trials bear the official Rίas Baixas label