Wordly White Wines
Denomination of Origin (DO) Rías Baixas is renowned for the Albariño grape, an indigenous variety that produces some of the world’s foremost white wines. Located in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain, the DO was formally established in 1988. Albariño has always been the flagship of this coastal region. In Rías Baixas’ unique climate, Albariño shares the same mineral-rich soils and cool climate as the world’s other renowned white wine-producing regions, including France’s Loire Valley, New Zealand, and the Rhine region of Germany.
Winemaking in Rías Baixas dates back thousands of years, but only during the past few decades has the region established a global reputation as a producer of top quality wines from its signature grape, Albariño.
First came the Romans
The region’s first winemakers are believed to have been the Romans, whose occupation of the surrounding Galicia region brought trade, technology and viticulture. More refined winemaking was introduced by Cistercian monks who arrived from France in the 12th century. Wine production in Galicia and Rías Baixas flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries with the discovery of the New World and the establishment of trade routes between Spain, England and the rest of Europe.
Planting and production in Galicia and Rías Baixas continued to expand through the 19th century until trade wars and export bans led to overcapacity and vineyard abandonment, and Phylloxera devastated vineyards throughout Europe. During the replanting of hybrid and native Spanish varieties in the early 20th century, Albariño began to emerge as the region’s star, showing its potential to produce high quality wines in the hands of a new generation of skilled winemakers.
Albariño – native or adopted?
Various theories exist regarding the origin of Albariño. Some speculate that it originated in central Europe and found its way to the area with the migration of Germanic peoples in the 5th century. Others say it was introduced later by the French monks. The prevailing theory today, however, is that Albariño is native to the region, owing to its ability to thrive and create distinctive wines in the region’s unique and challenging growing conditions.
DO Rías Baixas
The “modern” winemaking history of Rías Baixas began in 1980 when an official denomination was created specifically for the Albariño grape variety – La Denominación Específica Albariño. However, in 1988 after Spain joined the European Union (EU), the denomination was changed to Denominación de Origen (DO) Rías Baixas, as EU wine laws did not recognize a DO named for a single grape variety. Spain’s place in the EU also brought funding and investment to Rías Baixas, helping it modernize and build an international following.
Initially, DO Rías Baixas consisted of three distinct sub-regions: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea and O Rosal. In 1996, the sub-region of Soutomaior was incorporated, and in 2000, Ribeira do Ulla was added. DO Rías Baixas is regulated by the Consejo Regulador (local governing body), which ensures adherence to permitted grape varieties, viticultural practices, winemaking and aging procedures. Up to 12 different grape varieties are allowed in DO Rías Baixas, but Albariño is king, accounting for 90 percent of all plantings.
Galicia bears a stronger resemblance to the green fields and rocky coasts of Ireland than classic images of drier, Castilian plains. Often referred to as Green Spain, the hillsides of Galicia are covered in mist that shroud granite castles, vineyards and manor houses.
At first glance, Rías Baixas may not give the appearance of a privileged grape growing region, but in fact, the climate, landscape, soils and indigenous grape varieties – like the hardy Albariño – combine to make up a region capable of producing distinctive, high quality wines.
Nestled in Spain’s northwest region of Galicia, Rías Baixas more closely resembles coastal Ireland than it does other parts of Spain. Known as “Green Spain”, the region is characterized by moderate year-round temperatures, ocean mists and an average annual rainfall that in some spots is nearly three times the national average. Galicia’s damp Atlantic-influenced climate is, however, balanced by over 2,200 hours of sunshine, sufficient to ensure Rías Baixas’ signature grape Albariño ripens fully and is capable of producing wines with good natural acidity and an aromatic profile that makes it a sensory delight.
From the river to the sea
The coastal landscape of Rías Baixas is irregular, marked by a series of jagged inlets and shallow fjords known as “rias”. The name Rías Baixas literally means “lower rias.” The five distinct sub-regions that make up Rías Baixas differ according to their topography and proximity to rivers and the sea. Val do Salnés, situated in the northern half of the region, features the most coastline and is consequently the coolest and dampest of the five sub-regions. Equally cool but drier, Ribeira do Ulla is the northernmost sub-region, fully landlocked but dissected by the Ulla River. Bordering Portugal are Condado de Tea and O Rosal, the region’s two southernmost sub-regions. Condado de Tea is inland and warmer, whereas O Rosal is coastal and cooler – both hug the Miño River and feature an array of hillside and terraced vineyards. Soutomaior, the smallest of the sub-regions, sits on the coast in the center of the region tucked in the hills at the head of the Rías de Vigo.
Rich in minerals
The soils of Rías Baixas are fairly uniform throughout the five sub-regions, dominated by granite and in some places, schist. Large rivers and tributaries have also left alluvial and colluvial deposits – a combination of clay, silt, sand and gravel. There is a limited amount of organic material in the soil and an extremely high level of minerality – ideal conditions for Albariño and for producing the sleek and characterful white wines that Rías Baixas is famous for.
All About Albariño
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 fourteen grape varieties are permitted in the DO, the white Albariño grape represents 96% 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 aging
Barrel fermentation can be used to impart additional texture and increase the aging potential of Rias Baixas wines. Though not common, barrel aging 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.