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.