What does Galicia, Spain share with Celtic England?
Mention Galicia to most people and chances are they’ll just stare at you blankly. Bring it up in wine terms (even drop Albariño in there) and they’ll maybe nod politely but still vaguely. Maybe it should come as no surprise. For in some ways, Galicia is to Spain as Cornwall is to the rest of England. Or, for that matter, as Newfoundland is to Canada.
Galicia is decidedly and refreshingly different. And the Cornish reference is not by accident. The very first time I set foot in this remarkable windswept corner of northwest Spain I was hooked. I’d been lucky enough to travel and taste in many other parts of the country before — from Jerez to Rioja, Peñedes, Duero and Murcia. But I wasn’t prepared for the unabashed individuality and marked contrast of the rugged coast and lush green land that defines this little piece of Spain — separated by the Minho River from Portugal and much of neighbouring Asturias.
Galicia has also been historically connected over the years to Celtic counterparts Scotland, Ireland and Wales (as well as to Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany) through various alliances and settlements, which have even resulted in such cultural commonalities as kilts and bagpipes.
In fact, when it came to fashion, the early Galicians were trendsetters. Artifacts show their kings were wearing the kilt — and tartan kilts at that — some 500 years before the Scots and the Irish. Needless to say, it’s a claim that’s hotly contested.
The Galician coastline is impressively rugged and easily reminiscent of the southwest of England or the Irish coast. That’s also perhaps no surprise: if you charted a course due south of Cork or Cornwall’s Lizard, chances are you’d wind up close to, if not wrecked on, Galicia’s Cape Finistere (Cabo Fisterra).
Gaelic crosses define more than a few Galician village squares. And the winter weather can be decidedly Celtic, with no shortage of wind and rain.
Maybe it’s for all these reasons and more that someone who grew up in the west of England can be so easily seduced by Spain’s northwestern Autonomous region. Plus the seafood. And, oh yes, by Albariño.
Even the most casual wine drinker knows that “Spain” equals “red wine.” But that’s not the case in Galicia, which occupies itself almost entirely with Albariño. While there are a smattering of pretty interesting reds around (as well some other white varieties and a few excellent sparklers), most people either can’t find them or just don’t think to drink them. But Albariño — especially with just about anything the Galicians cook that comes fresh out of the sea — can be spectacular.
It’s not hard to pinpoint why this grape has emerged as the perfect match for the region’s seafood, which is usually simply prepared with the minimum of embellishment. The fact is, if they’re fresh (which they usually are) the razor clams, octopus (pulpo), lobster, turbot, swimming scallops, mussels and whatever else taste even better with Albariño’s bright acidity and often assertive streak of minerality, yielded by the region’s distinctive granite soils and marine edge.
It’s no wonder that in Galicia, Albariño reigns supreme. The variety makes up well over 90 percent of all Rias Baixas production. And depending on the sub-region from which it comes, it can display a range of styles from flinty and mineral to floral, citrus and tropical notes. But it’s those intriguing streaks of salinity and mineral undertones that seem to elevate it to so perfect a match for such fresh oceanic fare.
Even though the focus on Albariño has only taken place since Rias Baixas was declared a DO in the early 1980s, the culture of grape growing and winemaking has been entrenched in Galicia for centuries.
Most of the grapes are produced by some 6,000 small landowners (the average holding is only about an acre) who might also be involved in other agricultural pursuits.
Walk into a Galician vineyard — particularly in the north but also elsewhere — and what strikes you immediately is the lack of wood used. The vines are wire-trained on substantial granite concrete pillars. Known as pergola, they keep the fruit some six to eight feet off the ground. The resulting wind tunnel is key to warding off mildew, the vine’s mortal enemy.
Aside from being key to growing grapes in what is often an unrelenting misty, foggy and humid environment, the pergola arrangement also yields the benefit of providing lush grazing for farm animals — with the ripening grapes well out of reach.
However, opinions differ as to which works best, pergola or “conventional” trellising, which offers better exposure to the sun, when there is sun. While most still work with the traditional concrete supports, the latter is preferred by a few larger producers, particularly in the warmer south, where humidity is less of an issue.
Production of pergola-grown grapes is also expensive and more labour intensive since you harvest the higher up fruit. It’s unlikely that sites in the more directly ocean influenced areas will change, however, as wood is just too short-lived in such overtly moist marine conditions.
Santiago Ruiz winemaker Luisa Freire (who employs a modern trellis system) jokes that Roas Baixas must have “the happiest mildew in the world.” However, the substantial vineyards are situated in a warm microclimate, just across the Minho from neighbouring Portugal. She makes the winery’s only wine (O Rosal), a blend of Albariño and indigenous grapes, which is among the region’s oldest. Santiago Ruiz is often referred to as the “grandfather of Albariño.” His daughter, Rosa Ruiz, is today the custodian of her father’s original winery, complete with artifacts and humble (though artfully restored) dwellings that date from the mid 19th century.
Perhaps with a nod to the neighbours (Portugal drinks much of its Alvarinho as Vinho Verde) most Galicians prefer to consume their Albariño within two or three years, although several producers now focus on aging — a welcome development. Older Albariño, thanks to its acidity, not only retains its structure very well but can also develop appealing nutty and honey notes — not unlike aged Semillon.
A vertical tasting with winemaker and viticulturist Miguel Alfonso at his pioneering Adega Pedralonga reveals the full range of Albariño’s remarkable aging potential in skilled hands: from the bright citrus and floral tones of the current vintage (2013), through the impressively mineral, schist toned and herbal 2011, even more complex (and mineral) 2010 to the impressively fruit driven, still very much alive, sleekly viscose and elegant 2001.
Increasingly, some winemakers are experimenting with careful use of oak (sometimes Galician oak), extended lees contact and other modern techniques. Others are working hard to re-establish those indigenous varieties, which, a few years back, had all but vanished.
At Bodegas Terras Gauda (also close to the Portuguese border), winemaker Emilio Rodriguez likes to work with Caiño and Loureiro blended with Albariño. Rodriguez, who estimates he has about 90 percent of the variety’s plantings in the DO, says Caiño can bring length and add a spicy element, often with orange citrus and saline notes. Almost without exception, his blends across the board show depth and complexity. Terras Gauda La Mar 2011 (85 percent Caiño Blanco, 10 percent Albariño and 5 percent Lereiro) sports tropical, mineral and citrus, with herbal aromatics such as verbena, and is almost reminiscent of Marsanne.
Overall, though, there’s no doubt that Albariño rules and with good reason. At Area Grande, a sunny restaurant on the rocky coastline not that far from stormy Cape Finisterre, you can find some of the best seafood anywhere, paired with wines from across the region. Dish after dish (Galicians have an impressive capacity for their seafood) arrives, perfectly cooked — and easily matched with Terras Gauda Albariño, which only adds to their lustre.
Paco & Lola Albariño 2012 ($22)
From one of the largest (430 members) co-ops in the region. Honeyed, floral and sage top, orchard stone fruit palate with lingering citrus and floral notes. Fresh, complex with some quite creamy notes and lingering mineral in close.
Pazo Baión Single Vineyard Estate Albariño 2013 ($20)
Stony notes on top, with hints of orange that carry through to a balanced palate with clean mouthfeel and great length before a definite mineral close. Grown on a beautiful, storied estate with small chateau soon to become a hotel and resort.
Condes de Alberei En Rama 2010 ($30)
Old vines Albariño is kept on lees for up to 3 years. Pronounced minty and tropical aromas, with bright fruit balanced by fresh acidity and saline, mineral undertones. Elegant and developed, still with aging potential.
Adega Pedralonga 2011 ($30)
Mineral and schist notes on top before a luscious marriage of fruit and keen minerality, herbal hints of lemon balm and fennel, before a lingering, clean finish.
La Val Albarino Fermentado en Barrica 2011 ($24)
Handpicked estate-grown grapes, fermented in Alliers, barrel aged with battonage and lees stirring over 6 months. Up-front vanilla and toasty notes, with a creamy, citrus palate and well integrated oak that allows the fruit to show through the finish.
Terras de Lantaño 2013 ($25)
Upfront fresh fruit and floral notes with juicy orchard and stone fruit hints on the palate, lingering salinity, with a zesty finish.
Santiago Ruiz O Rosal 2013 ($26)
A unique blend of Albariño (70%), Loureiro, Caiño white, Treixadura and Godello adds up to a well balanced blend with citrus and floral aromatics before pear and orange notes wrapped in bright acidity, with a mineral tinge.
Terras Gauda ‘Black Label’ 2012 ($33)
Albariño (70%) with 20% Loureiro and 10% Caino. Barrel fermented and lees aged. Lifted, bright fruit aromas of apple and orchard fruits with a creamy palate underpinned by good acidity and length with quince and citrus in a lengthy, sensual finish.
Adega Eidos Veigas de Padrigan 2013 ($24)
This small, modern, family-owned winery right on the coast in Val do Salnés makes wines from its own 5-acre vineyard. Citrus and herbal notes on top followed by definite mineral and saline notes with keen acidity.
Vionta Albariño 2013 ($27)
Owned by Friexenet Group. Slightly yeasty, melon and tropical notes, followed by a lively, fruit-driven palate with good acidity and a little zest in the finish.
Albariño de Fefiñanes 2013 ($32)
Distinctly mineral, with up-front stone fruits, floral notes and apple and pear hints. Very crisp and clean in the mouth with complex mineral and schist flavours through a lengthy close.
Pazo de Villerei 2013 ($25)
Tropical, floral and light herbal notes followed by a luscious and juicy stone fruit palate with good acidity and a lingering finish.
Pazos de Lusco Zios 2013 ($25)
Upfront floral and citrus notes with orchard fruits on a generous palate, wrapped in distinctive mineral notes before a zesty finish.