We recently attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, California. One of the breakout sessions was a 90 minute seminar on the wines of Rias Baixas in Northern Spain. Rias Baixas is known for making delicious, aromatic white wines from the indigenous Albarino grape. It was a breakout session we had to attend.
It was just 5 years ago that we got our real introduction to Albarino. We boarded a cruise ship in London and one of our stops was in Northern Spain. Wandering the streets of the small towns we would stop in cafes and have a glass of Albarino, the local favourite. Always served with a tapas, we were instantly won over by the wines combination of rich texture coupled with bracing acidity. We have been enjoying the wines ever since.
Rias Baixas (pronounced ree-az bay-shus) sits in Northwestern Spain, on the Atlantic coast, immediately North of the Portuguese border. Rias means river and Baixas means lower and the region takes its name from the many rivers which drop down to the sea there. Being on the Atlantic Ocean it has a cool climate. In fact, this area is sometimes referred to as “Green Spain” as the countryside is marked by lush green coastlines, more similar to what is commonly thought of as the appearance of Ireland than of the arid interior of Spain. Morning mists shroud granite stone castles and the lush vineyards, further conjuring up images of Ireland. As you would expect from this description of its topography, this is a region that receives plenty of rainfall, but most of this rainfall, fortunately, falls outside of the growing season. The region’s 2,200 hours of sunshine per year fall mostly in the growing season allowing for fully ripened grapes in most vintages.
Rias Baixas was granted official status as a Denominacien Origine (“DO”) in 1980. However viniferous grape growing is documented as far back as 1200 AD. There are 5 sub regions within the DO: Salnes, Riberio do Ulla, Soutomaior, Condado de Tea and O Rosal.
One of the more interesting features of the Rias Baixas viticulture is the vine training system most commonly used there. Rather than thin metal posts with horizontal wires that the canes are trained along, usually at the 3 – 5 foot level, a pergola system is used. Thick granite columns rise 5 – 7 feet and then thin boards or wires (called “parras”) are placed on top to make a slatted roof. The vines rise up to the slats and then canes run along them creating a roof of leafs and grape clusters. In this damp climate the pergola system allows for plenty of air flow which is necessary to keep the grapes dry enough to avoid rot or disease. We are not aware of any other region in the world that employs such a system.
Lynn Farmer took us through a tasting of 10 wines from this region. He is a James Beard award-winning wine and food writer, broadcaster and educator and teacher of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) diploma courses. Having an expert take you though the facts and figures background of the region and then immediately follow that up with a horizontal tasting of 10 wines is a great way to get an understanding of a viticultural region.
Our primary takeaways from the seminar were:
- This is a unique and distinctive terroir and is deserving of its own DO. That is, there was a consistency of the wines that spoke of a singular place.
- Within the broader context of a similar regional identity, there were differences among the 5 sub regions.
- The regional signature was generally one of medium to full bodied wines with plenty of back-end acidity, making for a great balance and a unique profile. Flavours tended to reveal honeydew melon, apricot, green apple and citrus. In some ways similar to a Pinot Gris or a Riesling but with more body and weight.
- The wines were served just below room temperature. I agree with Lynn Farmer that you do not want to serve these wines right out of the fridge; the acidity dominates too much at that temperature and the body does not get a chance to show. We personally would recommend cellar temperature or slightly lower.
- O Rosal was our favourite sub region. We also found that those wines that saw lees stirring, went through full malolactic and or saw oak ageing had a fuller profile (as expected) and we thought those wines balanced the bright acidity and made the best expression of the region.
- The wines in general offer very good quality and value for a very fair price. They are also very food friendly. We have only tasted young wines from the region but apparently the better versions can improve in bottle for up to a decade.
2016 Martin Codax
Produced at a co-op owned by 50 local families. Melon on the nose. Flavours of green apple and grapefruit blend with minerals. Lots of acidity creates a sharp finish that is long and citrus tinged. From the Salnes sub-region.
From the O Rosal sub-region. Apple and nectarine with a slightly saline nose. As one takes in the aorma you can just picture the neighbouring ocean and waves crashing! Medium body and golden colour. A richer expression than the Codax, with good back-end acidity.
2016 Bodegas Laxas
From the Condado de Tea sub-region. Here the expression is richer and fuller but the signature acidity on the finish lets you know you are still in Rias Baixas. Apricot and apple notes and hints of honeydew with a spice-tinged finish.
2016 Condes De Albarei
Made from 20 year old vines in Val do Salnes, this has a fuller expression with flavours of golden delicious apples, melon and that saline quality that imparts a savoury note. It finishes long and crisp.
2016 Santiago Ruiz
Most of the wines at this tasting were 100% Albarion but this wine was a blend of 74% Albarino, 10% Loureiro, 7% Godello, 5% Treixadura and 4% Caino Blanco. White peaches and minerals are delivered with medium body and medium acidity. Balanced and textured. From O Rosal.
Back to 100% Albarino, this time from Condado de Tea. Green apple notes and plenty of acidity. Slightly austere. One of the leaner wines at the tasting.
2016 Terras Gauda
From O Rosal this is a blend of 70% Albarino, 18% Caino Blanco and 12% Lureiro. Full body, rich and textured. Intense flavours of golden delicious apple, apricot and slight citrus and saline notes on the long finish. For us, the wine of the tasting.
2015 Pablo Padin Sergrel Ambar
100% Albarino raised for 8 – 10 months in stainless steel tanks. Apple and melon with earthy notes on the juicy finish. The body is soft and seductive, a slightly fuller expression. From the Salnes sub-region.
2016 Pazo de Senorans
100% Albarino, spending 5 months on the lees with stirring but no malolactic fermentation. Nectarine, melon and earth come across on a fuller frame. Again, there is that salinity on the finish, adding to the freshness of this wine.
2016 Lagar de Condesa
Another project of the Gil Family who’s Bodegas Juan Gil in Monstant is gaining fame for its rich Monastrel. Another wine raised in stainless it spends 4 months on the lees with stirring. Green apple and nectarine with minerals on the juicy finish. Good texture and quite complex.