The White Wines of Rias Baixas

Posted on Dec 5, 2017


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.

SpainRias 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.

spainRias 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.

Spain

The unique vine training system used in Rias Baixas.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Within the broader context of a similar regional identity, there were differences among the 5 sub regions.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Tasting Notes

Rias Baixas2016 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.

Very Good

2016 Valminor

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.

Very Good+

Rias Baixas2016 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.

Very Good+

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.

Very Good+/Excellent

Rias Baixas2016 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.

Very Good+/Excellent

2016 Fillaboa

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.

Good

Rias Baixas spain2016 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.

Excellent

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.

Very Good+

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.

Very Good+/Excellent

rias baixas spain2016 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.

Very Good+/Excellent

11 Comments

  1. thea@lusciouslushes.com'

    This tasting was a blast! It was so much wine so quickly, but thank god for my Coravin. Rias Baixas is such a fun and diverse area, and you can really see the magic of Albarino in action.

    Nice piece – I really appreciate all the detail! And even though I’m freezing this morning, I think some Rias Biaxas will go with Christmas dinner.

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    • It was a great session and yes a lot was covered. It’s become our go-to white particularly for guests that don’t want an oaky chard or a NZ Sauv blanc–sits wonderfully in the middle of the spectrum.

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  2. Robin@Crushedgrapechronicles.com'

    Fascinating! I only noticed one wine that you mentioned spending time on the lees, the 2016 Pazo de Senorans. I recently tasted an Albariño from this region that spent time on the lees that had me enchanted. What do you think accounts for the “richer expressions” of some of the other wines compared to the bright acidity of others. Was it a vintage, the ripeness when harvested, the area in the region or the winemaker? Any thoughts to the variations? And what is your take away as to what you identify as Rias Baixas in an Albarino?

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  3. trriley08@gmail.com'

    Great write-up on one of my favorite varieties. Rias Baixas and Galicia are on our short list of Spanish regions to visit next. Wish I had been at the WBC for this session.

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    • Indeed…hopefully we’ll get to meet in person next year. We’re back in Spain in May–so worth getting to!

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      • Hi Robin, Thanks for your comment and your interesting observations. Definitely high acidity was a constant through the tasting; every Albarino from Rias Baixas showed plenty of juicy acidity on the back end. All the wines at the tasting were from the 2016 vintage except for the Pablo Padin Segrel Ambar which was from the 20015 vintage. So I don’t think vintage accounted for much of the variation, plus 2015 and 2016 were both reputed to be fine, warm vintages throughout most of Spain. Sub-region could have an influence. O Rosal is the furthest south, right on the border of Portugal. It tends to produce wines with a richer expression. But our guess is that technique in the cellar is likely the biggest influence. Putting all of the barrels through malolactic fermentation will add texture as will stirring the lees and leaving the wine in new oak.For us, the signature of Rias Baixas was that unique combination of body and acidity, which tends to be more of an either/or proposition with most other white wines. Though you have to sort of look for it, that slightly saline taste over top of the more obvious apple and melon flavours is another Rias Baixas marker.

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        • Robin@Crushedgrapechronicles.com'

          Thanks for the great reply. You seem to have had an amazing tasting that gives you a true basis for the wines of the region. I have tasted Albariño from California and Spain, and this give me a better benchmark for the true expression of the grape. It never ceases to amaze me, the variations that are possible within a wine.

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  4. dracaenawines@gmail.com'

    This was a highlight of the conference. I thought the tasting was exceptionally run and the wines were stellar.

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    • Agreed, despite already being fans it was a great educational on these wines.

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  5. jillbarth@msn.com'

    Spanish wine is so fascinating. Love these beautiful aromatic whites. Great explainer, Allison. Thank you!

    Post a Reply
    • We are huge fans of the region both in quality and value. We’re heading back there in the spring and can’t wait!

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