Far away from the hustle and bustle of Madrid, the art and architecture of cosmopolitan Barcelona, and the sun-soaked beaches of Valencia, there lies the small wine region of Rías Baixas tucked away in the northwestern corner of Spain. Known as “Green Spain”, this hilly area located in the autonomous community of Galicia shares very little in common with the dry, desert-like conditions of the rest of the country. The climate is decidedly maritime, and rainfall (and humidity) is plentiful here. Historically, the area is closely tied to the culture of the early Gallic people who settled here. Today traces of this distinct culture are still observed in the fair skin of the population, the native Gallego language which is still widely spoken, the regional seafood-dominated cuisine, and the traditional dress, music, and dances of the region. This uniqueness is also evident in the fascinating and delicious wines of the region, especially its distinct native treasure, Albariño.
Tradition dictates that the ancestor of the modern Albariño vine was brought to the region in the 12th century by Cistercian monks of the wealthy Cluny Abbey located in Saône-et-Loire, France (an area in Burgundy). Although the translation of the name Albariño (“white of the Rhine”) seems to support this tradition, today many ampelographers believe the vine may be indigenous to the region due to its prolific presence in the wild growing along the trunks of poplar trees and there being no genetic evidence of parentage by vine species north of the Pyrenees.
Wine production in Galicia and Rías Baixas is well over 90% white and, of that, about 92% is Albariño. The humidity of the region can be problematic for producing healthy grapes, so several viticultural practices have evolved to allow the grapes to have maximum exposure to sunlight and maximum circulation of air to prevent mildew and ensure even ripening. The vines are traditionally widely spaced and trained on granite pergolas with a wire trellis called a parra. The workers often stand on grape bins to harvest the high hanging fruit. Low yields and temperature-controlled winemaking have revolutionized the style of wines produced in the region in the past several decades.
Albariño wines display a very unique and exuberant aromatic and flavor profile. Generally the wines are dry with high acidity and a light body. There is a very strong botanical element to these wines, which can border on that of many aromatic varietals such as Petit Manseng or Viognier. The botanical aromas and flavors, along with those of rich stone fruits, citrus, tropical fruits, and the characteristic touch of saline sea spray are characteristic of these beautiful wines, which are perfectly suited to the fresh seafood cuisine of the region.
A wonderful example of Albariño is produced by the Marqués de Cáceres winery of Rioja legend. They call their 100% Albariño wine Deusa Nai (“mother goddess”) in honor of the goddess of fertility who was highly worshipped by the early Gallic habitants of the region. Cristina Forner, owener of Marqués de Cáceres, says that they seek to transfer the magic of this ancient myth and the romance of the Rías Baixas region to this wine. The crafting of this wine from vineyard to bottle is exceptionally artisanal. The grapes come from the the O Rosal area (one of three main sub-regions in Rías Baixas) where the undulating, granitic vineyards are very close the ocean. The harvest is 100% by hand, and the fermentation and less maturation are done in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks to maximum the vivacity and freshness of the varietal. The resulting wine is a pale golden color with a distinct mineral character emanating from the terroir. Characteristic notes of ocean minerals and sea spray intertwine with deep floral and citrus tones. Stone fruits, such as pear, white peach, and nectarine, further convey the unmistakable character of the grape. It is truly a white wine of pedigree and distinction.
When pairing Albariño with food, the first clue is the native cuisine of the Galician region. This wine simply sings with fresh, simple preparations of high quality seafood. Fresh white crab, mixed shellfish platters, ceviche, simple grilled fish, and sushi and sashimi immediately come to mind for the younger wines that emphasize the fruit and freshness of the varietal. More mature examples with perhaps some oak influence are excellent partners for richer dishes such as seafood stews or scallops. In pairing Albariño wines, do as the Spanish do and consider them “the Manzanilla sherries of the North”, as both wines contain distinctive ocean notes and pair so seamlessly with seafood. And don’t forget this fruity, vivacious wine as a wonderful aperitif before dinner!
Albariño is truly a special, distinctive grape grown in a special, distinctive place. It has the broad appeal of favorite mainstays such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio but with a certain uniqueness of place that really distinguishes it from all others. And people are starting to catch on. Albariño has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the US for the past two decades. This popularity has now taken the grape to vineyards in California in the regions of Los Carneros, Napa, and the Edna Valley and even to Oregon and Washington. In the end, however, the truest expression of Albariño will always come from its ancestral home in Green Spain.