In the Northwestern part of Spain, we stumble on a beautiful slice of green heaven, where life gets dictated by the influence of the Atlantic Ocean. Steep and rough coastal lines harvest the most magnificent seafood, and the soft climate ensures that grapes can develop interesting aromas with stunning wines as a result! If you find your way to this ultimate pilgrim region, do take your time to discover all the beauty Galicia has to offer!
The wine region of Galicia is found in the utter most Northwestern part of the country, right next to the Atlantic Ocean and sharing a border with Portugal. This orientation ensures a rich culture and interaction within this region, not only in terms of cuisine and used grape varieties, but also in way of life and in the language spoken in the region. The ‘Galician’ language is a beautiful intertwine between Spanish and Portuguese and plays a big part in the charm of this region.
Galicia has a large wine growing history and has so much quality to offer. We divide five different Do subregions. The term DO stands for Demoninación de Origen, which is the legal term for quality coming from a specific area of origin. In the South we find the DO’s of Monterrei and Ribeiro, a little bit more to the North we have the DO’s of Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra. In the West, right next to the Atlantic, we find the most well-known DO of Rias Baixas.
The most western part of the Galician region is also the most famous DO and home for the best white wines of Galicia! The landscape of this subregion is extraordinary and explains the name very clearly. It gets dominated by the inlets or ‘Rias’ from the Atlantic Ocean. Adding that to the meaning of ‘Baixas’ or lower, we can roughly translate the name to ‘Lower Inlets’. The English name does not sound that romantic, but it is certainly an explanation for the climate in the region, that consists of the most annual rain than anywhere else in Spain and a strong cooling affect from the Atlantic Ocean. In order to protect the grapes from the annual rainfall, the vines are grown on pergolas, that lifts the grapes a couple of meters from the ground. This to keep the risks of diseases to a minimum and giving the grapes the best chance to ripen. Initially the DO carried the name of the most important grape, DO Albariño. However, eight years after the beginning of the DO the name was changed to Rias Baixas. That way the message was given that the wine reflects more of the terroir and the climate than it does the grape.
So, there is only one star in this region and that is the white grape Albariño, however more white and even red grapes are allowed under the DO (Demoninación de Origen). They make up high quality wines as well, however, cannot compete with the Albariño grape that marks the region. There has been some discussion about where the grape has originated from. Local stories say that the grape was brought to the region by German monks and that it had been the Riesling grape. Even though there are some similarities between the two, mainly in terms of highly aromatic features, the differences cannot be explained by climate and terroir. Most likely there are family of one and other, but no DNA research had deemed it to be the same grape.
Albariño develops beautiful aromas of saline, minerality, white grapefruit, lemon peel, green apple, and white peach. It is also known under the Portuguese name of Alvarinho in Vinho Verde. Up to 99% of the white wines produces in Rias Baixas is coming from the Albariño grape. Although the wines coming from this grape are often found as fresh, acidic, crisp with salinity, we do see a new movement emerging in the DO, and that is to age the Albariño on its lees. Doing this is leading to spectacular results with a whole new future for Albariño, Rias Baixas and the whole Galicia! When done right, the aging on lees will add to its structure, without stripping the identity of the grape. Also, the aging potential gets significantly higher. Experiments are going on with letting Albariño wines age on oak, leading to stunning results as well.
The other white grapes allowed under the DO are Treixadura, Loureira Blanca, Caiño Blanco and Godello. Treixadura is an important grape variety that will be discussed in more detail under the DO of Ribeiro. Same goes for the Loureira Blanca under the DO of Ribeira Sacra.
The Caiño Blanco grape can develop high levels of acidity as well as salinity, and often gets confused with the Albariño grape. It is a local grape variety that is found throughout different regions in Galicia and the Northern parts of Portugal. It is floral, intense, and aromatic with a creamy structure.
Godello is a very interesting variety that is found in DO of Galicia and shows itself in very different forms. It is a fruit driven wine with an exotic touch, yet always elegant and a full body as well. The results of aging on oak are just remarkable! The grape originally comes from the town of Godella, near Valencia and later found its way to Galicia. In Portugal this grape is called Gouveio.
A very small percentage is reserved for red grape varieties. The allowed varieties are Caino Tinto, Espadeiro, Loureira Tinta, Brancellao, Mencia and Sousón.
The grape Mencia is probably the most well-known, mostly from Bierzo, which is a DO more to the east, falling under the region of Castilla Y Leon. We also find a lot of Mencia in Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei en Valdeorras.
Sousón is also a grape that is found in almost every DO in the Galicia area and functions as a real gamechanger in the blends. Will be discussed in more detail under a different DO.
Caino Tinto or Boracal comes originally from Portugal and is known for its high acidity and firm body. The Espadeiro is another Portuguese grape with a light colour, fruit driven aromas and an elegant bitterness. Brancellao has medium acidity, is medium in colour, yet quite aromatic.
The DO Rias Baixas gets divided into five smaller subregions:
- Ribeira do Ulla
- O Salnés
- Condado do Tea
- O Rosal
The soil in all subregions will be similar, it will mostly be the climate that makes a big difference between the smaller subregions.
Ribeira do Ulla is actually Galician for the ‘Banks of the Ulla’. With Galician I mean the regional language spoken in the area, which is not quite Spanish, also not quite Portuguese, but a mixture of the two. The Ulla is the river cutting the subregion almost in half, with the city of Vedra as its capital. This is the youngest subregions and is found just south of Santiago de Compostela. The soil is sandy granite, with alluvial at the riverbanks. The thing that designates this subregion from the rest is that the vineyards are higher up than the regions closer to the coast. Therefor there is a higher difference between day and night temperatures, resulting in a higher acidity and livelier fruitiness in the wines like ripe pear and apricot, but also in a higher percentage of alcohol. The label of this subregion reflects of at least 70% of the blend of Albariño, Treixadura and Caiño Branco.
In the subregion of O Salnés we have entered the heart of Rias Baixas, where we find the classic Albariño style that has put the grape and the region on the wine map of the world. The subregion is found in the west of the area, with important cities as Sanxenxo and Cambados. It is all in the name as well, because ‘Salnes’ of course refers to salt or saline. The area used to be covered with salt flats, that has now left its mark on the terroir. Clean, crisp Albariño, with a touch of minerality and saline that just screams seafood. The town of O Grove hosts a large culinary festival each October, featuring the best seafood the Atlantic has to offer! This region is good for almost 70% of the total production of Rias Baixas Albariño. Yet the Godello grape is quite popular here as well.
Around the town of Soutomaior, we find the subregion called Sautomaior! This historical town is found on the head of the Ria de Vigo. It is the smallest subregion of Rias Baixas and was added in 1996. The soil of sand over granite ensures Albariño wines that are very lean, crisp, and mineral-driven.
All the way south, at the river Miño that forms the natural border with Portugal, we find Condado do Tea. Not only the river Miño is a big influence, but also the side river of Tea that runs through the subregion is a big influence on the climate. The region is found a bit further inland as well, ensuring higher temperatures along with the soil of slate that is excellent for holding heat. The result is that the Albariño grape can ripe fuller here and along with the Treixadura grape leads to earthier styled wines.
On the west side of Condado do Tea, we find the last subregion called O Rosal. This region starts from the Atlantic coast and follows the Minho River from the town O Rosal all the way to Tui. With a slightly warmer climate we find more creaminess in the texture of the wines, on top of the minerality. the Atlantic and the Minho, it is no surprise that there are a lot of hints of salinity in the wines, along with the acidity coming from the granite soils that most of the subregion is made up from. Again, mostly Albariño is planted, along with Godello, Caino Blanco, and Loureira. This last one is a traditional variety to this particular subregion.
From the most western part, we go to the most eastern part of Galicia. The Valdeorras lies in the southeast of the Province of Ourense. Where in Rias Baixas the Albariño was the star, here it is the white Godello grape! Because the region is bordering Bierzo we see beautiful Mencia grapes growing here as well. Apart from those two grapes we see that Palomino and Dona Blanca are allowed for the white varieties and Garnacha, Gran Negro, Albarello, Tempranillo, Sousón and Merenzao are allowed for the red varieties.
The grape Palomino is of course known for its sub varietal Palomino Fino used to produce Sherry. This Spanish originated grape does however give great results as a dry wine as well, with tender aromas of white flowers, soft fruit, and a medium acidity.
Dona Blanca or locally in Valdeorras Valenciana, is a native variety to the region and is known as the “White lady”, a perfect grape for this sort of maritime climate that brings a touch of bitterness to the blend.
Gran Negro is a red variety originating from France and is a teinturier, which means that the flesh and juice from the grapes have a red colour. For that reason, the grape is mainly used to add colour to a certain blend. The Gran Negro or Grand Noir has seductive peppery notes as well.
Albarello is the local name for the Brancellao grape and Merenzao is an old forgotten variety from eastern France that has a cherry deep colour and is high in alcohol and acidity. Also used for Port wine in Portugal where it is called Bastardo.
Valdeorras or ‘Valley of Gold’ in Galician is one of the oldest wine growing regions in all of Galicia. The river Sil ensures alluvial soils good for retaining water. Although rainfall is high, the combination of different climates ensures that grapes do not overfill with water and there is enough sunshine to fully ripen the grapes. There is an Atlantic and continental climate combination, that has its advantages, but also its challenges. Think of spring frost, hail, and storms.
The Godello grapes lends to the production of fruity, yet earthy wines with a creamy texture. Usage of barrels to ferment and to age the wines is increasing in popularity. The aging potential, along with the fine minerality lets certain Godello wines compete with even the likes of a Puligny-Montrachet!
Mencia shows itself from a different side and style than in neighbouring Bierzo. It can be found as a single blend, but also blended with Garnacha grapes or sometimes even Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines tend to be spicy and fruity and are often of a richer style than Bierzo would be.
Going almost straight down south from Valdeorras, still in the Province of Ourense, we enter the subregion of Monterrei, right at the border of Portugal. This is the driest and warmest subregion of all of Galicia. This is due to the more inland location of the region, making it more in line with Castilla Y Leon, but also with similarities to Valdeorras. Here the Godello is the most popular grape as well, although it is called Verdello here. Dona Blanca and Treixadura are the other two preferred varieties, with Albarino, Loureira, Blanca de Monterrei and Caiño Branco as other permitted white varieties. Blanca de Monterrei is a local variety that originated from Portugal and tends to result into medium acidity and medium alcohol in its wines, making it perfect for blending.
The whites are known for its fruitiness, crispiness, and medium body.
For the red blends we see a lot of Mencia and Merenzou, along with Caiño Tinto, Sousón and Tempranillo. The reds are known for its elegant acidity and full body.
The area has regained its DO status in 1994 and has since then received a lot of international praise. Soil types differ from slate to clay and of course granite. This divides two smaller subregions of the Monterrei Valley and Monterrei Slopes.
Still within the province of Ourense, but this time more to the west next to Valdeorras, we find the subregion of Ribeira Sacra. This region gets determined by the presence of two rivers, the Mino and the Sil. Roughly translated the name means ‘Sacred Shores’. Referring to the riverbanks and the high concentration of monasteries in the area. Five small subregions called Amandi, Chantada, Quiroga- Bibei, Ribeiras do Minho, and Ribeiras do Sil are affected by a much more continental climate with warmer summers and colder winters. This area really feels the transition between continental, Atlantic and Mediterranean climate. A large difference in temperature during the day and the night helps the grapes ripen to its fullest and keeping beautiful balance and freshness.
Concentration of grape varieties are the Mencia, which is the main production of the area, for the red varieties and the Godello grape for the white varieties. Other preferred white varieties are the Loureira, Treixadura, Dona Branca, Albariño, Torrontes, Blanco Legitimo, and Caino Blanco.
The local variety Blanco Legitimo is also known under the name of Albarin, that should not be mistaken for Albariño, although they share aromas like citrus peel and saline.
Other preferred red varieties are the Brancellao, Merenzoa, Sousón, Caiño Tinto, Caiño Longo, and Caiño Bravo. These last two being very local to the Ribeira Sacra area and the northern part of Portugal, are giving us good structure and acidity in the wines.
Around the Miño River we find mostly granite in the soil, while in the areas around the Sil River tend to contain more slate. Both soil types tend to give high acidity to the wines. A remarkable fact about the vineyards here is that the grapes grow on hills that have a steepness level of up to 85 %! This does ensure maximum sun exposure and a good drainage of rainfall. However, it is impossible (and forbidden!) to machine harvest any of these vineyards, so everything is done by hand. Of course, with an increase in quality as a result. Locals call the work around these vineyards ‘Heroica’ or heroic, because seeing them at work in these hard conditions, you will feel nothing but respect!
You can find the term ‘Summum’ on the labels when the wine is made up of a minimum of 85% of the preferred grape varieties. ‘Barrica’ is another term that stands for a minimum aging on oak, with 6 months for the red wines and 3 months for the white. This term replaces traditional aging terms like Crianza or Gran Reserva, used in other parts of Spain.
Both white and red Ribeira Sacra wines are high in quality with elegant minerality and rich full flavour, the subtle touch of oak enriches this perfect interaction.
Wines from Ribeira Sacra are the ones to look out for in the future, with Mencia and Godello as leading roles.
When we move further west, just before the region of Rias Baixas, there is Ribeiro. Located just up the Miño River, but with not very strong influences from the Atlantic Ocean, this region used to flourish with the export of wine to England. However, this was long before the Douro in Portugal found its way to England. After that the vineyards in Ribeiro were abandoned and the wine area lost its reputation. Little by little the region worked to regain some of its former glory and even though the region is still a bit unknown to the international market, the wines are exquisite!
The annual hours of sunshine do make sure that the grapes are able to fully ripen, however the acidity is still very predominantly present. This does create a specific character in the wines and make it a good combination with everything seafood from the Galician area. Because the influence of the Atlantic is there, but not very high, we see a slight continental climate emerge as well, giving the area the best of both. With different flavours and style of wine as a result.
Ribeiro chooses to focus on the Treixadura grape, which can be made as a single blend, although a typical Ribeiro is a blend of different white grapes. Secondary grapes are Torrontes, Godello, Loureiro and Albariño. The Treixadura or Trajadura is the grape with most potential in this area. Delivering stunning results in the Vinho Verde and Minho wines in Portugal, Treixadura shows different possibilities in the area of Ribeiro. The grape gives us fresh citrus, along with a touch of white flowers and exotic fruit characters and a slightly creamy texture. Acidity levels are kept to a medium, but with a well reflection of the minerality of the soils. Treixadura lends itself perfectly for the production of sparkling wine. Especially when using the Methode Traditionelle, along with 15 months aging on the lees, resulting in a creamy feel with the freshness of citrus, white stone fruit and well-balanced yeasty notes. Another special style made from Treixadura is the Tostado wine or Toasted wine. A natural sweet wine where the grapes are dried for a minimum of 3 months. Resulting in beautiful notes of caramel, roasted nuts, and dried apricots. Along with the sparkling Treixadura, production does not exceed over 1%, making these styles a delicious rarity.
Red wines are upcoming and are mostly made from Caiño, Mencia, Brancellao, Sousón and even Tempranillo. The total production is rather low, around 9%, but do create beautiful blends with their own character. They are intense and expressive, yet subtle and elegant. A fleshy full structure, with a balancing acidity.
The beautifully cut and elegant diamond of Galicia is almost a country within a county. It has its own traditions, own language, own history, its own exquisite cuisine filled with Pulpu a la Gallega and Percebes, but above all with its own characteristic wines! When travelling to Spain Galicia is a region that simply must be on your list! The lush green nature, the rough coastal lines and the hospitable locals will mesmerize you every time!
Thanks to EUC (Unión Española de Catadores), Consejo Regulador Do Rias Baixas, DO Monterrei, DO Ribeira Sacra, Do Ribeiro and DO Valdeorras. Special thanks to The Tactics Group.