Wine Education

Albarino: The Great White of Spain

Classic Rias Baixas combination of plush green landscape, stunning Galician architecture and rolling vineyards; seen from the watchtower at the Bodegas Marques de Vizhoja estate in the subzone of Condada do Tea D.O. near the Portuguese border. 

For centuries, the Galicia region in northwest corner of Spain has been known for its abundance of fresh seafood, gorgeous beaches, plush landscape, and the visual tapestry created by a classic combination of Gothic and Baroque architecture. In short, it’s a region that teases the senses on a daily basis. 

However, it wasn’t until more recently that that this magnificent maritime area started getting recognition for another one of its treasures: Albariño, one of the world’s most distinctive and delicious white wine grape varieties.

Known for its thick skin, green hue and relatively high juice level, the Albariño grape is primarily grown in granite and sandy loam soils in the Rias Baixas area located between the famous monastic city of Santiago de Compostela to the north and the border with Portugal to the south.

The region is known for its mild and often damp climate created by its close proximity to the many estuaries or rias where a number of the main rivers of northern Spain flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, to compensate for these wet conditions and the natural vigor of the Albariño grape variety, most of the vineyards are trained with a traditional parra system, a seven-foot high canopy with granite posts quarried locally. This arbor-like system is similar to the pergola system in Italy, which basically allows the vineyard owners to circulate air to avoid mildew and spread the leaves to capture as much sunlight as possible.

Overall, there are more than 20,000 individual plots—some as small as only a half an acres—that are planted by over 6,500 farmers located throughout the region. Prior to the rainy season, the majority of the vineyards averaging 15 years or older are picked in early September, when the grape clusters are at their finest levels of sugar and natural acidity.

Often surrounded by vineyards, the classic rectangular stone structures called oreos are used to store dried grains during the damp and rainy seasons in Galicia.

Rise in Production
Granite schist, the typical flat stone found in the soil on the Santiago Riuz estate property in the O Rosal subzone of Rias Baixas.

Once in the cellar, the goal of producers who work with these unique grapes is to showcase a balanced amount of fruit, bracing acidity, mouthfeel, and freshness on the finish. Thanks to the integration of new technology in the region over the past two decades, this has been made much easier to do and quality has increased. And as a result, the number of fine producers in the region has more than tripled from 60 in 1990 to 192 in 2005. 

Yet it wasn’t until just the past decade that the wines from Galicia were widely available to consumers the New World. But that has quickly changing, mainly due to the obvious fact that the region’s biggest export market is to the United States. So much like the great Spanish reds from Rioja, Priorat and Riberia del Duero have gained recognition in the international wine market, the same is true in the white wine category as delectable Albariños from Rias Baixas are now giving the fine Rieslings from Germany or Gruner Veltliners from Australia a run for the money with sommelier and consumers across the America.

Sub Zones of Rias Baixas

Near the town of Meis in the historic Val do Salnés region, winemaker Ana Quintela at Pazo de Senorans winery stands in front of the organically farmed estate vineyard featuring the traditional pergola-style trellis system and granite posts.

Currently, there are five sub zones of within the Rias Baixas denominacion de origen region established in 1988: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Soutomaior, and Riberia do Ulla.

Of these specific zones, Val do Salnés is the oldest, largest, and most affected by the cool, wet, and damp conditions cause by the maritime climate. As a result, the wines tend to be soft, round, and often require the most malolactic treatment.

The biggest producers in the region are Martin Codax and Condes de Abarei, two ultra modern co-ops that source their fruit from a multitude of different farmers throughout the Rias Baixas region.

On a slightly smaller scale is Agro de Bazan, a winery near Villanova that was established in 1992. In retrospect, the winery’s president Manuel Otero-Gudino says that people though they were a bit crazy at the time.  “Back then, it was rare to find Albarino listed on labels. There were very few rows of vines and no modern production systems. But since then, it’s been wonderful to watch this momentum change for the better so quickly,” he said.

There are many boutique producers in the valley as well. One of them is Pazo Barrantes, a gorgeous winery built into the ancient Creixell palace in 1991 by the owners of Marques de Murrieta Ygay in Rioja. The winery’s main release is Anada, made primarily with fruit grown on the estate directly influenced by the nearby ocean.

“It’s not complicated,” said Pilar Jimenez, winemaker since 2000. “We concentrate on making this wine with the best resources that we have at our disposal and a finished products that can showcases the place where it was grown and the unique character of the vintage.” 

Within the stone walls of a fortress in the coastal resort town of Cambodos, Palacio de Fefinanes is another boutique winery established in 1904. According to proprietor Count Juan Gil Gonzalez de Careaga, who began the commercial venture at the winery in 1985, the key to the Fefinanes brand is purity. “In the 1950s the family would call the wine ‘Galicia’s Mosel’. Today, it’s more about this specific region and making elegant, high-quality wines people can enjoy on a regular basis,” he said.

To make this happen, the winery procures Albariño grapes from over 50 separate old vine growers. After being picked at the relatively low sugar level of 22 brix, each vat of grapes is cold fermented at 16 degrees in stainless steel and converted to wine with natural yeast. As a result, this process gives winemaker Christina Mantilla a flavorful matrix of separate batches to choose from to make a final product that is both homogenous and approachable upon release.
In the slightly warmer regions to the south, Albariño is often blended with Treixadura Loureiro or Caino Blanco, indigenous white wine grapes from the region.

To the east, the mountainous Condado do Tea sub zone is highlighted by a much warmer climate conditions and soils that feature a combination of granite, slate and pebbles that rest on lighter granite subsoils. This region is across the Miño River from Portugal, where the grape is called Alvarinho.

One of the first commercial producers in this region is Marques de Vizhoja, an enchanting winery started in 1966 by Mariano Pelaez, an innovative visionary smitten by his love for white wines made with the unique Albariño grape variety. 

In addition to being the first to print the name of the varietal on his labels, Palaez has also marketed the wine on billboards across Spain since the mid 1970s and was the first to use stainless steel tanks in the region beginning in 1982.

Today, Palaez and his family bottle a number of different wines that meet the needs of a wide range of consumers. “Not only do we want to show the uniqueness of the Condado do Tea region and the special grapes we use, but to make wines that can match up well with many different types of expressive cuisine and fun times with friends or family,” said Palaez.

Wine maverick Mariano Pelaez, proprietor of Bodegas Marques de Vizhoja, the first premium winery in Galicia to print the grape variety Albariño on its labels in the 1960s; seen here with son Jorge, the winery’s head of sales and exports. 

O Rosal
Photo 73: At Santiago Ruiz in the O Rosal subzone, from left: founding family member Rosa Ruiz, head winemaker Buenaventura Lasanta, and oenologist Luisa Freire.

Similar styles can be found further west along the Miño River in O Rosal, a gorgeous winegrowing region highlighted by a mixture of fluvial soils consisting of slate stone, granite schist and iron-rich deposits.

It is here that the Santiago Ruiz winery was established in 1892. Today, the winery’s annual production is 125,000 bottles, 25% of which is exported to the United States. Its main brand—a blend of Albariño with smaller parts of Loureiro and Caino Blanco—features a label that looks like an endearing treasure map that leads to, you guessed it, O Rosal.

“We look at this as a distinctive product with a lot of history,” says head winemaker Buenaventura Lasanta. “Each vintage is a step forward to establish the brand, its identity, and the true personality of the region in the marketplace.”

Another fine producer in the region is Terras Gauda, a winery that produces fabulous Albarino-based wines with touches of Caino Blanco and Loureiro, both of which add more meaty character, depth, and a rounder mouthfeel to the finished product. However, unlike many of the other producers in Rias Baixas, the winery is also daring enough to grow most of their vines on modern trellis systems that feature verticle shoot positioning instead of the more traditional parra system. “It’s more risky, but worth it!” explains winemaker Emilio Rodriguez Canas.

On the gastronomical side, Albariños from the 2005 vintage pair nicely with spices, salsas, olives, shellfish, grilled fish, white meats, classic Spanish ham and medium-bodied cheeses. They also work great served chilled as aperitifs or by themselves in the afternoon or evening during the warmer months. In a nutshell, these new, provocative white wines from Galicia have quickly become liquid delicacies that can stimulate the senses. Even better, now that new releases are becoming readily available, you can try them for yourself and share them with other wine lovers on a regular basis. 

Pincher prawns, one of the many seafood delicacies enjoyed in Rias Baixas, the seafood capital of Spain, as seen here served at Condes de Albarei, a co-op winery in the Val do Salnés region.

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In the historic Val do Salnes region, the birthplace of Albariño, Wine Director Jesus Alvarez and President Manuel Otero-Gudino of Agro de Bazan winery.

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Classic Albariño vineyard row featuring a traditional seven-foot high pergola-style trellis system with granite posts quarried locally.

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