Albariño, the standard bearer of the Rias Baixas D.O.

The north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula is home to the Rías Baixas designation of origin which is synonymous with the Albariño grape. Admittedly, it is not the only grape variety allowed in this Spanish designation, but it is the most important and the most popular due to its notoriety on all five continents, to varying degrees.

 

Adolfo Heredia, winemaker and manager of the winery, strives to produce top quality wines

 

Pontevedra and A Coruña are the two provinces in the Rías Baixas D.O. area where the Albariño grape is grown. The varietal is greatly affected by breezes coming off the Atlantic Ocean and it is grown, by and large, at average elevations of 300 metres. This does not preclude the presence of wineries such as Bodegas Vionta, whose vineyards lie between 0 and 200 metres above sea level, seemingly setting it at odds against the afore-mentioned detail, or Bodega Viña Cartín which is also below the average height. Other wineries, like Pazo Pegullal, comply with the average elevation with vineyards set between 300 and 400 metres above sea level, while others at the far end of the spectrum, like Pazo Pegullal, have vineyards between 4 and 15 metres.

The Designation of Origin includes five subzones: Valle del Salnés, Ribera del Ulla, Soutomaior, Condado del Tea and Rosal. Despite belonging to the same designation, each has characteristics that make it different from the next and unique; this is later reflected very subtly in the wines from each of their wineries.

The straw-coloured yellow, the floral and fruity aromas, an average to high intensity, freshness and balanced acidity are the characteristics generally associated with the wines of Rías Baixas. In addition to the well-known Rías Baixas Albariño wines, made exclusively from the Albariño grape, other styles of wine, which are a little different, are produced in this designation of origin and under the same label: Rías Baixas Condado do Tea, made in the same region with a minimum of 70% Albariño and Treixadura grapes; Rías Baixas Rosal with around 70% Albariño and Loureiro grapes, indigenous varieties of this geographical region; Rías Baixas Val do Salnés, whose wines are made from 70% or more of grapes of preferred varieties grown in the area, and likewise Rías Baixas Ribeira do Ulla.

If only Rías Baixas is stated on the bottle that is because at its core, it contains the authorised or preferred white grape varieties of the designation and can be produced, bottled and labelled in any of the five subzones of the region. 

In the case of Rías Baixas Barrica (barrel) wines, the wine is kept for some time in oak barrels of over 600 litres during production.  Rías Baixas Tinto wines, produced on a small scale, are made from red varieties produced in any of the authorised regions in the designation area. Finally, Rias Baixas Espumoso (sparkling) wines, the latest addition to the designation, are made from any of the varieties mentioned in any of the subzones and at the same time, must comply with established national and EU standards for quality sparkling wines.

As regards the general characteristics of this wine region, according to the Rías Baixas D.O., the majority of the soils where Albariño is grown, “are poor in variable minerals, with sandy to sandy loamy soil and poor in nutrients”. This leads to low water retention and a tendency for the soil to dry out in summer.

During the ripening period, “the sun is not very high; there is lower rainfall and slight water stress”. These conditions cause the resultant wines to be generally concentrated and aromatic with higher acidity, giving it its uniqueness.

 

Wine grower and winemaker Baltasar Tirado continues the family tradition

Historically speaking, the Albariño grape has been grown in Rías Baixas for over a thousand years and has adapted well, despite the fact that no one knows its origins. There is some consensus that Cistercian monks were responsible for teaching local wine producers how to get the best out of this type of grape and maximise expression.

Today, according to data from 2017, approximately 4,100 hectares are planted to Albariño in Rías Baixas, divided between 22,000 plots farmed by 5,500 winegrowers. This demonstrates the fragmentation of vineyard distribution as well as an organisational structure that is intrinsically that of a smallholding.  In other words, the average area per winegrower is less than one hectare, divided into 4 - 5 plots.

Canopy management in the region involves vine training. The system enables grapes to be grown at a certain height above the soil, allowing other crops to be grown on the same plot; it promotes better use of sunlight and prevents the development of diseases which may occur as a result of high humidity in the region. But, as in almost all things in life, there are always exceptions – this is true of Bodega Viña Cartín where, according to winemaker Rosa Pedrosa, the system is not applied to its Santa Mariña vineyard.

Baltasar from Bodega Terras De Compóstela points out the characteristics of the vines: “The Albariño variety is very vigorous and productive with small clusters. The grapes are small and circular with a thick skin, the pulp is juicy with a lot of flaour and fruity and floral aromas.”

In recent decades, as the number of new vineyards has increased, winegrowers have introduced modern canopy systems, which are always high and adapted to the specific weather conditions in the area and the requirements of Albariño and other grape varieties grown in the area.

 

On the right, winery owner Ramiro Martínez and on the left, manager César Mendez

 

As mentioned previously, Albariño is the ‘Queen’ of the Rías Baixas D.O., so much so that it is estimated that over 95% of the varietal is harvested in this designation of origin. Other varieties of importance are Loureira and the Treixadura which account for some 4% of production with other white varieties accounting for a very small percentage, and red varieties extremely marginal (accounting for 0.79% of total production).

So what does Albariño have that other grapes don’t? According to Bodega Vionta, “it is grown in a very wet region, with low yields, small berries and a very golden colour, and the juice is more golden than in other regions.” Charo Andrade from Bodega Pazo Pegullal emphasises the characteristics of the grape, which distinguish it from other varieties: “it exudes unique, intense fruity aromas, floral and herbal aromas; it has well-balanced acidity which gives it a certain longevity.”

The great majority of wines produced are 100% Albariño, and they are still wines. A smaller percentage of wines are blended with other indigenous grapes and authorised by the designation of origin. These are:

White grape varieties: Albariño, Treixadura, Loureira (Loureiro blanco or Marqués), Caiño blanco, Torrontés and Godello.

Red grape varieties: Caiño tinto, Espadeiro, Loureiro tinto, Sousón, Mencía, Brancellao, Pedral and Castañal.

It is clear that, although the designation of origin has over a dozen indigenous Galician grape varieties, ‘Albariño’ is used as a label for wines from Rías Baixas.

A large majority of the wines produced in Rías Baixas are made in the same style. “In general, there are few things that can differentiate some wineries from others. Perhaps what does distinguish them is vineyard and winery management; in other words, our working practice,” says Rosa Pedrosa of Bodega Viña Cartín.

How are the designation wines distributed? According to data supplied by the Rías Baixas D.O. for 2017, wines complying with official production guidelines and eligible for the designation totalled 24.8 million litres, i.e. over 33 million bottles labelled as such.

Almost 27% of sales are in export markets and the rest, a significant 73% is sold nationally, with many of the wines drunk in their homeland in the northwest of Spain. Translating these facts into litres, this means that a total 6.6 million litres are sold abroad in over 65 countries (i.e. over 8.7 million bottles). Obviously, the figures are averages. For example, at Bodegas Vionta, around 70% is indeed sold in the Spanish market, a percentage rising to 80% at Terras de Compóstela. By contrast, domestic sales at Bodega Viña Cartín account for no more than 55%.

Albariño wines are sold in more than 65 countries across the globe. The United States and the United Kingdom are the main markets and represent 60% of total sales.  By volume, they are followed by Puerto Rico, Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada and Norway.

So what is the future for wines produced in Rías Baixas? In terms of harvest volumes, 2018 is expected to be better than the previous harvest, with quality forecast to be good.

In our humble opinion and based on comments by the winery managers with whom we have been able to speak, wines of better quality are increasingly sought after and, with more new-generation winegrowers joining the fray, I am sure that new styles of wine made from Albariño and/or other varieties in Rias Baixas will emerge.

There are already wineries producing a wide range of wines which intend to make Premium bottlings from the ‘Queen’ of Rías Baixas: Bodegas Vionta has confirmed that it is already planning to do so.  Others, like Pazo Pegullal, as its winemaker Charo Andrade says, “plan to plant an indigenous red variety to make red wines” in addition to presenting a new wine aimed at a younger target audience very soon.

Sparkling wines made from the Albariño grape have begun to emerge recently.  As the author of this article, although I have not had the opportunity to taste any of them, I am sure that they will amaze us.

 

Santiago Jiménez