Raise a glass to Rías

Galicia has become a leading producer of good quality white wines in Spain

Sat, Jun 8, 2013, 01:00

For many years, Spain did not have a great reputation for white wines. There were two exceptions, Sherry (the greatest drink known to mankind) and the fresh, crisp whites of Catalonia as produced by Miguel Torres. Otherwise the choice was red or rosé. This has changed completely over the past two decades with the emergence, firstly, of the wines of Rueda, but more recently those from Galicia.

Galicia is part of green Spain, made up of the northern coastal regions of the Basque country, Asturias and Galicia. All three are worlds away from the arid rocky landscape most of us associate with Spain. The climate is different, hence the green name. With lush verdant landscapes, fast-running rivers and brooding mountains, Galicia sometimes seems more like Donegal than Spain. It does get a little warmer in summer however, and grapes will therefore ripen, although it is certainly cool-climate viticulture. The inhabitants claim Celtic ancestry, even having their own version of the bagpipe, the gaita.

Most readers are probably familiar with Rías Baixas, the largest wine region in Galicia. Here, on vineyards planted along the estuaries running into the Atlantic, the Albariño grape is responsible for some delicious light, dry white wines, usually with very appealing plump pear fruits. Rías Baixas (pronounced ree-ass-buy-shuss) has been growing in popularity for a number of years here and makes a great alternative to more familiar names such as Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.

The winemaking is generally geared towards freshness. Several ambitious producers have experimented with barrel fermentation, or, more successfully, with lees ageing. The latter gives an appetising, delicate, lemon zestiness to the wines.

I had the opportunity to taste a range of older wonderful delicate lees-aged Rías Baixas, mostly from Fefiñanes (see below) at the Ballymaloe Litfest recently. They are certainly worth trying.

But Galicia has other wine regions too, producing some thrilling white wines and a few fascinating reds too. The grape varieties are multiple and unique: Godello, Treixadura, Loureira, alongside others including Torrontés are used for the white wines. Godello is already very trendy and I suspect Treixadura will soon follow. The red varieties are no less obscure: Mencía, Caiño, Ferrón, Sousón and Brancellao. If this seems a little complicated for your Saturday morning reading, don’t worry. Very few wine geeks could list many of the above varieties. However, they are important, the whites in particular because they are capable of producing such brilliant wines.

Already fashionable in Spain, I suspect in the next five years the wine regions of Valdeorras, Ribeiro, Ribera Sacra and Monterrei will join Rías Baixas as fixtures on every decent restaurant wine list and feature at dinner parties at home.

Ribeiro is a short distance inland from Rías Baixas and relies more on Treixadura for succulent fresh whites. A little further inland again, mountainous Valdeorras is usually made primarily from Godello, a grape that is showing huge promise. Monterrei is the lightest of the three, and Ribera Sacra is best known for its elegant red wines.

The quality of winemaking in all of these areas has shot up in recent years. Once the region produced light, fizzy whites and red wines too, not unlike Vinho Verde just over the border; now they are making world-class refined white wines, and some deliciously light, elegant fruity red wines too. Sadly although yields are relatively high, vineyard holdings are small and scattered. As a result these will never be cheap wines, and their current vogue in Spain has helped keep prices up. However, the best wines are certainly worth it.

The Gallegos, as Galicians are known, are huge fans of seafood and shellfish in particular. They eat vast quantities of scallops, clams, razor clams, mussels, oysters and percebes, the goose-leg barnacle. Octopus is also very popular, served cold with paprika, olive oil and sometimes potato. All of these go perfectly with the local white wines. In fact there are few things nicer than a plate of plain shellfish and a chilled glass of Rías Baixas. With caldo, a substantial soup, empanadas (meat-filled pies), or Lacón con Grelos, a hearty pork stew, the local reds, with their fresh acidity, work very well.

Around 2,000 Irish pilgirims pass through the vineyards of Galicia on their way along the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. Talking to wine drinkers at recent tastings, a great many Irish people also sail around the wonderful rugged coasts. The next time you visit, make sure you slake your thirst on the excellent local wines.

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