The Albariño-Based Wines of Spain's Rías Baixas Are Well Worth Discovering
Tucked into the cool coastal region of northwestern Spain, the Rías Baixas D.O. is Spain’s premier white wine region. Built on the back of the hardworking albariño grape, its reputation for fresh, food-friendly offerings continues to climb.
Rías Baixas — pronounced REE-yahs BY-shuss, the name is Galician for “lower coastal inlets” — hugs the rugged Atlantic coastline just north of Portugal in the rich, historic region of Galicia, part of the lush Atlantic coastal stretch known as “Green Spain.” Shrouded by a cool maritime influence promising consistent rainfall, misty mornings, and verdant landscapes, Rías Baixas also happily welcomes more than 2,200 hours of vine-maturing sunshine annually. Higher humidity levels require a proactive vineyard management system. Elevated pergola systems are strategically utilized to keep the grape clusters and vines themselves up where air flows well, thus keeping moisture levels and mold potential in check.
The region boasts some 9,000 acres under vine, divided into more than 20,000 individual vineyard plots maintained by almost 6,000 growers; more than 90 percent of the vines are albariño. Rías Baixas keeps its label lingo straightforward, with both the grape name and regional designation front and center. For a bottle to carry the grape name “albariño,” a minimum of 70 percent of the wine must be made from that variety. While albariño is the undeniable star here, there are many engaging blends, well worth seeking out, in which albariño is graced with significant input from a handful of lesser-known indigenous grapes — loureiro, treixadura, godello, and caíño blanco.
There are five distinct sub-regions within the Rías Baixas D.O., each its own unique microclimates and soil structures and in varying proximity to the ocean: Val do Salnes (the coldest and wettest subzone, and the one with the most area under vine), Soutomaior (the smallest and sandiest), O Rosal (on the border of Portugal and the Atlantic), Condado do Tea (bordering Portugal and the Miño River), and Ribeira do Ulla (the newest subzone and the most northeasterly). While some smaller producers are investigating the unique characteristics of each sub-region and bottling wines that highlight their distinct terroir, many of the larger cooperatives are sourcing and blending fruit from several areas to offer consumers a more comprehensive experience of regional Rías Baixas.
In terms of style and character, the albariño grape comes across as something of a chameleon. Often sought for its dry, crisp, mineral-driven lines that lean thematically towards sauvignon blanc, this versatile, thick-skinned green grape can also have a rich, creamy quality with a fuller body and an almost chardonnay-like nature thanks to extended time on the lees (spent yeast cells).
Often weighing in at around 12 percent alcohol, these feisty Spanish white wine divas showcase a delightful range of aromas and flavor profiles. Melon, honeysuckle, and citrus nuances tend to play front and center, with a heady mix of tart green apple and ripe Anjou pear often singing back-up. Warmer growing zones will showcase more peach character and tropical notes, while an innate salinity and well-woven minerality whisper of the sea’s proximity and the granite soil basic to all five sub-regions.
Underlying most Rías Baixas wines is a vibrant thread of incredibly food-friendly acidity; cool nights, warm days, and plenty of ocean influence help to maintain this lively level of peppy palate pH to keep the regional wines fresh and snappy from start to finish.
Dubbed “the wine of the sea,” albariño lives up to its nickname in more ways than one. The trendy, ultra-hip yet entirely traditional European concept of local foods with local wines really finds firm footing in Rías Baixas. This is not just a fad, as a fresh squeeze of citrus and a dash of salinity pours out of the bottle, to be paired with the generous assortment of local seafood-themed dishes. Albariño’s high acidity and dynamic flavor profile brings out the best in a variety of coastal creatures, from shellfish to king crab, grilled octopus to savory sardines. However, the food pairing potential does not stop with seafood. Versatile partnerships abound, thanks to albariño’s fruit-forward, decidedly dry character, delivering moderate alcohol levels mixed with undercurrents of stony minerality and wrapped up in tangy acid levels. Give it a go with pork and poultry finds, roasted herb potatoes, a variety of vegetable dishes, easy-going appetizers, paella, and even fried foods (taste how the mouth-watering acidity cuts right through the fatty layers to reveal more flavor and less flab).
Astonishingly, about half the winemakers in Rías Baixas are women — but these wines have found plenty of palate appeal with both men and women and are heartily welcomed across demographics as versatile white wine finds that are big on aromas, flavor, and food-pairing potential while maintaining an exceptional quality to price ratio; most are in the $12-$20 range.
With close to 200 wineries in Rías Baixas producing 10 million liters (well over a million cases) of wine per year, there’s plenty of high-quality albariño available. If you are just venturing into the wide world of Rías Baixas, here are a few must-try bottles (prices are approximate and may vary from place to place):
Burgans Albariño 2016 ($14)
At 12.5 percent alcohol, this fresh-faced 100-percent albariño delivers bright apple and ripe peach impressions on the palate and a clean, crisp, mineral-driven finish.
Condes de Albarei Albariño 2016 ($14)
A floral nose, with a decent dose of rich tropical fruit, makes for an intense aromatic experience. Full-bodied, plush textures and peaches doused in cream give this particular bottle an edge for competing with chardonnay expectations.
Condes de Albarei Pazo Baión 2015 ($15)
This single-vineyard, 100-percent albariño was hand-harvested to preserve the incredible aromatic perfume profile. Orange blossom dominates the nose with melon and apricot taking full command of the mid-palate, while six months on the lees in stainless steel tanks contributes a rich, creamy mouthfeel and ongoing finish.
Martín Códax Albariño 2016 ($14)
An easy entry point into the region of Rías Baixas and albariño specifically, Martín Códax enjoys solid distribution (it's owned by E. & J. Gallo), classic forward fruit, and lively acidity balanced by 60 percent malolactic fermentation. The result is a super autumn sipper — and an unforgettable introduction to Spain’s most popular white wine grape.
Terras Gauda O Rosal 2015 ($18)
Perhaps one of the most readily accessible examples of the top-notch white wine blends coming out of Rías Baixas, with 70 percent albariño, 15 percent caíño blanco, and 15 percent loureiro, Terras Gauda shows the engaging character combination of native grapes grown in the O Rosal Valley on the Miño River, looking out towards the Portuguese border. Some serious citrus prevails on the nose and palate with an earthy, herbal nuance that gives way to a wet stone minerality. Dry, crisp, and brimming with zesty acidity, Terras Gauda is worth looking for.
Pazo de Señorans 2015 ($20)
Engaging aromatics lean heavily into peach and lemon citrus with a remarkable minerality and tangy acidity following the fruit-forward appeal across this wine's peppy palate. (The winery's more expensive Selección de Añada single-vineyard offering comes from 30- to 40-year-old vines, and is quite capable of aging a dozen years or more while retaining a remarkable freshness.)
Pazo de San Mauro 2016 ($14)
With hip, modern packaging that is both elegant and trendy, the 2016 Pazo de San Mauro is built from 100-percent albariño grapes from 20- to 40-year-old vines. An ambassador for the Condado do Tea region of Rías Baixas, this super-savvy wine comes from all estate-grown fruit from terraced vineyards overlooking the Miño. Classic aromas of citrus and honeysuckle mingle well with nutty nuances and bright acidity suggesting an affinity for sushi and seabass.