Wine For a Rainy Day - Rías Baixas and the Whites of Northern Spain

Sep 24, 2009

Rain falls on Santiago
my sweet love.
White camellia of the air,
the veiled sun shines.
- Federico García Lorca

When we think of Spain, we think of sunny, medieval streets and tapas bars; we hear guitars and flamenco music flowing through the amber, dusky crowds; we see lovely senoritas dancing in their floral dresses. The click of castanets. There is laughter, late nights, paella and the mesmerizing wonder of beautiful women gathered  in the glow of candlelight. 

We don’t think of rain. (That's London)

We don’t hear bagpipes. (They belong in Scotland... right?)

And we don’t really see the green and verdant, Celtic hillsides. (We're daydreaming about Spain here, not Ireland...)

Rainy Day - Cathedral in Santiago de Campostela
Look at the rain in the street,
lament of stone and of glass.
- Lorca

But Spain is more than we imagine.

In the far north, just above Portugal on the Atlantic coast, you can find the wild and lush greenery of Galicia, a land where Galago  is spoken (which, like Castilian, is derived from Latin but strikingly similar to Portuguese.)

Galicia is the home of the gaita, the Galician bagpipes. The music this instrument evokes belongs to another world, both ancient and mysterious.

This other world also includes the city of Santiago de Compostela with its monumental cathedral, built in honor of St.James. For centuries, pilgrims have traveled the Camino, a sacred route in northern Spain,  to visit this holy place.

But like the rest of Spain, there is a tradition of good food and good wine. Galicia  largely depends on the sea for its cuisine. Percebes (goose-foot barnacles) is the local specialty amongst the delicious array of white fish (turbot, sea bass, sole and cod), prawns and shellfish.

The local cheeses are also excellent, ranging from hard-to-medium. The most appealing and popular is tetilla… named for a discreet part of the female anatomy. (I'm sure you can guess...)

 Galicia became part of Greater Spain in 1492. The port city of  La Coruña received its license to trade with the colonies shortly thereafter. Besides seafood, Galicia has several wine sub-regions producing mostly white wine (the red here is rather 'lightweight').

Ribeira Sacra or 'sacred hillside' is the most lush and visually stunning; Ribeiro remains one of the oldest wine-producing areas of northern Spain; Valdeorras or 'Golden Valley' happens to be the original gold mines of Ancient Rome; Monterrei is the hottest part of Galicia... and last but not least...

... the very wet, the very coastal Rías Baixas (Bajas) 'The Lower Estuaries' region. Here is our famous, soggy green Eden, a rural paradise, a vision of the world before industry and war.
A very green Albariño vineyard
The main grape of Rías Baixas (and the other sub-regions) is the lovely Albariño, believed by many (including Miguel Torres)  to be actually the Riesling grape. There is strong evidence suggesting the variety was first brought to Spain via the Camino by Rhineland Pilgrims (Alba - very white - Rino - Rhine or 'white from the Rhine').

For the wines of Rías Baixas, the word ‘cool’ is key. With a Maritime climate, (thanks to the Atlantic Ocean, not to mention buckets of falling rain), you can't expect anything else. The five sub-zones of the region include: Val do Salnés, O Rosal, Condado de Tea, Soutomaior, and Ribera do Ulla.

When the grapes are picked at harvest, they are rushed to the press houses to avoid heating by the sun. In some instances, vintners use cold water instead of air in the inflatable bags of the horizontal wine presses. Cold maceration (briefly steeping grape skins with juice at a low temperature) is typical and after fermentation, the wines are often left on their lees.

Albariño is ideal with seafood but can be a bit more pricey than regular whites. Because everyone loves the variety's brine-green fruit-yeast character (including the locals and the tourists, and the rest of Spain, not to mention Europe and North America), these wines are high in demand.

Loureira is another grape from Galicia, (sometimes used to add body to Albariño), imparting a seductive element of stone fruit.

Godella (or Verdello) is one to watch. A relatively new arrival in Rías Baixas, it is grown in nearby Valdeorras. It can produce crisp and magnificent varietal whites with bouquets swooning with ripe peach and green apple fruit.

Treixadura, also known as Verdello Louro is often blended with Loureira and Albariño.

As I mentioned, white wine is predominant but you can find some excellent Mencia in Monterrei.

If you're looking for something unique to bring to your table, whether to accompany shrimp and cocktail sauce or a cool seafood salad, nothing beats the best of Rías Baixas.  Nor the great whites of Galicia.

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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