Monday 23 April 2018

Wine of the Sea

Galicia. Photo: Xurxo Lobato
Galicia. Photo: Xurxo Lobato

If you ever dream of making wine, Galicia, on Spain's northwestern coast, is the place to go. Drenched in green, with rocks studded with trees bursting out of the glassy sea, this succession of verdant peninsulas is home to the wettest wine region in the world, Rías Baixas, where, according to the World Atlas of Wine, the annual rainfall averages 1,786mm. After a deep intake of breath and a gust of wind you may think this looks a lot like Ireland, but once you see that they also grow oranges and lemons on this Celtic stretch of "Green Spain", you realise that we're not there yet. Rías Baixas has abundant sunshine during the critical growing and ripening season, and until global warming boots the thermometer up a few notches on our home turf, the few grapes we grow will be confined to polytunnels.

Rías Baixas - Galician for 'lower inlet' - is an off-the-radar spot worth visiting. Pronounced Ree-az-Bai-shaz, this area in the south of Galicia is laced with long sandy beaches (the Ría Vigo alone has 45 beaches) and the people who holiday here are mostly Spanish and Galician. This means that it is less frenetic than high-rise resorts, but if you're anything like me and need something beyond the beach, it also has the added attraction of having numerous vineyards within easy driving distance. Rías Baixas is renowned for the Albariño grape, an indigenous variety that accounts for 96pc of the varietals planted in the region. It's an old grape variety that grew wild in the region for centuries but its rise to fame has been recent and meteoric. In the last 15 years, Albariño has become Spain's most celebrated white wine, and its aromatic, yet crisp, fresh style has made it the darling of sommeliers in New York. The US now leads the world as the No 1 importer of Albariño.

Despite its highly fashionable status, visitors are very welcome at the vineyards of the region. In particular, Irish visitors. Not only does the countryside resemble Ireland, the people have more than a passing resemblance to those on our shore and this is no coincidence. Everywhere you go in Galicia, people refer to the Irish as their Celtic cousins (we're directly descended from the Galicians), and this translates into go-on-go-on levels of hospitality on a par with our own domestic goddess, Mrs Doyle, which is absolutely charming.

Much of the credit for putting Albariño wine on the global map goes to the considerable negotiating skills of Marisol Bueno Berrio-Ategortúa, who I had a chance to meet when I visited the Pazo de Señorans estate which she owns and runs. She's a formidable but amazing woman, and I can just imagine what the scene was like when she took over as head of the regulatory council of Rías Baixas wineries in the 1980s, at a time when the predominantly male members of the group were embroiled in political in-fighting about the future of the wine region. Convincing enough of the local winemakers to group together to apply for a Denomination of Origin for the Rías Baixas region (the DO is an indication of quality wine from a specific region), she also took on the arduous task of ploughing through the necessary paperwork required for the application. The DO was granted in 1988 and today, the region produces close to 40 times more wine than it did 30 years ago.

Marisol continued to be a huge force in driving the popularity of Albariño and, 10 years ago, she handed over the reins to Juan Gil De Araujo González De Careaga, current president of the DO Rías Baixas, who I also met on my visit. He runs Bodegas Fefiñanes, a winery which dates back to 1904 and holds the distinction of being the first to bottle Albariño in 1928. Sitting on the main square of Cambados, a pretty coastal town on Val do Salnés, the 17th century palace, built from solid blocks of granite, is more like a baronial stately home. As the birthplace of Albariño (although this is contested by some across the border in Portugal, where the grape is known as "alvarinho", and is used in the production of Vinho Verde), Val do Salnés is the coolest and wettest wine producing region of Rías Baixas (there are five sub-regions in total). This year, Cambados was named European City of Wine 2017, and as this coincides with the 65th birthday of their hugely popular festival, the Festa do viño Albariño, it is the place to go if you are in the region at the beginning of August.

The estate has a small vineyard where the trellises for the vines run along the four granite walls that provide shelter and reflect the heat. While an urban vineyard is not so common, a small vineyard is absolutely typical in Rías Baixas. Pretty much like the Irish system of dividing farms, tiny plots of land have been divided down through the generations, and are owned by everyone from fishermen to doctors and lawyers, each growing their own Albariño grapes and determined never to part with their field. Like most of the vineyards in Rías Baixas, the Bodegas del Palacio de Fefiñanes buys its grapes from the local vineyards and blends them to make a number of Albariño wines that reflect the character of the terroir. The wines from this region typically have the classic flavours of peach and apricot with excellent acidity, with a touch of wet slate coming through and a splash of salt on the finish.

Everything in Rías Baixas is about humidity, so the vines are trained on high trellises, as it is important to keep them off the soil. All of the grapes are harvested by hand. There are a few larger vineyards - Pazo Baión in the Salnés region which makes a single estate Albariño, and Pazo San Mauro in the O Rosal sub-region, which is owned by Marqués de Vargas Family Wines and Estates. They have invested heavily in the restoration of the magnificent buildings on the estate, built an impressive state-of-the-art wine cellar and installed weather station equipment to monitor the vines more closely, which has allowed them to move towards more organic growing practices. The stretch of terraces on this 30-hectare estate is impressive, and they descend down to the sandy shores of the Miño River where you can see the spire of a local church in Portugal on the opposite bank, a few hundred yards across the water.

It is of course impossible to talk about Albariño without mentioning food. Many of the vineyards are within sniffing distance of the Atlantic Ocean and in case you hadn't guessed already, this clean, crisp wine goes exceptionally well with the white-fleshed fish, oysters, razor clams and cockles which are in abundant supply in the clean waters of the area. A prized delicacy of the region are percebes, the sea barnacles which are found clinging to the rocks further up the coast on the Rías Altas, sometimes known as the Costa da Morte, Galician for the "Coast of Death". During certain times of the year, percebes can fetch prices of up to €350 per kg, encouraging barnacle hunters to take perilous risks, with the result that there are fatalities each year. Considerably cheaper to dine on are the platters of octopus cooked in spicy pimiento and the mild chilli green peppers, called Pimientos de Padron, which are fried in olive oil and dusted with salt. Most of the peppers are mild, but the occasional one can be hot, which adds a bit of excitement to eating them.

Make sure that you serve Albariño chilled but not icy cold, as that would kill the nuance and flavours in this lovely wine. You will find an interesting selection of Albariño wines in good independent off-licences around the country, so be sure to ask for advice and explore the many expressions of this wonderful grape. For the month of July, O'Briens has Contrapunto Albariño reduced from €18.45 to €12.95; Lagar de Costa Albariño reduced from €19.95 to €16.95 and Pirueta Albariño for €16.95 with a buy-one-get-one-half-price offer for the summer. In the meantime, here are eight wonderful Albariños I tried when I visited the region.

8 wines to try

Bago Amarelo Albariño 2016

12.5pc, €13.99, Jus De Vine and Donnybrook Fair, both Dublin

An approachable, well-priced Albariño with intense aromas of mango, pineapple, peach and a touch of chamomile, the rich tropical character is reflected in the palate with a lingering finish.

Condes de Albarei 2016

12pc, €14.99, Wine on the Green; Clontarf Wines, Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; McCabes, Mount Merrion; Mitchells Wine Merchants, IFSC, Glasthule; Nolans supermarket, Clontarf; Probus Wines; Fresh, Grand Canal, all in Dublin Fresh with attractive aromas of green apple and peach. Elegant on the palate with a touch of lemon adding good acidity.

Albariño de Fefiñanes 2015

13.5pc, €22-24, Avoca Rathcoole, Dublin; The Ballymore Inn, Co Kildare; Ballymaloe shop, Co Cork; and online by case at smithandwhelan.ie

As sleek and poised as an Albariño gets, fine citrus and apple aromas lead to a nicely rounded, elegant wine with deliciously crisp acidity and a spine of minerality.

Pazo Baión 2016

13pc, €26.99, Celtic Whiskey Shop

In a stunning cone-shaped bottle that’s made for a posh table, this wine has a floral nose of jasmine and orange blossom, with a touch of eucalyptus and oregano; and on the palate, there are flavours of pineapple, lime, pine and a touch of citrus.

D Pedro de Soutomaior Albariño 2016

12pc, €16.99, Kingdom Food and Wine Store, Co Kerry, and independent off-licences

A delightful nose of jasmine and orange blossom which leads to an elegant palate of grapefruit, green apples and a touch of lemon, bringing it all to a good finish.

Pazo San Mauro Albariño 2016

12.5pc, €18.95, Searsons, Monkstown, and McCabes, Blackrock in Dublin; Cinnamon Cottage, Cork; Objekt, Newcastle West, Limerick; Next Door @Corcorans, New Ross, Co Wexford; searsons.com

With a nose of apple, pear and lemon, and a touch of white flowers, this is a clean-tasting Albariño, with minerality and salinity adding to its structure.

Valmiñor Albariño 2016

12pc, €19.95, Baggot Street Wines; McHughes; D-Six Harold’s Cross; Higgins, Clonskeagh; Jus De Vine, Portmarnock; Sweeney’s Glasnevin, all Dublin; Wine Centre, Kilkenny Melon and apricot aromas entice the nose and lead to flavours of crisp apple, with a touch of tropical fruit. 

Pazo de Señorans 2016

12.5pc, €22.95, O’Briens nationwide

A classic Albariño which is beautifully structured with flavours of grapefruit, apricot, peach and a touch of lime, the tingling acidity and pronounced mineral edge make this wine deliciously refreshing.

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