When viewed from space, earth shows distinct areas of blue, white, green, and brown. Zooming in offers a closer look at the emerald hues blanketing places like Northern Brazil and Ecuador, or southeast Asia. But while those regions may be known for their exotic vegetation and fragrant mangoes, it’s on the northern tip of Spain where one can find grapevines. Known as “green Spain,” the coastal appellation of Rias Baixas produces one of the planet’s loveliest, aromatic white wines called Albariño.
Galicia has long harbored a separate identity from the rest of Spain. Not only is the cooler, wetter climate different, but the customs and language carry a strong thread of Celtic influence. It’s a spiritual region, home to the religious city of Santiago de Compostela, the end point for flocks of pilgrims walking the El Camino. There’s abundant shellfish caught in the cold waters of the Atlantic. And while much of the hotter, drier south gives birth to robust red wines, it’s whites of finesse and freshness that rule the north.
While most consumers have experience with Albariño, few recognize the importance sub-zones have on the style and character of the wine. Take this information just as an opportunity to learn, not as a homework assignment to memorize for your next trip to the store. Although, if you asked for Albariño from O Rosal, the retailer will probably be impressed.
Here are the five subregions of Rias Baixas.
Val do Salnés
Val do Salnés is rightly called the birthplace of Albariño. Surrounding the historic town of Cambados, Val do Salnés has the densest concentration of vineyards and wineries with a coastal location providing wet, chilly growing conditions. The result: Albariño with electric acidity. Granitic, rocky soils and ocean breezes lend a salty mineral character to the wine’s melon and citrus flavors. Many stunning examples of the wine can be found in the U.S., notably from Do Ferreiro.
O Rosal hugs the Miño river where it kisses the Atlantic Ocean. Terraced vineyards above the river afford views across the border to Portugal. While plantings of Albariño are high, other white grapes, including Loureiro, Treixadura, Caíño Blanco, and Godello are common, and may be blended into appellation wines. Like Val do Salnés, a saline minerality complements the citrus and stone fruit-flavors, although acidity is typically softer due to a slightly sunnier climate. Local fishermen still ply their trade down in the famous village of A Guarda.
Condado de Tea
The literal translation of Condado de Tea is “The County of Tea,” but vines, not fermented leaves, are the key local crop. In fact, Tea refers to the tributary of the Miño River along which Albariño grapes happily grow. Condado de Tea is the second largest sub-region of the five, its rocky landscape composed of slate and granite. Due to its location further inland, the climate is slightly warmer and drier than coastal appellations resulting in softer, rounder wines.
Awarded appellation status in 1996, Soutomaior on a map looks like nothing more than a tiny, hat-shaped blob. Yet the Albariño of this littlest sub-region is known for its freshness and finesse. Not far from the sea, vineyards receive the cooling influence of the coast. Light sandy soils over a bedrock of granite add mineral flecks to the apple and peach notes of the wines.
Ribeira do Ulla
Inland from Salnés, this is the northernmost and youngest sub-region, awarded status in 2000. The area has long been known for the blistered green peppers from the nearby town of Padrón. Now, Ribeira do Ulla is working on its reputation for wine. The alluvial soils give grapes a distinct profile worthy of recognition. The wines remain relatively rare in the U.S. market, giving you a good excuse to visit Rias Baixas in person.