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A wine-drinking homage to the fount of Galicia’s sainted Albariño
The predominant grape here in Galicia’s Rías Baixas wine region is Albariño.
Spain’s Galicia is a magical and mysterious country.
Its stormy coastline, riddled with inlets from the Atlantic Ocean, gives it a permanent verdancy that looks more like Ireland or America’s northwest coast than arid Spain. For centuries, pilgrims both pious and profane have walked across Europe to arrive in droves at Santiago de Compostela where the remains of Saint James most likely — alas — do not rest in peace, in spite of the legend.
Pilgrimage to Rías Baixas (Slideshow)
Galicia has thousands of postage-stamp-sized vineyards that, when viewed from above, look like green quilts.
The predominant grape here in Galicia’s Rías Baixas wine region is Albariño, whose vines sprawl across head-high pergolas and whose grapes produce the green-fruity, silken-bodied, crisp-finishing white wines that have become crowd favorites in recent years in wine bars in America and around the world.
In fact, 63 of its 181 wineries sell wine in the United States, an amazing statistic considering the size of the average vineyard — mostly family inheritances — is less than one-half acre. Altogether, Americans drink about 3.4 million bottles of Albariño ever year.
Recently I returned to Galicia and Rías Baixas after a 10-year absence to make my own pilgrimage to the birthplace of Albariño.
First stop is the square of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where a wearied but happy pilgrim joins dozens arriving daily. Walking the last 62 miles (100 km.) gets you a certificate.
Monument to St. James
Legend has it that the remains of the apostle St. James, who was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD, was returned to Galicia and buried. Construction of his cathedral began in 1075.
Read More About the Pilgrimage to Rías Baixas
Learn more about the World of Wine
BEST Things to do in Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is a beautiful city in Galicia, Northern Spain. It&rsquos one of the most important cities in the region. Most foreign tourists visit it as a part of their Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of Apostle St.James, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Since the rediscovery of the tomb of St.James in the 9th-century hundreds of thousands of people arrived in Santiago following different Camino routes. Even if you&rsquore not a pilgrim the city is a great place to visit. Santiago offers many interesting things to do from visiting historical monuments to wine and tapas tasting.
A visit to the Cathedral is a must-do thing in Santiago de Compostela
A theory exists that the Albariño grape was brought in the 12th century to the monastery of Armenteira (in the Salnés valley, Pontevedra) by the French monks of Cluny, and that its cultivation thereafter spread to the rest of Galicia and the north of Portugal. The Umia River is said to be the “father” of the Albariño grape, since vines have been grown along its banks and wine produced there since the Middle Ages. This hypothesis is now considered just a part of wine folklore, since the Albariño grape is widely accepted as an indigenous variety of the south of Galicia.
Another more recent claim was that Albariño might have travelled from central Europe, possibly with the migrations of Germanic peoples (the Suebi and Visigoths) in the 5th century, and then found its home in the north-west of Spain, close to the borders of ancient Gallaecia.
Leaving aside legends, what we can be very sure of is that this grape variety has been grown in the area of Rías Baixas for over 1,000 years, and given its characteristics, it is perfectly adapted to the region’s special climatic features.
Nobody however would deny that the Cistercian monks that arrived in the 12 th century (either on their pilgrimage to Santiago, or to accompany the Burgundy dynasty to Galicia for the wedding of Raymond of Burgundy and Queen Urraca), were the people who taught us how to tend our established grape varieties and get the best quality wines from them. White wines, which were more refined, were stored in monasteries up till the 18 th century, before Mendizábal’s dissolution of the monasteries (a long historical, economic and social process begun at the end of the 18th century by Godoy, consisting of putting on the market, after forced expropriation and via public auction, the lands and property which hitherto were the inalienable property of the so-called “manos muertas” or religious orders, which had accumulated them as habitual beneficiaries of donations, wills and as “heir intestato”).
It was from these times onwards that Galicia’s wines began to be produced at its country estates or pazos. Only noble families could afford to use their lands for fine wine growing, since these families were better off and were not forced to devote all their land to subsistence farming.
It was not until the middle of the 20 th century that Albariño spread to the whole of the region. Vineyards were now changing hands, and a new generation of growers was taking them over while the region’s wines were becoming better established and gaining renown.
By the 1980s, these grape varieties and the wines produced from them, had achieved widespread recognition, while the newly created Rías Baixas appellation and its Regulating Council, enhanced the prestige of its wines and brought their outstanding quality to the attention of consumers.
The official Rías Baixas appellation therefore began its short history in 1980. In that year, on 11 th October, the Denominación Específica Albariño was officially recognised by the Spanish government. On 30 th April 1984, the regulations of the Denominación de Origen Específica Albariño and its Regulating Council were approved.
Having to adapt Spanish legislation to that of the European Community’s, the Agricultural Council, following an order of the 17 th March 1988, provisionally recognised the Rías Baixas appellation (Denominación de Origen Rías Baixas) and by order of the 4 th July in the same year, the regulations of the appellation and its Regulating Council were approved. The ministerial order of 28 th July 1988, issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, ratified the appellation.
As the appellation developed, sub-zones were created. In 1988, the Rías Baixas appellation consisted of 3 perfectly distinct sub-zones within the Pontevedra province: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea and O Rosal. In October 1996, the sub-zone of Soutomaior was incorporated, while in May 2000 Ribeira do Ulla was also included.
A Pilgrimage to Spain's 'Other' Vineyards
O BOLO, SPAIN — Since the Middle Ages, the Catholic faithful have flocked to Galicia in the far northwest of Spain to worship at the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.
But a new sort of pilgrimage to Galicia is under way, this one prompted by the excellent potential of the region’s vineyards. As travelers along the Way of St. James know, Galicia can be a forbidding place. Before reaching Santiago, they have to cross mountainous badlands where temperatures can dip well below freezing. On the coast, the landscape turns green and fertile — thanks to torrential rains that can roll in off the Atlantic at any time.
But vines are hardy, often producing the best wines in extreme conditions. Those of Galicia are decidedly different from the stereotypical Spanish wines, those that ripen under a powerful Mediterranean sun, which packs them full of fruit and alcohol.
Rather than power, the wines of Galicia display a lively freshness and considerable elegance. They tend to be medium-bodied, with no more than 12 percent or 13 percent alcohol — unusually low at a time when reds with 16 percent are not uncommon and even whites sometimes top 14 percent. And they often contain a streak of what growers call “minerality” — a nebulous term that, to me, means the fruit doesn’t mask a sense of place.
As consumers grow weary of so-called blockbusters — big wines of indeterminate origin that stain your palate and leave you too dazed to drink a second glass — Galicia offers attractive alternatives.
“For people who say there are only blockbuster wines in Spain, this is the answer,” said Wim Van Leuven, an importer in Mol, Belgium, who specializes in Spanish wines. “It’s really the Atlantic side of winemaking in Spain.”
He added: “Galicia is like a laboratory for the new Spanish generation, even though you can’t make these kinds of wines elsewhere in Spain.”
One of the newcomers, Rafael Palacios, is a member of one of the proudest winemaking families in Spain, with its roots in the country’s best-known wine region, Rioja. An older brother, Alvaro, was the key figure in an earlier Spanish winemaking renaissance, in the 1990s, when he started making world-class reds in the Priorat region of Catalonia.
When Rafael Palacios saw the vineyards around O Bolo, a village in the rugged eastern stretches of Galicia, he saw a similar opportunity to raise the profile of the white wines of Spain.
Perched on precipitous slopes at altitudes of 800 meters or so, around 2,600 feet, these are among the most strikingly beautiful vineyards in Europe. They are also extremely difficult to work, requiring the construction and maintenance of an elaborate system of terraces to protect the soil against erosion. Over the years, many growers who were unable to make much of a living from wine had abandoned their vines.
But Mr. Palacios was convinced that he could make great wine here from the godello grape, a variety that is native to the mountains of Galicia. Godello is what is known as a “neutral” variety, without strong fruit flavors. Instead, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, it is a medium for the terroir to express itself.
After overcoming the suspicions of the locals, who saw Mr. Palacios as an outsider, he started buying up vineyards in O Bolo, the highest part of a wine-growing region called Valdeorras. Many of them contain old vines, which produce the most characterful wine their gnarly beauty seems like a permanent feature of the craggy landscape.
Mr. Palacios set up his bodega, or winery, in 2004, and he now makes three wines, including an entry-level bottling and a premium offering that blends grapes from several top sites. With the 2009 vintage, he added a third wine, called Sorte O Soro, using grapes sourced solely from his favorite vineyard, near the highest point in O Bolo. (Sorte means “lot” in Galician.)
Tasting Sorte O Soro, which will not be available commercially until the spring, was a bit like spending a day in these vineyards. It is intensely flavored, with a structure and breadth reminiscent of good white Burgundy — a bit like the feel of the afternoon sun at these high altitudes.
Yet Sorte O Soro has a shivery, lingering elegance, like the cold that settles over O Bolo when the sun sets. Overnight, in a nearby village, the temperature fell to minus 7 degrees Celsius (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit).
Rías Baixas is a small wine-growing region famous for its crisp white wines. This figures, since only 1% of grapes planted here are red, so good luck finding a red wine from this wine region.
As we’ve mentioned, this area is known for its rainfall (Green Spain, remember). Rías Baixas gets showered with 1700 mm of annual rainfall, about three times the Spanish national average. As a result, vineyard mildew can be a problem. That’s why vines are trained on overhead pergolas 5-7 ft above ground called “parras”. This gives the canopy lots of exposure to sunshine while protecting the grapes from rain and letting the breeze get right underneath the vines for aeration. So it’s surprising that grapes are generally hand-harvested here. Harvesting is already back-breaking work, but when you’re working overhead, that just adds a whole new level to harvester aches and pains. Pass the aspirin!
One Grape: Three Unique Experiences with Albarino #worldwinetravel
Since my family traveled to Spain in 2019, this has been such an adventure, to learn about Spanish wines. It makes me want to go back and reroute our trip to include all the delicious wines. Exploring Spanish wines via the internet has been fun, but it was nothing like the wonderful experience provided by Gregory + Vines.
Soutomaior, the smallest of the sub-regions, sits on the coast in the center of the region tucked in the hills at the head of the Rías de Vigo.
"Over 99% of all wine produced in Rías Baixas is white. Differences in microclimates, terroir, and grape varieties in the five sub-zones, as well as different winemaking techniques, make for wonderful diversity. Styles range from a crisp, aromatic “melony” character in Val do Salnés, to a peachier, softer style in O Rosal, and a less fruity and earthier style in Condado do Tea.
While the different sub-zones express subtle differences, the wines all share a number of characteristics. Pale golden lemon, they are all crisp, elegant, and fresh. These wines are bone-dry and aromatic, packed with flavors of white peach, apricot, melon, pineapple, mango, and honeysuckle. They share good natural acidity, have mineral overtones, and are medium-bodied with moderate alcohol (12%)." Resource: Press Kit from Rias Baixas Wines.
- Steve at Children of the Grape shares Troubadours, Love, and Wine.
- Terri at Our Good Life discusses One Grape: Three Unique Experiences with Albarino.
- Andrea at The Quirky Cork writes about Albariño and Bacon: A Love Affair.
- Lynn at Savor the Harvest recommends A Region and Wine You Must Explore: Rias Baixas and Albariño.
- Jeff from Food Wine Click! shares A Tale of Two Rias Baixas Albarinos.
- Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm talks about My Virtual Trip to Rias Baixas.
- Allison and Chris at ADVineTURES discuss The White Wines of Rias Baixas.
- Nicole from Somm’s Table shares It’s Raining Rias Baixas.
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla pairs Sopa de Cebolla + 2020 Fillaboa Albariño.
- Martin from ENOFYLZ Wine Blog talks about Bodegas Zarate Setting the Standard for Rias Baixas Albarino – Then and Now.
- David at Cooking Chat pairs Pan Seared Sea Bass with Albariño.
- Jennifer at Vino Travels shares Refresh Your Palate with Rias Baixas Albarino.
- Melanie from Wining with Mel takes a Wine Romp Through Rias Baixas in Galicia, Spain.
- Rupal from Syrah Queen has Your Passport To Rias Baixas – Explore Three Incredible Albarinos.
- Susannah at Avvinare posts Rias Baixas – Green Spain Entices.
- Gwendolyn from Wine Predator shares From California’s Camino Real to Galicia’s Camino de Santiago: All Aboard for Albariño 2!
- Liz at What's In That Bottle? says Pack Your Bags: We're off to Rias Baixas for an Albariño Adventure.
- Linda, your host, from My Full Wine Glass offers 5 Things that Might Surprise You About Rías Baixas, Home of Albariño.
Would you like to comment?
We were so disappointed we couldn't take this virtual 'trip', especially when our real life trip to the region was canceled due to Covid last year. We love the Albarino from there and WILL get there some day. cheers!
What a great description of our tour, the place, and the wine. I want to go back soon!
I loved all the wines and was so surprised at how different they all were.
Bodegas Fillaboa Albariño 2020, Rias Baixas D.O.
The Masaveu Bodegas family corporation owns five wineries (bodegas) around Spain, all are small production. Fillaboa in the Condado de Tea subzone has 54-hectares (133-acres) of Albariño and makes about 200,000 bottles of wine annually. For Brandy lovers, they also make Albariño brandy.
Upon opening, intense aromas of stone fruit (nectarine, peach) and mixed floral greet you. After sitting an hour these lessened, giving way to grapefruit, lime pith, green apple, grassiness and saline notes. Although the acidity is prominently bright (M+), it’s soft and lingers, finishing like a spoon of non-sweet, lime curd sprinkled with sea salt. I wondered if it spent time on fine lees and discovered it did: 6 months lees aging. A very good quality wine.
Price: 13.20€ / $16. 13% abv . Find here.
Wine Pairings: I paired the Robalino with oysters, both raw and grilled with toasted sesame butter. It worked best with them raw adding a touch of lemon juice. While the grilled version were fantastic on their own, the high acidity in the wine overwhelmed those with the sesame butter.
I went vegetarian with the Fillaboa. The lentils, cooked in vegetable stock with mirepoix, were topped with sautéed Swiss chard, goat cheese Buratta and pesto. The wine is moderate to high acid yet time aging on lees softened it, adding body. The earthy richness of the dish was a nice match.
I pulled from Greek cuisine pairing the Martin Códax Albariño with homemade spanakopita. It was the zinginess from the feta that sealed the pairing deal. Highly recommend this pairing!
In conclusion, depending on the winemaking, Albariño spans a spectrum from sleek, citrusy and bright to more stone fruits with mild creamy nuances, yet maintaining that crisp acidity. If you like aromatic and zesty wines, grab a bottle of Rias Baixas Albariño for a palate surprise.
Here’s what other #WorldWineTravel writers are tempting you with this month:
Rías Baixas estuary
This coastline is regarded by many as a paradise, and it is also the site of the Cíes Islands, known by the Romans as "the islands of the gods". Its coastline combines the blue of the sea and the greenery of its setting with the seafaring tradition of Galicia, in an area which extends from the estuaries of Muros and Noia to the mouth of the Miño River in A Guarda (Pontevedra)
Idyllic uncrowded beaches, with long stretches of white sands and turquoise blue waters to be found above all in the south of the Rías Baixas estuaries, in the Cíes Islands, where a particular highlight is the Rodas beach. We can also recommend beaches like A Lanzada in O Grove, and the Illa de Arousa, with 36 kilometres of coastline declared a Nature Reserve and lined with beautiful solitary beaches. In the north you can visit beaches like Aguieira, As Furnas or O Testal.
This is a land of fishermen, and one of the best places to enjoy shellfish. Good examples are Muros, where old fishermen's dwellings stand alongside Gothic mansions, and O Grove, which every October is the venue for the Fiesta in Honour of Seafood. The area also produces a fantastic white wine that can be enjoyed on the Rías Baixas Wine Route. Recommended visits include Pontevedra, with its interesting historic centre, the nearby monastery of Poio, and the municipalities of Cambados, Sanxenxo, Catoira (which in August holds its famous Viking Pilgrimage), and Tui and Vigo, in the south.
Scientists crack mystery of how Spain's prized albariño wine came to be
Myths, mysteries and legends surround the origin of albariño, widely regarded as Spain’s finest white wine, and how the grape from which it derives wound up in the far north-west of the country.
Now scientists at a research institute in Galicia have debunked theories that it originates in the Rhine valley or was brought by French Cistercian monks on pilgrimage from Cluny in the 12th century.
The grape, they said, is native to the region and albariño wine has been produced there since Roman times.
“We were already sure it didn’t come from the Rhine,” said Carmen Martínez, the head of viticulture at the biological research centre in Pontevedra. “Studies show that there is nothing like it in the Rhine valley, not even under another name.”
Martínez said they believed the grape derives from a woodland vine that over the years became domesticated. “There are no examples of albariño vines hundreds of years old anywhere in the world except Galicia,” she said.
In a joint study carried out with the history department of the University of Santiago de Compostela, the researchers compared seeds from one medieval and two Roman sites in Galicia with cultivated and wild varieties from other parts of Spain.
The albariño seeds shared important characteristics with the seeds found at both the Roman and medieval sites, suggesting the variety may have been grown as long ago as Roman times.
The seeds found at O Areal, the only Roman salt flats still in existence, were very similar to albariño.
“This shows that the Romans were domesticating wild vines, which are the origin of these cultivated varieties,” Martínez said.
Ideally, the researchers would like to compare the cultivated with the woodland variety, but Martínez thought that would be impossible.
“We doubt that we will find any here in Galicia because the native woodlands were replaced with eucalyptus,” she said. “Also, mildew, which arrived here from America, found the perfect conditions for it to thrive.”
The next step is to carry out DNA tests, but meanwhile Martínez said the research has shed light on how vine came to the Iberian peninsula.
“One theory is that the vine came from Asia, the second that in various parts of Europe wild vines were domesticated,” she said. “This research helps to confirm the second hypothesis.”
She added that comparative studies carried out by her institute suggest that wine seeds of other varieties retrieved from archaeological sites are similar to varieties currently grown in the region.
Most of the albariño comes from the Rías Baixas in the south of Galicia. The vines are typically trained over pergolas or wires to keep them away from the damp ground. The grapes are small, hardly bigger than a pea, and the vineyards are also small, often just a plot of a few dozen vines. The harvest is all done by hand.
In 2019 the Spanish association of wine writers voted the albariño Martín Códax Lías the best white in Spain.
Varieties of albariño are also produced in Portugal, the US, France and New Zealand.
Art & Travel
This week we have explored the Rias Baixas from Combarro to Pontevedra. I would like to firstly, introduce my husband John, who has joined me on this exploration of Galicia he happens to be an excellent cook and is immersing himself in local recipes to keep the fuel up to the worker! We are both loving everything we have experienced so far. Although we only speak a little Spanish, we have managed to make friends with some locals “the Allcocks”. I don’t think they speak Spanish either!
My happy helper Our new friends
The weather is warming up and Spring is here. Grape vines are all sprouting leaves which seem to grow an inch every day. Now the rain has stopped, we are enjoying evening walks and spectacular sunsets over Cambados.
Last year after my Pilgrimage, I treated myself to a bus tour of the West Coast of Galicia, where I learned about these gorgeous, rustic little buildings dotted around the landscape called Horreos. Traditionally, horreos were used for storing grains to keep them dry and out of reach of rodents. Due to today’s large scale agriculture, they are no longer practical and are mainly used as a decorative store on many properties.
For my next painting, we decided to travel between Combarro and Pontevedra in search for that special horreo. Almost always when you look for something, there are none to be seen! Finally, one captured my attention just outside of Combarro which just happened to be close to a lovely restaurant overlooking the bay of Pontevedra. We could not resist enjoying an extremely generous lunch with the most stunning views.
About 2 hours later, we waddled off our lunch through the old town of Pontevedra, which is full of historic buildings and churches. Situated in the rias baixas (lower bays) of Galicia, Pontevedra thrived for centuries, prospering from fishing, farming and trading. By the 16th century, Pontevedra had become an international trading port.
However, the city was nearly destroyed as a result of wars, political unrest, the plague, and then long term erosion clogging its estuary. The city has since recovered and boasts a very charming medieval centre.
There is also the contrasting of old and new with the Los Tirantes bridge and the 12th century Burgo bridge over the Ria Lerez.
Pilgrims chapel Pontevedra
On our way home I tested my driving skills, changing gears with my right hand was downright scary……fortunately, I only found myself on the wrong side of the road once. I can only improve from now on…..
Artist from Australia, travel and painting in Galicia, Spain
I am Leonie Walton, an Artist from Australia travelling for 6 months in Galicia, Spain. Here, I will be creating a series of paintings celebrating the unique culture and beauty of the region, which will be exhibited in Santiago de Compostela (home of the Camino de Santiago) in September 2018.
I have been painting for 15 years in between work and being a mother. Last year I was able to retire from my previous work and take an exciting step towards following my passion for painting and becoming a full time artist. Without any expectations, I began an 800 km Pilgrimage across Northern Spain, seeking solitude and a new direction for my art. The immense beauty of the Spanish countryside and forests were overwhelming. As each day and then each week passed, my awareness of time diminished to the point where I didn’t know what day of the week or how many days I had been walking. I did notice that I had all the time in the world to just walk and observe nature, an artist’s dream. It was such a privilege, I promised myself that I would never allow my life to become so busy that I couldn’t spend time appreciating the creation of life.
When I returned home, I had renewed enthusiasm for my painting and soon created these paintings below. They are two of my favourite memories of the Camino de Santiago.
Wheat Fields Oils on canvas Lazy Days Oils on canvas
I decided during my walking that I would return to Northern Spain and just paint!
Now here I am, back in Galicia living my dream as an artist. My intention is to take you on an incredible journey through one of the most beautiful regions in the world. I will introduce you to some of the locals, giving you interesting insights into their culture, food, history in the land of witches and myths……………but are they??
My first home in Galicia is in the small fishing town of Cambados with a population of only 14,000, in the Rias Baixas. With a history which may have begun in prehistoric times and ruins throughout Cambados dating from the 12th century, there will be many places of interest for me to visit.
So far it has rained every day since arriving in Galicia and today was no exception, with the addition of gale force winds. Before having a chance to investigate any historical sites, the sounds of 100 women chatting excitedly grabbed my attention outside. Quickly donning my raincoat (my seventh layer), I braved the weather to see what all the excitement was about. In the harbour, women were gathering in waders, wetsuits and coats, pushing baskets on trolleys towards the water. Most were talking like you would expect from any other group of women in the world. However, I will never forget the look of dread of one young woman as she was pulling her coat on tightly. These women are called “Mariscadoras” (shell- fisherwomen). Every day at low tide, they trudge out as far as the eye can see to collect shell fish in their baskets.
Artist reference photo for painting Mariscadoras
Later I strolled out over the long walking bridge to get a closer look at the action. I felt so privileged to be witnessing such an event, even though for them it was their daily job. I felt so much admiration for these women, facing the wildness of the Atlantic Ocean, working together for a common goal. I would never have the courage and strength to do this! How will I ever capture these incredible women in a painting?
After only two days of exploring in and around Cambados, I knew, being an artist, I needed to stay here for 6 years…..not 6 months, to even scratch the surface of a region so rich in culture.
Artist painting in Galicia