- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Galicia is green. In stark contrast to most of Spain, where relentless summer sunshine leaves the landscape dry and arid, this semiautonomous area in the northwest corner of the country receives plenty of rainfall.

The hills and vales near the Atlantic coast, where narrow ocean inlets called rias carve their way inland, make the region very green — sometimes because of dense forests but sometimes because of lush vineyards.

The vines cultivated in Galicia, specifically in the subregion of Rias Baixas, are different, too. For one, unlike in most other Spanish regions, they yield almost exclusively white wines. For another, the grapes used to make those wines are very local. Indigenous varietals such as caino blanca, loureiro, treixadura and, most important, albarino, produce fragrant, fruit-filled but deliciously dry wines that taste distinctive in the extreme.

Perfect for springtime drinking, they pair wonderfully with seafood and shellfish as well as with all sorts of salads. This time of year, try them with local shad, rockfish or crab.

Albarino accounts for about 90 percent of vineyard planting in Rias Baixas, and even wines that include other grapes usually are dominated by this one variety. It offers vintners one great advantage: Being thick-skinned, albarino will not rot or become infected by fungal diseases as readily as most other grapes. So it not only survives, but thrives in the often wet Galician climate.

The traditional way of growing albarino involves training the vines on pergolas — horizontal trellises about 6 feet high. Because the ripening grapes hang down from these, they receive only dappled sunlight, so they retain acidity and never burn. Even more important, the fruit can be cooled and dried by wind and breeze, ventilation being necessary because of the persistent ocean mists.

Albarino’s thick skin helps give wines made with it their distinguishing bouquet — all apricot and peach, with a floral touch and a hint of both tangy citrus and sweet spice. It also can give the wines a slightly bitter edge. That’s all to the good if the grapes are ripe enough, as the bitter note helps provide balance. Albarino’s naturally high acidity helps, too, as good examples invariably taste bright and refreshing without seeming sappy or heavy.

Albarino-based wines from Rias Baixas are Spain’s most fashionable whites. They’re in hot demand not only in Galicia, but also in the rest of the country. Hip restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona invariably offer a wide range. At the same time, these wines are fast becoming chic abroad, especially in the United States. Hardly anyone in America had even heard of them before the mid-1990s. Now they are all the rage.

Two factors account for these wines’ sudden surge in popularity. The first is economic. Galicia is isolated geographically from most of Spain and was quite poor for a long time. Its inhabitants spoke their own language (Galician, a cousin of Portuguese), and they were largely ignored by the rest of the country until the advent of democracy following the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

Farmers grew grapes, but no one outside the area cared much. Over the past three decades, however, Galicia has boomed. New industry has blossomed in the major cities along the coast, and tourists have come to the area in droves. Galician productivity has become an important part of Spain’s economy, yet the region has been permitted to retain its autonomous character. (Both Galician and Spanish, for example, are taught in schools.) In just the past 10 years, the population has nearly doubled.

With the rise in both affluence and influence, ambitious vintners have raised their sights. No longer is catering to the local market sufficient. Tourists want to take wines home and, more to the point, buy them at home. Importers thus have come calling. In turn, large cooperative wineries and small independent producers have reorganized and raised quality.

Much the same thing happened elsewhere in the winegrowing world at about the same time, but vintners in many other places responded to the new market demand by planting so-called international grape varieties and making internationally styled wines. That’s why chardonnay, cabernet, sauvignon blanc, merlot and syrah (or shiraz) from all over the world flood American wine shops.

Galician producers, however, have stuck with their local grapes, particularly albarino. Other varieties simply do not perform well in their green because of the wet vineyards.

The distinctive character of these grapes is the second factor in the popularity of Rias Baixas wines. As the global wine market expands, some consumers remain content with tried-and-true international varietals. Others, however, want something new and different. Albarino and Rias Baixas in general satisfy that desire.

A top Rias Baixas white, whether a blend or 100 percent albarino, tastes exotically suggestive without seeming overly exuberant (as, for example, Gewurztraminer often does). Light to medium-bodied, it offers a springlike charm, being cool and crisp while at the same time offering a soothing suggestion of warmth.

These wines are best drunk young, though I have been surprised by how well good examples can age. Time, however, dilutes their freshness, something that invariably constitutes a large part of their appeal.

Though most Rias Baixas wines are fermented and stored in stainless steel or concrete tanks, some Galician vintners are experimenting with small lots of oak-aged wines. To my palate, these almost always prove disappointing, as the smell and taste of the wood threatens to overpower everything else. Other vintners are conducting more promising trials by leaving wines to age on the lees or spent yeast cells following fermentation. This technique imparts added body and depth of flavor to the wines and seems well-suited to albarino and the other local grapes.

Good Rias Baixas wines usually cost between $15 and $25 a bottle, the weak dollar having driven prices up somewhat in the past couple of years or so. Still, when compared with similarly priced wines such as California chardonnays or Loire Valley sauvignon blancs, they offer fair value.

More than 50 Rias Baixas producers are selling their wines in the United States. Quality varies significantly, as albarino is a vigorous grape variety. Vintners need to be conscientious in not allowing yields to grow too high. Otherwise, the wines will taste thin and watery.

Here is a personal list of top producers, with U.S. importers listed in parentheses. Wines from any of them are well worth getting to know — especially this time of year.

Bodegas del Placido de Fefinanes (Kysela Pere et Fils)

Morgadio (Classical Wines)

Pazo de Senorans (Eric Soloman/ European Cellars)

Bodegas Terras Gauda (AV Imports)

Bodegas As Laxas (Frontier Wine Imports)

Valminor (Kysela Pere et Fils)

Condes de Albarei (CIV USA)

Lagar de Cervera (Europvin)

Lusco (Classical Wines)

Valdamor (Dana Wine & Spirits)

Martin Codax (Gallo)

Vionta (Freixenet)

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