I vividly remember enjoying a chilled glass of Albariño in A Guarda back in 2015. The municipality is the most southerly point of the Rias Baixas region where the River Miño flows into the Atlantic. The vast portion of shellfish with its fresh tang of iodine in front of me could not have been better. Like Italians with pasta, the Spanish innately know how to cook marisco. As I demolished my bowl, I realised it had been 21 years since my first sip of the legendary grape.


My introduction was fortuitous as I was looking for some dry whites. The stipulation that they weren’t the usual crowd-pleasers like Sancerre or anything Australia. Both were leading the market at the time in the UK.

An enterprising retailer recommended one from Northern Italy called Lugana and a wine called Lagar de Cervera. Made from a grape called Albariño from an unpronounceable region somewhere in North-western Spain. They were both great successes but finding them subsequently on a regular basis proved very difficult.


I would end up working for one of the UK’s most significant importers of Spanish wine. The estate I first tasted would be one of their agencies. But, it became clear why finding them again would prove so difficult. 20 years ago it was impossible to convince the majority of the public that Spain could even produce white wines.

A few geeks were aware of white Rioja because of red Rioja’s dominance within the market. Yet, that led to consumers believing that all Spanish whites would taste oaky. The whites from Torres were always competent, sometimes excellent, but sold due to the Torres name. Txakolina, often with its Basque script, was usually considered Greek. It is difficult today to imagine a wine list without Albariño, but the wine did not become an overnight success.

Damascene Conversion

A visit to Galicia in 2003, organised by the Spanish promotional body ICEX, proved the breakthrough. The last day was a Saturday and we were visiting the Rías Baixas Consejo. They had put together an extremely comprehensive tasting and turned out in force. I led the group that day as our natural leader and Spanish speaker Carlos Read was absent.

There were some horrors but the consistency and quality far better than anything the group tasted that whole week. Albariño was the way forward and perhaps our approach to the market had to be more messianic? Ultimately, why drink Muscadet when you could have Albariño?

Finding One’s Way Around

The Rías Baixas (lower estuaries) takes its name from the three estuaries Arousa, Pontevedra and Vigo that feed the Atlantic. Of the many rivers which flow south-westwards to the ocean, the River Miño is the most famous. It forms the border with Portugal. Yet, the Ríos Ulla, Oitavén and Tea all flow through the grape-growing areas. Founded in 1988 The DO (Denominación de Origen) Rías Baixas was briefly called DO Albariño. It actually dates back to 1980 when it was the Denominación Específica Albariño.

Comprised of five sub-region that head south from Santiago de Compostela. The most northerly is Ribeira do Ulla, concentrated along the river banks with its heart at Vedra. Val do Salnés, stretches from Villagarcía through Cambados down to Sanxenxo. With the smallest region Soutomaior nestled around the town of that name, south of Pontevedra. To the southeast and south, there are two regions along the Tea and Miño rivers. Condado do Tea in the east and O Rosal in the west. Crossing the Miño takes one into Portugal.

Regional Differences

A variety of soils appear: alluvial in the Ribeira do Ulla, with a bedrock of granite underpinning the regions of Salnés and Soutomaior. Both granite and slate exhibit with light granitic subsoil in the Condado do Tea. O Rosal has both alluvial and granite soils. These differences, along with temperature, define the character of the wines throughout the DO.

With its proximity to the Atlantic, the climate is maritime. One can expect cool, damp conditions and plenty of fog, but there is abundant sunshine. Over 2,000 hrs during the growing season. The coolest and wettest zone is the Val do Salnés with between 45-65 inches of rain. This climate and the granite soil form the steely minerality and crisp acidity present in the wines.

Galicia is a cool region, particularly when compared with much of Spain, however mainly on the coast. There is even a three-degree Celsius rise between Cambados in the north and Tui on the southern border. Impressive given the mere distance of 55 kms! Furthermore, the Rías Baixas is not typical of Galicia as a whole. In the more easterly regions of Monterrei and Valdeorras around Ourense, everything changes from grape varieties to soil to climate.

Grape Varieties and Wineries

Albariño forms 95 per cent of all plantings but the further south one heads, there are more varieties.  Treixadura, Loureira Blanca and Caíño comprise the remaining 5 per cent.

These three are present in many blends from Condado do Tea and O Rosal. In this aspect, O Rosal has more in common with the Portuguese Vinho Verde region than the Val do Salnés! Albariño is elegant and citric with the best examples reminiscent of tangerines. Louriera (laurel) is more floral, as its name suggests. Treixadura adds weight to a blend. Caíño, when blended with Albariño, adds zest, as the warmer climate produces wines with a more tropical fruit character.

The grapes occupy just over 4,000 hectares of land and belong to 6,000 registered growers. Consequently, many growers are planting vines as part of a polyculture rather than the main crop. Vines are regularly grown on pergolas to allow other crops to be grown underneath as well as increasing ventilation. The damp conditions mean that very few organic producers exist. Although the likes of Gerardo Mendéz at Do Ferreiro keeps intervention to a minimum.

Wineries to Look Out For

With 180 wineries (from 2015 figures), what names should one look for either in the shops or while holidaying in the region?

Fefiñanes in Cambados were the first bodega to bottle their Albariño, back in 1928. The quality has never wavered since that decision. Their ‘basic’ Albariño is always impressive with more complicated characters found in their 1583 and Tercer Año wines.

Terras Gauda in O Rosal offers a different style but is worth seeking out. Look for La Mar (made from Caíño), Abadia de San Campio and the eponymous Terras Gauda. Pazo de Señoráns wines always please, as does the lesser-known estate of Fillaboa. La Comtesse from Pazo de Barrantes is a rare wood-aged Albariño. However, the practice is becoming more common. Paco & Lola, Do Ferreiro, Lagar de Cervera (from the famous La Rioja Alta estate), Zárate and Mar de Frades have all impressed and flown the flag high. Seldom has in-depth research been so pleasurable!


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