Lush Galician countryside yields flavorful albariño

A version of this article appeared previously in the San Jose Mercury News:

From the Vionta winery’s hilltop location in Spain’s Galicia region, there’s a sweeping view of the Salnés Valley, home to more than half of the grapes grown in the Rias Baixas appellation. The area is lush and green, and the countryside is dotted with scores of vineyards, many of the tiny, backyard variety.

This part of northwestern Spain is albariño country, where the cool, damp climate and granitic soils produce white wines that are fresh and flavorful, with white peach, citrus, apple and some floral notes and, often, a distinctive minerality. With its relatively thick skin, albariño is well-suited to the wet conditions.

In the Salnes Valley, vines are often trained on pergolas. (Photo by Steve Jankowski.)

In the Salnes Valley, vines are often trained on pergolas. (Photo by Steve Jankowski.)

The Salnés Valley is the coolest, wettest and most northerly of Rias Baixas’ five subzones and is heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the vineyards are small, sometimes less than half an acre, and vines are often trained on a pergola-like trellis, with posts made of the ubiquitous granite. Other crops are sometimes grown below the canopy of vines.

The biggest wineries in Rias Baixas (REE-ahs BYE-shuss) are cooperatives like Martin Codax, whose wines are fairly easy to find. Vionta – which is owned by the Ferrer family, best known for Freixenet sparkling wines – has more than 80 acres of estate vineyards and buys additional grapes, so it would be considered medium to large by the appellation’s standards. But there are also many wineries that produce just a few hundred cases of wine every year.

Although albariño accounts for 90 percent of Rias Baixas vineyard plantings, there are several other varieties, particularly treixadura, loureiro and caiño blanco, which are sometimes blended with albariño. Wines labeled as “albariño” must contain 100 percent of that variety.

Albariño is a particularly good partner for seafood – not surprising, considering the seafood-rich cuisine in that part of Spain. And it offers great refreshment on a warm day. Although some albariños have gotten a little pricey, it’s still easy to find good ones for less than $20, which often makes them a better value than their California counterparts.

Take the aforementioned Vionta albariño. The current vintage, 2013 ($15), offers racy apple and citrus with some minerality and nice weight. A tank sample of the 2014 was a little more floral. A lot of flavor for a modest price.
Like Vionta, Condes de Albarei is in the Salnés Valley, but Albarei is a cooperative of more than 350 growers. The 2013 Condes de Albarei Albariño ($15) is racy and fresh, with citrus, green apple and wet stone notes.

Martin Codax is also a large cooperative, and the wines are widely available. The 2013 Martin Codax Albariño ($18) displays bright apple and white peach flavors; it’s a little fleshier, with less minerality, than some.

The 2013 Kentia Albariño ($14) is a particularly good value, with its bright citrus and green apple, accented by a mineral note. I also like the 2013 Fillaboa Albariño ($20), which is lean and racy, with green apple, citrus, wet stone and a persistent finish; the 2014 Pazo das Bruxas Albariño ($16), which has a similar profile; and the very fragrant, zippy 2014 Pazo Barrantes Albariño ($20). Other albariños to look for include the wines from Mar de Frades, Pazo de Señorans and Palacio de Fefiñanes.

Another important subzone of Rias Baixas is O Rosal to the south, just north of the border with Portugal. (Albariño, by the way, is also grown south of the border, where it’s called alvarinho.) The terrain in O Rosal is different: Many vineyards are much more expansive and are usually trained on a more traditional upright trellis. The climate is a little warmer, sunnier and less humid than that of Salnés, so the wines are often fleshier.

The 2014 Terras Gauda “Abadia de San Campio” Albariño ($20) is a good example. It’s round and fresh, with apple and lime flavors and some weight. A lot of the wines in O Rosal are blends and are labeled with the subzone rather than a grape variety. For example, there’s the 2014 Terras Gauda O Rosal ($26), a blend of albariño, loureiro and caiño blanco that’s bright, citrusy and a little floral, with green apple, white peach and some mineral.