As might be expected, wines made across Spain’s Atlantic
regions, both whites and reds, tend to be cool and restrained, strongly
reflecting the ocean-influenced climate. They are quite unlike their lush, ripe
southern cousins, which mostly come from vineyards that are among the hottest,
driest and sunniest in Europe. Conditions along Spain’s Atlantic coast often
bear striking similarity to those of southern England and the wines reflect it.
Aside from Santiago
de Compostela, with its stunning cathedral and amazing seafood; Bilbao, which
has only recently attracted international visitors thanks to its deservedly hyped
Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum; and San Sebastian, with its insane food
scene, northern Spain is pretty much a wasteland of tourist destinations, much
less of the vinous sort. Northwest Spain in particular has never been a great
draw for American wine tourists. Not many Yanks, including those in the wine
trade who have visited Rioja multiple times, have ever made the trek to Galicia,
which is home to Rías Baixas, Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro and Valdeorras.
Even fewer have explored the León region, home to Bierzo, which is the most famous
and best Denominación de Origen in northwest Spain for red wines.
Albariño is the most widely planted variety in Rías Baixas
Albariño and Rías
Baixas: Spain’s Great White Hope?
The wines of Rías Baixas, which are overwhelmingly white and
made from the Albariño variety (known as Alvarinho in Portugal, where it is
commonly overcropped and used to make an ocean of mostly anonymous,
easy-drinking Vinho Verde), have captured the attention of American wine lovers
and professionals in a remarkably short span of time. It’s not hard to see why
as the best examples are concentrated and vibrant, with intense,
mineral-drenched citrus fruit character and alluring floral overtones. And the overall
winemaking standard in the region is as high as any that I know in Spain.
Rarely do the wines see any oak (and it’s seldom new when they do), which means
that fans of German, Alsace and Loire Valley white wines will find plenty to
love here. Judging by the steady increase in the availability and sales of
these wines in the U.S., they already have.
Vineyards in Bierzo were first planted by the Romans
Mencía in Bierzo and
Ribeira Sacra: Indeterminate Origins and Elegant Wines
When the Mencía-based wines of Bierzo and, to a lesser extent,
Ribeira Sacra first began to gain traction in the American market about a
decade ago, amateur as well as professional winos were stumped by the variety, which
is basically planted no place else but here and whose origin is still not fully
Bierzo is the largest red wine-producing region in Galicia
and its vineyards, which were first planted by the Romans in the 11th
century, lie in the relatively flat sections of the Sil River valley.
Neighboring Ribeira Sacra, whose vineyards are almost entirely planted on steep,
often terraced slopes that lead down to the Sil, produces quite a bit less wine
than Bierzo and almost all of the area’s wineries are small. As a very general
rule, Bierzo wines tend toward the darker fruit spectrum while the wines of
Ribeira Sacra lean toward more restrained red fruits and minerals.
Picked short of optimal ripeness, Mencía resembles nothing
so much as a Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire Valley, many of which are also
picked before the fruit attains full ripeness. A pretty fair number of Bierzos
and Ribeira Sacras that began making their way into the U.S. in the mid-2000s
showed exactly that character, which essentially limited their appeal to the
same relatively narrow market that appreciates Cabernet Franc of a similar
profile. A number of the wines were also on the gamey side as winemaking
practices and cellar conditions in the region were often (and continue to be)
rustic, and not in the romantic sense. But when Mencía is able to ripen fully
and is well cared for in the cellar, it’s capable of producing glorious wines
with vivacious red fruit and floral character, vibrant minerality and spiciness,
and the balance to age. Fortunately, more and more Mencías done right,
especially those from Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, have made their way into the
market in recent years and those who have always viewed Spanish red wines as
ripe and powerful owe it to themselves to see how well the country can do
The vineyards of Ribeira Sacra are almost entirely planted on steep, terraced slopes that lead down to the Sil River
The Lesser-Known Regions,
Grapes and Wines of the Northwest
Valdeorras, which is the most inland Galician wine zone, is
mostly planted to Mencía for red wines and to the native Godello variety for
whites. Its reds tend toward the rich, brawny side compared to Bierzo and,
especially, Ribeira Sacra, but nobody will confuse them with wines from Ribera
del Duero. The whites can be extremely interesting as Godello, which is also
the dominant white variety in the relatively rare Bierzo blancos, generally produces wines that are more densely packed, structured
and higher in alcohol than those made from Albariño.
Ribeiro, which is mostly planted to the white Treixadura
variety, is a small D.O. that lies just southwest of Ribeira Sacra on the Sil;
its vines are mostly planted on steep, riverside slopes, often on terraces.
Like Godello, Treixadura produces fresh, mineral-driven wines that usually come
off as burlier than those made from Albariño and they are also well suited to
Obscure varieties such as Hondarrabi Zuri dominate the vineyards of Txakolina
Basque Country and
Those who have been familiar with Txakoli (in the
overwhelming majority of cases white) for some time are almost universally
aghast at the rapid rise in prices for this category of light-bodied,
low-alcohol, usually spritzy wines. The varieties planted here are about as
obscure as it gets: Hondarrabi Zuri is the dominant variety for the white wines
and, for the rarely seen pink and red versions, Hondarrabi Beltza, with some
rogue Folle Blanche, Riesling and obscure local varieties occasionally popping
up here and there. Base-level white Txakoli, which is widely available at bars,
restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations throughout Basque country, really
isn’t much to write home about. The best Txakolis, though, when made by serious
producers with prime, steeply sloped vineyards that face the Atlantic, can be
truly outstanding wines by any measure and the market clearly concurs as many
of these bottlings are now strictly allocated and pushing the $30 price point.
These citrus and mineral wines are ideal companions to the region’s shellfish.
This is a somewhat perplexing and often an anonymous winegrowing
region because so many of its vineyards are heavily planted to French varieties,
especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and too many of its wines are undistinguished.
Living in the shadow of world-famous Rioja hasn’t helped Navarra’s image or self-esteem,
and for many years this D.O. was best-known for pretty much one type of wine, Garnacha-based
rosado. The best versions of these
pink wines can be very good indeed; in fact, through the early 2000s Navarra
was widely considered to be the single
best region in all of Spain for pink wines. Most Navarra wines today, the vast
majority of them red, are blends of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon
and Merlot. While many of them are competently made, few of them are going to
excite wine lovers, especially considering how much great Rioja is available at
similar price points.
Current Vintages in Northern
Two thousand fourteen was relatively kind to the
Atlantic-influenced vineyards of Spain, with cool weather through the summer
preserving acidity in the grapes and preventing sugar levels from running away.
Warmer weather in the weeks leading up to the harvest helped the grapes achieve
normal ripeness and the resulting wines, both reds and whites, tend to be
classically structured, with good weight and fresh acidity. Some of the white
wines show an element of softness that suggests they’ll be best drunk on the
young side, but they are in no way loose-knit unless they’re compared to the
The 2013s, the products of a cold, damp vintage, are mostly
in a high-acid style; many whites are a bit screechy and the reds often
emphasize herbs over fruit. Serious, quality-conscious producers who risked
letting their fruit hang for fuller ripeness and made strict selections in the
vineyards and winery crafted some excellent wines, but this is definitely a
vintage to buy with care.
You Might Also Enjoy
Central Spain: Tempranillo and Beyond, Josh Raynolds, December 2015
The Many Facets of Rioja, Josh Raynolds, November 2015
Focus on Spain, Josh Raynolds, November 2014