Rías Baixas Wines
Indigenous grape varieties
History clearly shows the existence of an ancient wine-growing culture in Galicia’s Rías Baixas. The area’s long and ongoing commitment to its indigenous grape varieties is no accident. It is in fact the consequence of a wine-growing tradition followed in each of the Rías Baixas appellation’s five subzones (Condado do Tea, O Rosal, O Salnés, Ribeira do Ulla and Soutomaior), where time and again these grape varieties have shown that they are the most suited to the area’s climate and soils. While carefully maintaining this vine-growing tradition on the one hand, Rías Baixas has, on the other, embraced technological innovations which it has introduced in the vinification of its wines.
While preserving its indigenous grapes, the region has been able to develop a wide range of varieties capable of providing special individual character to the wines of each of the five sub-zones (Condado do Tea, O Rosal, O Salnés, Ribeira do Ulla and Soutomaior), which make up the Rías Baixas wine appellation.
The Rías Baixas Regulating Council stipulates that the following grape varieties may be planted:
- Whites: Albariño, Loureira blanca o Marqués, Treixadura, Caiño blanco, Torrontés y Godello.
- Reds: Caiño tinto, Castañal, Espadeiro, Loureira tinta, Sousón, Mencía, Brancellao y Dozal.
Albariño is unquestionably the king grape variety of the appellation. In 1975, just 200 hectares (494 acres) of it were planted. Today, there are over 4,000 hectares (9,880 acres) of Albariño. This grape variety performs at its best in this region’s climate and soils; and if we analyse its genome, we find a high sugar potential that will produce over 12 degrees alcohol. Another of its outstanding qualities is the ability to maintain a range of acidities that very few varieties in the world are able to do, together with a wealth of aroma and flavour components that make its wines very easy to identify when tasted.
Another variety, the Loureira, also known as Marqués, is highly appreciated for its aromatics and original flavours, reminiscent of bay leaves or laurel (from which it takes its name), and which produce wines of great character. While Loureira is not considered suitable as a single varietal wine, since its sugar/acidity ratio is not the most optimal (low sugar and high acidity), a judicious proportion of this variety in an Albariño-based blend can produce wines of great quality and individual character, such as those produced in the O Rosal subzone.
As for the Treixadura, which is the third high quality variety recommended for cultivation, this grape finds its natural habitat in the Condado do Tea subzone, even though it is not widely planted there. This variety brings freshness and acidity to the wines, together with a touch of green apple flavour.
The Rías Baixas appellation’s red grape varieties have so far been much less widely planted than the whites. However, over recent years there has been a clear move in the sector towards introducing new wines in order to bring more diversity to the area’s production; and this move has been supported by demand in the market. Growers are therefore introducing more and more red varieties in their vineyards, attracted by such unique grapes as the Brancellao, Espadeiro, Caíño Tinto, Sousón, Loureira Tinta, Mencía, Pedral and Castañal, which produce distinctive red wines of genuine character. Up till recently, these red varieties had only been vinified for home consumption.
Types of wines
In accordance with the Rías Baixas Regulating Council’s specifications dossier, the wines produced must first pass the Council’s inspection process. Each batch of wine produced in the Rías Baixas appellation undergoes rigorous controls backed up by chemical and organoleptical analysis. The different types of wines to be found within the appellation are as follows:
- Rías Baixas Albariño: A single varietal wine made solely with Albariño grapes coming from any of the sub-zones.
- Rías Baixas Condado de Tea: A blended wine made up of a minimum of 70% Albariño and Treixadura, with the rest made up of other permitted white varieties. All the grapes must be sourced from within the Condado do Tea sub-zone.
- Rías Baixas Rosal: A blend of varieties made up of a minimum of 70% Albariño and Loureira, with the rest made up of varieties permitted by the appellation’s Regulating Council, the totality of which must be sourced from within the Rosal sub-zone.
- Rías Baixas Val do Salnés: Made up of at least 70% Albariño grapes, with the remaining 30% coming from permitted grape varieties, the totality of which must be produced in the Val do Salnés sub-zone.
- Rías Baixas Ribeira do Ulla: A blend of varieties, of which 70% at least should be Albariño, while the rest should be made up of permitted grape varieties, the totality of which should be sourced from within the Ribeira do Ulla sub-zone.
- Rías Baixas: Made up of a blend of recognised white varieties sourced from any of the appellation’s five sub-zones.
- Rías Baixas Barrica: These are wines made in the geographical zone from any permitted white grape varieties. They undergo a similar white wine-making process but spend some time in wooden casks of no more than 600 litres capacity. Labels on the bottles of these wines indicate the length of time (months or years) that they have stayed in these casks.
- Rías Baixas Tinto:This type of wine is made from red grape varieties recognised by the appellation’s Regulating Council and can be produced in any of the five sub-zones, according to the Regulating Council’s specifications dossier.
- Rías Baixas Espumoso (sparkling):Made with recognised varieties, produced in any of the sub-zones, satisfying the analytical requirements stipulated in the Regulating Council’s specifications dossier, the national and European community regulations relating to quality sparkling wines, as well as those established in the quality manual.
The majority of Rías Baixas wines are not aged. However, their development in bottle has been lauded by numerous wine critics, sommeliers, distributors and wine writers. Albariño’s good acidity levels enable wines made from this variety to age well. The coexistence of different vintages in the market, such as occurs with red wines, is a trend that is expected to develop in the future and is a subject on which the Regulating Council and the appellation’s wineries are working. In fact, today, in a number of restaurants with professionally-designed wine lists, wines of different Rías Baixas vintages can be found. Sommeliers, when asked to recommend a wine to pair with a certain dish, nowadays advise guests which vintage goes best with the dishes and for the occasion. Additionally, over recent years, the appellation’s wineries have opted for different winemaking methods, such as ageing their white wines on their fine less in stainless steel vats, vinifying in wood or making sparkling wines. Many of these Rías Baixas wines are now present in the domestic and export markets.
Wines made up of a blend of varieties, such as those found in Rosal and Condado do Tea, include varieties specific to their sub-zone, such as the Loureira and Treixadura. These wines display intense aromatics with light acidity and are complex on the palate, revealing the influence of these varieties in their distinct nuances of flavour, along with herbaceous and floral notes on the nose brought by linalool (roses) and hexanol (vegetal).
For several years now, initially at the University of Vigo and then more recently at the Galicia Biological Mission (CSIC), and aided by the Regulating Council’s tasting panel and its technical department, research projects have been developed to define the sensorial perception of the wines of the Rías Baixas appellation. The first results published by the Galicia Biological Mission (Vilanova et al. 2009, 2010), following Quantitative Descriptive Sensorial Analysis methodology (QDA) and based on ISO 11035 regulations, describe an Albariño wine from the Rías Baixas appellation as an aromatically complex wine due to the large number of descriptors which characterise it, the main ones being apple, citrus fruit, floral (roses), ripe fruit and herbaceous characters.
How should a wine from Rías Baixas be tasted?
Download the following tasting sheet describing a single varietal Rías