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The Albariños of Rias Baixas

Many regions throughout the world are known for a particular specialty—gastronomic or otherwise—but some more than others have the ability to conjure up vivid sensory memories. One such region is northwestern Spain’s Rías Baixas. To the uninitiated, this may just look like a confusingly-spelled set of words. But to those who have visited or tasted the wines and cuisine of this region, the phrase “Rías Baixas” is enough to make the mouth water, evoking the sensation of salinity in many different forms: a refreshing glass of white wine, a briny seafood meal, or the crisp, fresh air of a picturesque oceanside vista.

The wines of Rías Baixas owe much of their personality to the geography and terroir of the lush, verdant region. Situated along the Atlantic Coast, the relatively modern DO (established in the 1980s) is unique within Spain for its focus on white grapes, which thrive in this relatively cool, damp corner of the country. The name “Rías Baixas” (pronounced “re-ass by-shuss”) comes from Galician—”rías” is the word for the sharp estuaries that cut in to the “baixas,” or the lower-altitude region of southern Galicia. These narrow, finger-like bodies of water that stretch inland from the Atlantic Ocean contain a mix of fresh and salt water, making them an ideal home to an incredibly diverse array of delicious maritime creatures that make up the cuisine of the region. Hard granite soils combined with mineral-rich alluvial top soils provide optimal growing conditions for top quality white wine production.

The other key component of this region is its star grape variety: Albariño. While other varieties are permitted, Albariño makes up the vast majority of plantings, and with good reason. It has the ability to produce distinctive wines that maintain their unique varietal character in a wide range of styles, owing both to the diversity of the five different sub-zones and to winemaking decisions such as maceration length,  the use of wild yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, malolactic fermentation, and lees contact.

Texturally, Albariño typically falls somewhere between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay, while flavor-wise, floral perfume, zesty citrus, stone fruit, and minerality are ubiquitous. In the warmer sub-regions of Rías Baixas, ripe melon and peach flavors dominate, while bottlings from cooler climes are often marked by lean acidity as well as grapefruit and lemon notes. An undercurrent of salinity runs through most examples, making them an unparalleled pairing with the region’s plentiful seafood offerings. The Albariño grape is so integral to the style of the wine produced in Rías Baixas that the name of the variety is printed on every bottle—a practice rarely seen elsewhere in Spain (or most of Europe, for that matter).

Thanks to the adaptability of Albariño and its friendly, near-universal appeal, the Rías Baixas DO has something to offer just about every white wine drinker. These wines can be enjoyed year-round, but are especially delightful during the spring and summer, when warm, sunny weather calls for a crisp, refreshing beverage. They sing when paired with any kind of marine life—particularly oysters or scallops—but are equally fantastic on their own. If you can’t make it to Spain for a vacation this year, a bottle of Rías Baixas Albariño just might be the next best thing.

Some of our favorites include:

Granbazan Etiqueta Ambar Albariño 2015
Bright yellow stone fruits come to the forefront here in this complex example, with notes of marzipan, rose, spice, and citrus pith. The palate is round and fleshy, but vibrant acidity keeps it light and freshing.

Condes de Albarei Albariño 2015
This is all about the floral side of Albariño, with a lovely perfume and high flavor intensity on the palate. The luscious texture brings to mind peaches and cream.

Martin Codax Albariño 2015
A great entry-level option—the price is right, and the fruit is ripe and mouthfilling. The flavor profile is simple and straightforward, with plenty of fresh apple and pineapple as well as some nutty character.

Valminor Rias Baixas Albariño 2014
Stone fruit and grapefruit shine in this flavorful bottling, with hints of dried herbs and spice on the long finish. Searing acidity means that this one may not be for beginners, but makes it an excellent complement to grilled fish, lobster, or crab.

Pazo de San Mauro Albariño 2015
This is a big Albariño, with a rich creamy texture and notes of baking spice and marzipan alongside yellow peach and nectarine.  If you’re looking to make the transition from red to white wine for summer, this would be a good place to start!