A Pilgrimage Through the Rías Baixas Wine Region Leads to a Crisp Summer White

 The Pazo Baión Winery in Rías Baixas, Spain, is known for its single vineyard Albariño.

Recently, my wine travels took me to Galicia in northwestern Spain, the final destination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James). I arrived in the UNESCO city of Santiago de Compostela, visited the shrine of St. James and then headed to the wine lands of Rías Baixas about an hour away. In this unique region, grape growing is a community affair—a beehive of thousands of nonprofessional growers. Individuals such as policemen, teachers and storeowners contribute grapes from their small vineyards to make Albariño, considered the best white wine of Spain. 

As the primary wine made in the Rías Baixas region, Albariño’s main characteristic is racy, grapefruit acidity or “extreme freshness.” It displays minerality (coming from grapes grown in granite soils) and can resemble Chablis or a dry Riesling. Not only does it pair well with seafood, especially with oysters, sashimi and ceviche, but it also possesses moderate alcohol levels making it a perfect summer wine. 

My pilgrimage took me to all sorts of wineries, from one with as many as 600 families supported by their viticulturalist second job (Martín Códax), to an impressive wine estate (Pazo Baión) once occupied by a notorious local drug dealer and now owned by the 400-family cooperative, Adega Condes de Albarei. Revered winemaker Cristina Mantilla gave me a tour of Pazo San Mauro, a historic estate recently modernized by current co-owner Pelayo de la Mata, the 13th Marqués de Vargas. The impressive property includes a chapel from 1582 and a view of 75 acres of terraced vineyards that extend toward the Miño River (on the other bank is Portugal). 

Next a tasting and lunch at Pazo de Señorans, where owner Marisol Bueno Berrío-Ategortua was instrumental in having Rías Baixas become an official Spanish appellation in 1988. Using estate-grown fruit from the 47-acre property and purchasing additional grapes from 150 families, Señoran’s wine is made in an ecological way called “Integrated Production.”

At Martín Códax, head winemaker Katia Alvarez explained that the grapes are gathered from 3,400 tiny parcels. She’s experimenting with microvinification in mini-tanks to find the best terroir. Her research includes grapes from the main sub-regions: Val do Salnés (closest to Atlantic Ocean bringing salinity), Condado do Tea (mineral richness and elegance) and O Rosal (mouth-filling acidity and length). “I put together a puzzle of parcels bringing distinctive flavors,” said Alvarez. “But in the end, the beauty of Albariño is its fresh acidity.”

Baroness' Top Picks

Bodegas La Val “Licia” 2014 ($15)
This Albariño has perfumed aromas, notes of pineapple and minerals and a grapefruit acidity. From an estate in Condado do Tea near the Portuguese border, the wines are made from 30-year-old vines, very old for this region.

Martín Códax 2013 ($17)
From a large cooperative winery named for a medieval troubadour, this wine is slightly sparkling and has pleasant herb and green apple aromas. It’s an extremely fresh and vibrant summer choice. martincodax.com.

Paco & Lola 2014 ($18)
Sporting a polka-dot label, this wine has a seaweed aroma and a vibrant citrus flavor. At this 400-member cooperative, winemaker Nuria de la Torre Sayans keeps the wine three months on its fine lees to give it a silky mouth-feel. 

Pazo Baión 2014 ($40)
Once a notorious drug dealer’s estate, the winery is now owned by a large cooperative. Winemaker Andrea Obenza makes a lovely single-vineyard Albariño with aromas of apricot and citrus and a nice minerality. 

Pazo de Señorans 2014 ($25)
With alcohol at only 12.7 percent, this Albariño is fermented with wild yeasts, giving it spicy aromas. Made in an ecological way, the wine spends four months on its fine lees, which brings out a mouth-filling roundness on the finish. 

Pazo San Mauro ($18)
A single-estate Albariño from the Condado do Tea subzone, this highly awarded wine has pear, citrus and green aromatic notes with a good intensity and clean crisp finish. marquesdevargas.com. Terras Gauda O Rosal 2013 ($24) A blend of 70 percent Albariño with Loureiro and Caiño Blanco and made with natural yeasts, this is an astonishingly rounded and richly flavorful wine with complex aromas of apricot, orange and eucalyptus. 

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: The Spanish Way.