THE WAY OF ALBARIÑO

by ROBERT CALVERT

 

Blessed with “verdant valleys, rocky highlands and Atlantic surf,” the autonomous community of Galicia lies at the northwest corner of Spain, extending from the Cantabrian Sea down to the border with Portugal.

The best-known city of Galicia is Santiago de Compostela, terminus of the Camino de Santiago, the devotional sojourn called the Way of Saint James in English. Beginning in the ninth century, many thousands of the faithful walked to Santiago to visit the presumed location there of the tomb of Saint James. Multiple pilgrimage routes—nine or more—led to Santiago from gathering points around the Iberian Peninsula and France. The routes were marked with scallop shells, recalling legends about the saint and heralding the joys of seafood that pilgrims would find at journey’s end. The route from the southwest of France, the Camino Francés, seems to have been the most traveled.

Pilgrimages declined in popularity after a few centuries, but visitors traverse the old French route even today to chill out or simply to revel in the beauty of the Iberian landscape. Some contemporary wayfarers earn indulgences from the Church for making the pilgrimage, as in past centuries.

There are interesting sights to see and lots of good wine to drink along the way—whether one proceeds on foot, on a bicycle or by car. A short detour from the main route will take one to Bilbao, site of the gleaming Guggenheim Museum. In Basque country, thirsty pilgrims can quaff tart Txakoli grown in local vineyards. Travelers passing through Rioja can savor renowned Riojan wines.

 

Galicia is known as “the land of 1,000 rivers.” Fed by frequent storms that roll in off the Atlantic, countless streams sluice down from the mountainous interior, carving channels through the rocky landscape as they return their waters to the sea.

This is a land of contrasts. Tourists loll contentedly on splendid Galician beaches, but mariners tremble even today as they sail cautiously along the rocky Costa de la Muerte, the Coast of Death.

LAND OF ESTUARIES

The southern chunk of Galicia is called Rías Baixas (REE-as BYEshass). It takes its name from rías, “fingers of sea” that cut the coast and extend far inland. There are four grand estuaries in the region, the Ría de Muros y Noia, the Ría de Arousa, the Ría de Pontevedra and the Ría de Vigo. (There are other, smaller rías farther north.) According to tradition, the rías are “the mark left by the hand of God when he washed his fingers after creating the world.”

The weather of Rías Baixas is dominated by the neighboring Atlantic Ocean. Winters are wet, and there is lots of fog; temperatures generally are mild, though, rarely rising above the mid-80s in summer and seldom falling below freezing in winter.

In this cool, humid environment, winegrowers hack granite posts from the native rock to construct tall stone arbors. Stretching toward the sky on their sturdy stone supports, vines can catch a bit of sunlight and luxuriate in friendly breezes that whisk away atmospheric moisture, shielding precious grapes from rot and mildew that otherwise might threaten them as they ripen.

The predominant grape variety in Rías Baixas is Albariño, a white variety. Wines made from this grape generally are described as aromatic, having scents of almonds, fruit, flowers and grass. In the humid Galician climate, Albariño develops a thick skin, which imparts intense fragrances and flavors to its wines. Galician Albariños have ample acidity, making them ideal to accompany seafood, a mainstay of the local cuisine.

TASTE TESTS

My wife and I sampled several tasty Albariños recently.

> The Serra da Estrela Albariño Rías Baixas DO 2017 ($16) is the color of pale straw, and it emits a floral bouquet with supplementary fragrances of stones and citrus. Its flavor is tart and citrusy (lemon and lime) with hints of lemon rind, herbs and white grapes. This refreshing wine is a perfect partner for shrimp salad or grilled seafood enjoyed out on the deck.

> Columna Albariño Rías Baixas DO 2017 ($17) was grown in the Condado do Tea subzone near the Miño River that separates Galicia from Portugal. (The Tea is a tributary of the Miño.) This inland zone is a bit warmer than other parts of Rías Baixas. Soils in Condado do Tea contain granite, slate and alluvial elements. The Columna Albariño is the color of dry straw. Its subtle bouquet evokes citrus and flowers. Slightly tart, its flavor is reminiscent of apples, with orange nuances. We noted the wine’s appealing viscosity—“good body.” The importer recommends enjoying this wine with shellfish— or with Indian and Thai food. The Columna is not aged in oak barrels, so it partners well with spicy dishes. It is quite delightful.

> The Leirana Albariño Rías Baixas Finca Genoveva 2016 ($48) was produced in the Val do Salnés subzone, which is reputed to be the birthplace of the Albariño grape. The Val do Salnés is the coolest and wettest part of Rías Baixas. Soil in this area is “granitic and rocky.” Like the other Albariños we tasted, the Finca Genoveva is the color of pale straw—with the slightest hint of amber. Its floral bouquet reminds one of honeysuckle. Its flavor is fruity and complex—lime and lime rind melded with pears and peaches. The wine has good body and a pleasant sense of minerality. It pairs well with shrimp or broiled cod.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Louisville. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.