I don’t usually go for wine tourism. Sure, as a wine professional, it can be fun to visit the places where the products I sell are made. But, really, going to wineries on vacation sometimes feels more like work than like play. Not so, however, on a recent trip I took to Spain, where I visited two wine regions — Rías Baixas and Ribeira Sacra — that were as surprisingly lovely as their wines were delicious.
My intention in visiting Galicia, the part of Spain nestled in between the northern part of Portugal and the southern portion of France, wasn’t wine related. For years, I’ve wanted to visit the town of Santiago de Compostela, in particular its imposing cathedral, a destination of religious pilgrims for hundreds of years.
Alas, the cathedral was covered by scaffolding inside and out and was so mobbed by masses of green scarf-wearing tourists (seriously, busloads of them) that I fled the city in my rented SEAT Ibiza. What I found in the countryside of Galicia was grander and far more gratifying than an unobstructed view of a historic monument ever could be.
The rías along the southwestern coast of Galicia, from which Rías Baixas gets its name, are formed by fjord-like fingers reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. Lush, green slopes drop into fertile estuaries, blooming with marine life. Thus, it’s no surprise that seafood abounds here. Happily, by far the most prevalent wine grape grown in the region, albariño, loves seafood. It is served as the house wine in restaurants across the region, and I never found one I didn’t like.
Someone once described the 2015 Viña Nora Albariño Rías Baixas Peitán ($17 per 750-milliliter bottle) to me as “sunshine in a glass.” Ironic, because albariño is one of relatively few grapes that grow well in an often-rainy coastal climate. Most grapes perform best under moderate water stress and with ample sunlight and warmth. But albariño’s naturally high sugar content helps it achieve ripeness even in quite wet, cool conditions. Albariño tends to be very fragrant, with aromas of orange blossom and often a hint of brine on the palate — appropriate for a grape most often grown within sight of the sea.
Peitán in this case is lemon yellow in the glass, with masses of tropical fruit aromas on the nose: pineapple, papaya, mango — even a touch of banana. On the palate, the flavors turn citrusy with bright orange zest and lemon curd and a vivid note of something herby, like lemon balm. The citrus hangs on the long, refreshing finish.
Heading inland to the northeast, Galicia’s landscape turns more rugged, with plunging hillsides cut by meandering rivers and lots and lots of steeply terraced vineyards. Ribeira Sacra is so named because its vineyards were tended by monks for hundreds of years; before them, the Romans cultivated vines here. Despite the region’s long winemaking history, however, Ribeira Sacra only became a legally designated wine-producing appellation in 1996.
The region’s youth as well as its small size mean that its wines are quite rare on this side of the Atlantic. I admit, I had never heard of Ribeira Sacra before stumbling into it. So, imagine my delight when I discovered the 2015 Guímaro Mencía Tinto ($20) here in New Mexico. Ribeira Sacra is the only region in Galicia that focuses particularly on red wine, and mencía (pronounced men-THEE-uh – you have to use the Spanish “lithp”) is its signature grape.
Guímaro, meaning “rebel” in the local dialect, was one of the first wineries to join the newly formed appellation in 1996. In some ways, though, forward-thinking Guímaro strives to retain (or regain) tradition it its wines. It uses no chemical treatments in the vineyards, the grapes are stomped by foot, plus wild yeasts are used to ferment the juice.
Guímaro’s tinto is meant to be consumed while in the bloom of youth. It is unoaked, so the purity of the mencía fruit has an opportunity to shine. Intense crimson in hue, the nose is equally powerful with meaty aromas of leather, red cherry and anise. The flavors on the palate are equally meaty, with black pepper, smoke and spicy cedar and sandalwood.
While I visited neither Viña Nora nor Guímaro while exploring Galicia, I have no trouble picturing what they might look like. Perhaps Viña Nora overlooks verdant vineyards disappearing slowly into the misty coastline, the fragrance of rosemary hanging in the air from the abundant herbs growing in the rich soil. And perhaps Guímaro is perched high atop a precipitous slope, surrounded by wildflowers and terraces of vines wrapping around a sharp bend in the river Sil, with green bluffs stretching far into the distance. Whether my reveries are true or not, I know that the viticultural landscape of Galicia is every bit as beautiful as its wines.