Exploring Albariño, the Wines of Rias Baixas

SommCon is a leading conference for sommelier-level education and training in the wine industry. Held recently in San Diego, it provided opportunities to delve deeply into technology, tasting techniques, different closure schemes and the wines of different regions, with educational tastings conducted by Masters of Wine and Sommeliers. One session we enjoyed introduced the Albariño wines of the Denomination of Origin (DO) Rias Baixas.

Jill Zimorski, advanced sommelier, led the tasting of 11 wines and provided details on the DO, which was created in northwestern Spain for the Albariño grape variety in 1980. The DO was changed to Rías Baixas in 1988 as EU wine laws did not recognize a DO named for a single grape variety. As with other wine areas in Europe, the DO regulation has specific requirements for labeling, grapes used, yields, alcohol levels and aging procedures.

Jill said the DO borders on the Atlantic Ocean and has a cool maritime climate and abundant rainfall yet some 2,200 hours of sunshine a year which helps grapes ripen. She said the soils have hard granite as the mother rock with the alluvial top soils threaded with clay, silt, sand and gravel. The combination gives Albariño wines in general fruity, aromatic aromas with hints of minerality and tight acid structure some liken to Chablis.

Rias Baixas has five sub-zones. The terroirs and different winemaking techniques result in styles that range from tight and acidic, to stone fruit and melon to earthy, she said. From the website:

“While the different sub-zones express subtle differences, the wines all share a number of characteristics. Pale golden lemon, they are all crisp, elegant and fresh. These wines are bone-dry and aromatic, packed with flavors of white peach, apricot, melon, pineapple, mango and honeysuckle. They share good natural acidity, have mineral overtones, and are medium bodied with moderate alcohol (12%).”

Because of the high rainfall, viticulturists have created different approaches to growing their grapes, depending upon the sub region. Jill said most vines are trained on trellises up to seven feet high and widely spaced to allow breezes to blow through and promote even ripening and prevent mildew. Pickers stand on grape bins to harvest the grapes. The grapes are hand-picked and placed in small 40-pound crates for delivery to the winery, where the grapes are lightly pressed and fermentation takes place in modern stainless-steel tanks with temperature controls.

Many Rías Baixas winemakers ferment their grapes with the native yeasts found in their vineyards. According to DO literature, they believe the resulting aromas result in a more authentic reflection of the characteristics of the Albariño grape and the terroir.

Jill said the Albariño grape has abundant natural acidity, which gives Rias Baixas wines a distinct crispness, as evidenced by the wines in our tasting. She said some winemakers prevent malolactic fermentation to maintain tight acidity and freshness, compared with wines which go through malolactic fermentation to create rounder, softer wines. There is a minimum alcohol level of 11.3% for Albariño wines, 11.5% for wines aged in oak and 11% for other white wine blends.

Barrel fermentation and aging are common in most wine regions of the world. Jill said some Rias Biaxas winemakers use limited barrel aging to add complexity, flavor and structure. Of the 11 wines in the session, the winemaking ranged from oak-free, temperature-controlled alcoholic fermentation in stainless steel tanks, to the bigger wines that underwent partial malolactic fermentation, aging in French oak and up to five months aging on the lees.

To guarantee origin and adherence to the highest quality standards, all wines from Rías Baixas carry an official label from the Consejo Regulador. The Consejo conducts regular vineyard and cellar inspections and a tasting committee samples each vat of wine for quality. Only wines that pass all of the quality control trials bear the official Rίas Baixas label.

The 11 wines tasted were uniformly fresh and fruity, with varying degrees of complexity based on how winemakers approached aging on the lees, partial malolactic fermentation and use of French oak barrels. The scores ranged from 15.5 to 17 on the UC Davis 20-point scale (roughly 86 to 92 on the 100-point scale). Alcohol levels were all close to 12.5 percent. The prices are from the booklet provided by Rias Baixas and are higher than what we’ve seen in big box stores and from our friendly wine merchant on some of the wines. The highlights:

Condesa 2016 Albarino

Condesa

Condes de Albarei 2016 ($15). Pale straw; nectarine, citrus, mineral nose; tight acids; bright, tart, fruity finish (15.5-16).

Marin Codax 2016 ($16; widely available, cooperative that oversees 1,400 small vineyard parcels farmed by 550 families). Pale straw; stone fruit, peachy, tangerine (four months on the lees, 15 percent malo); mid0acids; good texture; more of a lush finish (16).

Vionta 2016 ($15). Dusty nose, melon, like a Pinot Blanc (10 percent malo); citric, leafy; long tight semi-lush finish (16).

Valmiñor 2016 ($14). Light-mid gold; citric, pineapple nose; short tart finish (from Rosal, a warmer sub region) (15.5).

Quinto Cousela “Turonia” 2016 ($21). Light straw gold; peachy, floral, citrus, more complex nose (six months aging on the lees); balanced; round, ripe; good depth fruit; long finish (16-16.5).

Terra de Asorei 2016 ($15). Light grey-gold; citric nose, white peach; mid-body (three months on the lees); good acids; long fruity finish (16).

Paco Y Lola 2016 ($22 in the book, $18 a big box store; from a cooperative with 400 members). Light grey-gold; smoky, melon, citrus, Riesling-like nose (three months on the lees; 15 percent malo); mid-body; balanced; good fruit and long finish (16.5).

Bodegas As Laxas 2016 ($18). Pale straw gold; clean floral, spicy nose (stainless steel fermentation); good fruit; balanced acids; distinct, light salty character (16.5).

Fillaboa 2016 ($20, estate-grown fruit from historic site with limited production). Sharp mid-24K gold; peach yogurt, citrus, mineral nose; fruity finish (16).

Paco Y Lola 2016 Albarino

Paco Y Lola Albarino

Lagar de Condesa 2016 ($18). Light-mid gold; big fruity nose; light oak (fermentation in French oak barrels; four months on the lees); mid-big body; round, ripe, long semi-crisp finish (16-16.5).

Pazo De Señorans 2009 ($47; oldest and most expensive wine in the tasting). Light-mid gold; floral, peachy, honey, older nose, almost Chardonnay-like (five months on the lees); round, soft, fruity finish; good flavor (16.5-17).

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