Christine Austin embarks on a wine pilgrimage to the green hills and steep valleys of Galicia to sample the local speciality, Albariño.
It was easy to see which white wine was the winner at York Food and Drink Festival’s big supermarket tasting. With ranges from nine major supermarkets competing for the attention and taste buds of visitors who filled the Guildhall, there was clearly a clamour for Albariño.
Easy to say and definitely easy to drink, Albariño is a light, refreshing, white peach and apricot-edged wine and is soft enough to drink on its own or can accompany fish, shellfish, salads and, at a push, chicken and vegetarian dishes.
It originates from the wet and breezy top left-hand corner of Spain known as Rías Baixas (pronounce it Ree-ash Buy-shass). This is part of Galicia, a region that is unusual for its weather, culture and sheer distance from the rest of Spain. Galicia has the sea on two sides and the westerly winds make sure that it gets more than its fair share of rain. The green hills and steep-sided valleys of the region are unlike any other part of Spain and its remoteness means that it has kept a language and a culture of its own. The people claim a Celtic origin and the local street musicians play bagpipes that are best listened to from a bar a hundred yards away.
Despite its remoteness, this region has seen millions of visitors over the years. Ever since the ninth century when a hermit claimed that he saw a vision showing him where the body of St James was buried, it was declared a miracle and they built a cathedral. Santiago de Compostela subsequently became a popular destination for Christian pilgrims, many of them walking part of the Camino de Santiago, staying at lodges along the way. Stone shells carved into the lintels of houses and hostels show where pilgrims can stay, and as they travel they not only cleanse their souls but also drive the local economy.
The bars of Santiago are packed on a Saturday night, full of happy, weary people who are determined to eat the fabulous local seafood and drink the local wine. On Sunday morning they fill the cathedral to see the huge incense burner swing from the rafters, sent on its scented trajectory by no fewer than seven young priests who valiantly hang on to the rope as it fills the nave with its uplifting aroma. Devotions done, the pilgrims once again head for the bars to drink the traditional young wine straight from the cask.
But it is not enough to just quench the thirst of these travellers. Rías Baixas is lifting its game and its quality by making wines that we can buy without a long walk to Santiago.
The Albariño grape is lightly aromatic with a thick skin that resists the high humidity of the region. Even so they are trained on pergolas to catch the breeze and resist disease. Vineyards are spread across five zones, from Salnés on the coast to Condado de Tea along the bank of the River Miño which forms the border with Portugal. Each region has its own characteristics, with vineyards close to the sea having more freshness and vibrancy, while inland areas have softer, rounder flavours. The soil here is granite-based, friable on the top, with rock below, which tends to give the wines a freshness of flavour. Even the end posts in the vineyards are constructed of solid granite which glints in the sunlight and absorbs the daytime heat.
The main difficulty of this region is that vineyard ownership is scattered across many families, with 4,000 hectares of vines shared between 6,000 growers. This means that there are very few producers with enough grapes to make their own wine, so co-operatives are important, but so are larger companies which buy in grapes from small farmers with just a few rows of vines. While I was there in the middle of harvest just a couple of weeks ago a farmer arrived in his car with a few crates of grapes packed onto the back seat and a few more on a trailer behind. He will only get paid when his grapes are made into wine, so they were stacked in a chilled part of the winery until there were enough to fill the press.
While I was there I had a go at grape picking, which is not as easy as it looks. Although the grapes hang down from the vines, their stems are twisted into the wires and after a few minutes of standing with my hands above my head trying to untangle the bunches, I decided to leave it to the professionals.
Here are my top wines from this lovely region of Spain.
Pazo Señorans: Family owned, this company has substantial vineyards but also buys in grapes from 119 families. They can trace all the parcels of grapes back to the vineyard and make smooth, elegant, balanced and refreshing wines that have a rounded texture from being left on their lees for three months. They also keep some wine back to be released with longer bottle age. Surprisingly Pazo de Señorans Albariño can age 10 years and more. House of Townend stocks Pazo de Señorans 2014, £18.99.
Vionta: With a winery overlooking the water, there is no escaping the fact that Rías Baixas is a coastal wine region. The wines are bright and fresh with lemon and minerally edges that go so well with food. Find You and Me Albariño 2015 at Ocado, £11.99.
Palacio de Fefiñanes: The oldest producer in the region, making sheer, elegant, precise wines with masses of lime-shot, white peachy fruit. Find the 2015 vintage at the Wine Society, £13.95, also available at Grassington Wine and Martinez Wines.
Condes de Albarei: A large co-operative, making terrific wines. It has recently bought a single estate, Pazo Baión, which will headline their range of wines. Meanwhile find their floral and ripe pear-style wines at Concept Wines (01423 701418), £10.75.
Available from supermarkets: Top supermarket Rías Baixas Albariño wines are Viña Taboexa 2015, Waitrose, £7.99; Finest Albariño 2015, Tesco, £7, and Albariño 2015, Aldi, £5.99.