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Relishing Rias Baixas Wines

woman harvesting grape from the vinePicture a sublime landscape of verdant green giving way to a magical coastline, in a land once settled by the Celts. Could this be Scotland? Ireland? No, it's the unlikeliest wine region in all of Spain: Rías Baixas (REE-ahs BY-shahs).

Set in the northwest region of Spain, deep, wide inlets of water called rías push inland from the Atlantic Ocean along the coast. These rías form lush vineyard land.

Growing Grapes in Green Spain

In contrast to the blistering heat and parched aridity common to the interior, Rías Baixas lies in Spain's wettest province, the lovely Galicia.

While the abundant rainfall is pleasant for the scenery in this region known as "Green Spain," moisture can wreak sheer havoc on wine grapes. Frankly, scourges such as mold, mildew, and a plethora of vine diseases aren't even the half of it. Simply getting grapes to ripen can be a chore.

Fortunately, the region's grape growers long ago devised an ingenious way to battle the elements—a unique pergola-style trellis system. Training vines to grow horizontally, in a canopy far above the ground, crafty growers enabled sunshine to reach a greater number of grapes, while permitting far more air to circulate beneath the vines.

This not only aided the grapes' ripeness, but lessened the chance that mold and mildew would invade the vines as well. Equally important, Gallegos—as the people of Galicia are called—were wise enough to settle on the ideal wine grape for their region and its challenging conditions, Albariño.

One-Grape Wonder

vineyard on a hillHardy, thick-skinned Albariño is a good match for Galicia's elements, you may say, but what about its flavor? Well, you'll be pleased to know this is one white wine variety that truly has it going on.

Often described as racy and exotic—mainly due to its unusual combination of mouth-filling body and bracing acidity—the Albariño also typically shows luscious stone fruit and tropical flavors.

As if that isn't enough, some of the most interesting versions toss in impressive honeysuckle and mineral notes for good measure. The results are utterly, mouthwateringly unbeatable alongside the region's bounty of delectable seafood.

So, with a grape like that, who needs other varieties? Apparently, the Gallegos don't. There exists only the tiniest smattering of red wine grapes in the area. Although white varieties such as Loureira and Treixadura sometimes play exceedingly minor roles in blends, up to 90 percent of Rías Baixas' vineyard area is planted with Albariño.

Style and Substance

Can we let you in on a little secret? Rías Baixas Albariño wasn't always so good. For years it existed almost exclusively as a rustic, local wine, made mostly in small backyard plots.

The breakthrough came in the hulking form of stainless steel fermentation tanks. With the introduction of this technology to the region in the 1980s, Gallego winemakers learned that fermenting Albariño in temperature-controlled stainless steel unleashes a veritable explosion of fresh, exciting flavor.

Top producers began to favor a brash style of Albariño that popped the palate with an exuberant blast. Many of the region's greatest wines are still crafted this way.

That's not the only style of Albariño you'll find, however. Other producers dial back just a hint of that flash, while ratcheting up a skosh more substance—that is, even more of Albariño's ever-satisfying body. In a somewhat ironic twist, a few forward-looking producers are actually looking back for their inspiration, melding the best modern techniques with judicious use of native Galician oak barrels.