The SOMM Journal

October/November 2014

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Page 53 of 120

{ }  53 Benito Castelo, a Rías Baixas pioneer who helped give birth in 1986 to the popular Martín Códax cooperative as well as to the DO two years later, remem- bers what he was thinking at the time. "I knew we had a treasure in Albariño, and I had been sear ching for years for a way to commercialize it," he said through an interpreter in a recent interview. In fact, were it not for a European Union ruling that a DO couldn't be named after a grape, Rías Baixas (meaning "low estuaries" of the nearby Atlantic) might now be known simply as "Albariño." In spite of this success, the question is being asked in Rías Baixas: Is now the time to engage in a little brand expansion? First, some background about the DO. Even Burgundy's meager vineyard par - cels look huge by Rías Baixas standards, with the average size of these mostly f amily-owned, pergola-trained vineyards being less than half an acre. In total there are about 6,600 grape growers, some still growing vegetables or raising sheep and chickens beneath their vines. There are 181 wineries, a third of which are represented in the U.S. Of the five official regions, Ribeira do Ulla and Soutomaior are seldom heard of outside of Rías Baixas. The Val do Salnés sub-region is the historic heart of Rías Baixas, and it produces almost 100 percent Albariño labeling. The some - what warmer regions of O Rosal and Condado do Tea, both of which border Portugal across the Miño River, are where most of the blends are made and where Albariño as a solo varietal is less-revered. For example, at the popular Santiago Ruiz winery (the one with a rustic map on the label), winemaker Luisa Freire, one of dozens of women winemakers in Rías Baixas, prepares its signature O Rosal white blend using Albariño (70%), Loureiro (15%), Caiño Blanco (10%), Treixadura (2.5%) and Godello (2.5%). "I try to make it every year in the same style," Freire says, adding that her mixture is not unusual for O Rosal: "Most people here grow the same five varieties." At Pazo San Mauro in the neighboring Condado do Tea sub-region, wine - maker Cristina Mantilla says that the winery was planted to all Albariño some years ago. "They tore out all the other grapes," she says, "and while I under- stand why they did, I think it was a mistake. People know Albariño, but they need something else. Besides, not all Albariño is good, and the prices are going down." Mantilla says she will use more of the recently planted Loureiro as it gets older, plus she has added a new Godello vineyard. Although Albariño is very popular in the United States, in Spain it trails in popularity Verdejo whites from Rueda, where production costs are less because of fewer owners and larger vineyards planted on flatter soils. This permits mechanization and other economies of scale. "But Rías Baixas is still young in the market," Mantilla says hopefully. Even in Albariño-crazy Salnés, winemaker Katia Álvarez of Martín Códax is producing Albariño wines that break away from the "fresh-and-green" category, including a botrytis-infected, late-harvest Albariño as well as one transferred during fermentation from tanks to barrels to get more intense stone-fruit flavors. At Mar de Frades, winemaker Paula Fandiño is producing a sparkling Albariño, and more producers are expected to follow. Finally, let's not forget that red wine labeled Rías Baixas is produced, even though it represents less than one per cent of total production and is seldom seen outside of Galicia. A favorite red grape is Mencia, which is the signature grape of the nearby Bierzo DO. Of course, it's doubtful that any of these Albariño-dominated blends, special- cuvée Albariños, sparkling Albariños or Rías Baixas reds will seriously eat into the all-Albariño, all-the-time Rías Baixas market anytime soon. Nevertheless, some Rías Baixas winemakers are already beginning to craft wines that will be ready in case traditional Albariño fans in America are ready for an eventual change of taste. 500 500 500 500 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 2000 2000 3000 3000 2000 2000 2000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 1000 2000 3000 3000 4000 1000 3000 3000 2000 3000 4000 500 1000 Bodega Mar de Frades Santiago Ruiz Pazo San Mauro Martin Codax P O R T U G A L S P A I N Santiago di Campostela Ribeira Pontevedra A Cañiza Ponte de Lima Ponte da Barca Vigo A T L A N T I C O C E A N M i ñ o M i ñ o Lima CONDADA DO TEA O ROSAL SOUTOMAIOR VAL DO SALNÉS RIBEIRA DO ULLA S P A I N Madrid A52 A52 AP53 AG11 AP9 AP9 AP9 AG41 AP53 A3 A28 Map data © Cosmographics Ltd. UK., 2014. Local winery Contours (heights in feet) 0 0 10 20 kilometers 10 20 miles 1000 RÍAS BAIXAS Winemaker Katia Álvarez of Martín Códax is producing non-traditional Albariño wines such as a botrytis-infected, late-harvest version. Mar de Frades sparkling Albariño.

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