Foods and Wines

Green Spain The Duero River Valley The Ebro River Valley The Meseta The Mediterranean Coast Andalucia The Islands

Green Spain

The cool and wet climate of Green Spain stretches from Galicia on Spain’s northwest coast to that portion of northern Spain that includes the Basque Country.

Galicia

Visitors to Galicia in Spain’s northwest corner could be forgiven for their confusion; they may hear a bagpipe or two on festival days. An immigrant colony of Celts from well before the birth of Christ remains a vital part of Galician culture, and the seasons can seem to be lifted straight from Ireland or Scotland. 10Part of the fame of the region is based upon the ninth–century discovery of what are believed to be the remains of St. James, interred in the town of Santiago (St. James) de Compostela. Since the tenth century, pilgrims have walked from their hometowns in France, Germany, and Italy along the Camino de Santiago, ending their journeys at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The busy ports north and south on Spain’s coast reveal more than sightseers and sun-seekers; vast fishing fleets have operated here for millennia, and wine production can be traced back as far as 5,000 years ago.

The cool and misty climate necessitates a focus upon earlier ripening grapes, especially white varieties. In this wettest part of Spain, pergolas prop up about half of the vines of Rías Baixas; they can be found where excessive moisture necessitates air flow underneath the vines to combat disease pressures. For the winemaker, the advantage of this sort of climate is that with the right confluence of sunshine and coolness, aromatic varieties are virtually guaranteed to be, well, aromatic.

Here are wealth of autochthonous grapes that are found nowhere else in the world, and Green Spain’s millennia–long, continuous wine culture has allowed these grapes to develop and adapt. The world only recently has discovered one of them—Albariño—which has achieved a place of prominence. But other varieties such as Godello may soon demand a bit of the spotlight.

Basque Country

As befits the damp, cool climate of Basque Country, the character of the Txakoli wines here is sharp and taut, with none of the richness that marks much of Spanish wine. Wines of this style can be splendid with shellfish and many seafood dishes; not surprisingly, the Basque people have always been known as superb fishermen, and some of the most important chefs in the world are found in this region as well. Basque chefs—Martín Berasategui, Juan Mari Arzak, and many others—helped birth the Spanish food revolution.

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The Txakoli DOs of Basque Country are very bracing and delightful on a warm summer day. As with other regions of relatively short summers and almost constant high humidity, grapes tend to be tart and unripe, and such austerity in wines is typical when growing conditions are so challenging. Txakoli, with its flavors of tangy citrus and green apple, turns that sow’s ear into a silk (or at least thirst–quenching) purse. As with Rías Baixas, viticulture relies upon sea breezes, occasional sun, and lifting the grape vines high enough to mitigate the disease pressures. The wine grape acreage has doubled in the last decade.

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Arabako Txakolina

Also known as Chacolí de Álava in Spanish.

The nearby Bay of Biscay is visible from some of these vineyards, and the success or failure of each one of these plantings and the character of each vintage lies in the exposure to the weather that is at least partly determined by that Bay. Spring frosts are common; complete ripening is unlikely, and those vineyards planted in clay soils can struggle mightily. On the other hand, the vineyards planted in stony soils do far better.

For further information, visit DO Chacolí de Álava. (Only available in Spanish)

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Bizkaiko Txakolina

Also known as Chacolí de Vizcaya in Spanish.

The growth and maturation of Bilbao is a wonder to those of us who visited the city decades ago, but that robust expansion challenges the vines of this tiny DO. Like much of Green Spain, it’s wet here, and clay loam is the dominant soil; thus, the best vineyards enjoy the natural drainage provided by the steep hills along the coast.

For further information, visit Chacolí de Vizcaya.

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Getariako Txakolina

Also known as Chacolí de Guetaria in Spanish.

This is another miniscule DO planted upon clay and loam soils, with many of those vineyards enjoying picturesque settings along the cliffs of the coast, as well as the critical advantage of hillside drainage.

For further information, visit Chacolí de Guetaria.

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Monterrei

This is a DO with little more to offer than promise at the moment. That’s not to say that there aren’t very good wines in this region, but there are so few of them that they aren’t a factor in the marketplace at present. The vineyards are about half red and half white grapes, and many of the whites are based upon Palomino. While once useful for the rancio–style wines, Palomino is in decline along with those traditional wines. Rainfall is moderate on these rolling hills, and newly ascendant grapes (Mencía or Godello) are likely to prosper on the region’s mix of sand and clay. They may provide Monterrei with wines that compete with better-known Spanish areas and that best Vinho Verde, the wine of their next door neighbor vintners down the Támega River in Portugal.

For further information, visit DO Monterrei. (Only available in Spanish)

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Rías Baixas

Rías Baixas means “lower fjords” or estuaries, and water is the prevailing feature of the landscape, whether it’s the rías themselves or the rivers Sil or Miñho. And with lots of rain, mist, and sticky mornings in this part of Green Spain, the vines have to be trained high on pergolas to avoid rot. The pickers there should be very grateful; they’re shielded from the sun and spared the backbreaking, stooping work of picking among most of the bush vine–trained areas of Spain. There are hills rolling inland that rise up to heights of 275 meters, but red grapes are virtually unheard of here. The brightest and sunniest of summers is only about two and a half months long, and even white grapes can struggle for ripeness in cooler, wetter years.

The growers of Rías Baixas have wisely embraced Albariño as their grape. It’s not that they don’t grow other grapes; they do. Wine producers have realized that focusing upon one charming grape, Albariño, simplifies the job of marketing the region’s wines.

The strategy has worked in the American and world markets. Albariño wine has grown in popularity so much so that it may be very close to its limit of reasonable production. The subzones along the Portuguese border, O Rosal and Condado do Tea, express generous peach, apricot, and melon aromas and flavors. Those in the northerly and more exposed portions of Rías Baixas tend to be leaner and more likely to age reasonably well and to show more green apple and lemon notes.

For those in the know, some of the other grapes provide delicious drinking as well. When several of these grapes are blended together, only the name of the subzone will appear, rather than the name of the Albariño (or any other) grape. A bottle marked O Rosal is from the O Rosal subregion of Rías Baixas and has a minimum of 70% of Albariño and Loureira grapes. A bottling with the Val do Salnés subregional designation requires that the wine has a minimum of 70% Albariño; the same minimum is required of any wine from the Soutomaior or Ribera del Ulla subregions. The subregion Condado do Tea demands a minimum of 70% Albariño and Treixadura grapes.

For further information, visit DO Rías Baixas regulatory Council.

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Ribeira Sacra

If this region isn’t well known today, the qualities that have kept it in the shadows are just as likely to prove endearing once people discover this region. Situated along the banks of the rivers Miño and Sil, the soils and landscapes are fascinatingly ideal for complex (mostly) red wines: fossils, limestone, clay and rocks, tossed atop vertiginous cliffs and plummeting vineyards, with slightly gentler slopes as you near the rivers. Despite an annual rainfall that is sparser than other DOs in Green Spain, this is an area to watch, because older Mencía and even some Godello vineyards prosper nonetheless. As in Valdeorras, wine may still be a modern (re)discovery; the Romans were planting grapes while they were working the area’s prolific gold mines.

For further information, visit DO Ribeira Sacra.

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Ribeiro

The Miño river valley flattens out from its lofty perches in Ribeira Sacra, and the greater ease of plantation allows for grape acreage in Ribeiro roughly three times that of Ribeira Sacra just 15 kilometers upriver. Reds and whites share the stage here. Red wines may be based upon Tempranillo, Mencía, or lesser known varieties such as Brancellao or Sousón. Whites have shown very good promise, whether fashioned from Treixadura, Godello, Macabeo, or Albariño, the queen among the vineyards right next door, as the Miño flows into the Condado de Tea region of Rías Baixas.

Palomino is planted here and a tale says that a local bishop committed a grave folly by preventing the British from sailing upriver in search of wines to buy. The fleet went farther south along the coast and discovered Sherry (made from Palomino).

For further information, visit DO Ribeiro. (Only available in Spanish)

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Valdeorras

Perhaps a surprisingly early DO (it was established in 1945), this pretty valley enjoys a gentle stretch of the Sil River, and has been a relatively busy stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela for centuries. It was the discovery of gold and the Roman establishment of mines that gave the “valley of gold” its name, but the complex soils (limestone, granite, clay, fractured rock, even slate) offer vinous riches too. Mencía grows well here, as do Moscatel, Palomino, and Garnacha, but it’s the discovery of Godello, which for some Spanish wine enthusiasts represents the second coming of Albariño, that has brought attention to this area of cool, dry growing conditions, rolling hills, and sweeping mountains. The grape covers about one–third of the DO’s vineyards and is increasing among the area’s 1,200-plus hectares of vines. Godello’s winning qualities are its aromatics, crispness, and pear/apple flavors, with a tangy mineral character in the finish of the best of the wines.

For further information, visit DO Valdeorras.

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